US travel specialists say there is pent-up demand for safaris in Africa and that business will rebound in 2022, provided tourism partners can avoid postponements and cancellations because of uncertainty around COVID protocols, PCR testing and booking refunds.
Anticipating even more demand if United Airlines’ planned flights to South Africa resume on time in June, SATIB Insurance Brokers hosted a webinar for tourism representatives: ‘The Americans are coming. Are you ready?’
Marcelo Novais, GM of Ker & Downey Africa, North America DMC; Jim Holden, US-based Safari Consultant; Adam Riley, Founding Member of Rockjumper; and Stefan de Beer, Corporate, Commercial and Contract Attorney at Martin & de Beer Inc, identified changes in traveller behaviour and challenges holding back tourism’s recovery on the continent.
Traveller certainty was a key theme. The panel red-flagged uncertainty about COVID protocols, quarantine requirements and how repatriation would work in the event of an emergency. Travellers were wary of needing multiple PCR tests, sudden border closures and strict refund and cancellation clauses in booking contracts, they said.
The panel did not see South Africa’s level-4 classification by US authorities, warning against unnecessary travel, as a game-changer. However, tourism businesses could soften the impact with continued lobbying, educational and consistent, constant messaging.
Novais said peak safari dates in 2022 (July and August) were already selling out and that agents should tell customers to look now to secure a spot during these ‘golden months’.
The profile of US travellers coming to Africa has not changed much since the start of the pandemic, but the webinar identified ‘immersive travel’ and longer stays in fewer lodges and countries as prominent trends. The panel agreed that there was a general return to ‘slow travel’ and that repetitive PCR testing during a trip was leading customers to combine fewer countries at a time.
Flexible payment terms and refunds
Flexible payment terms were another major talking point and tourism partners were urged to work together to hang on to bookings during times of uncertainty.
“There is no law in the US that says money has to be refunded… but there’s an expectation all the same,” Holden said.
On the subject of refunds, Holden explained that travel agency service fees were uncommon in the US, but suggested that a ‘safari mobilisation’ service fee could be introduced, which would cover some of the costs if a booking was cancelled. To prepare customers, he said: “I try to get clients to understand what it takes to get all of those people and all of that stuff into the middle of the bush.”
He also said that stakeholders and businesses needed to lobby to keep destinations open to markets like the US, and that there was still uncertainty about what businesses would do in the event of a customer contracting COVID during their trip, which needed to be made clear.
Small groups and ‘bio bubbles’ was another trend identified during the discussion. De Beer said tour operators could expect even more demand for this type of trip option. “We can’t sell vaccines on our side, so let’s at least sell a secure environment.”
As to whether there was any legal reason to stop promoting a trip or destination because of the risks associated with COVID, De Beer said businesses should be sure to explain travel warnings in writing, not just telephonically, but that marketing a destination was still entirely legal.
For Holden, top of mind for travellers is: “How are you going to keep me safe; and how are you going to get me back home?” Affordable rapid PCR testing was another positive development that would benefit the industry in future, Holden explained.
On the issue of South Africa’s COVID variant, Novais said some travellers had elected to postpone their bookings while others would opt for a booster vaccine. He expected that the issue would become less of a concern as new vaccines covering different strains were developed.
“Many clients who are postponing their trips are happy to upscale. So, try and find a compromise: the client might want to upgrade their room or stay longer. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”