High-end adventure in its natural habitat

Illustration: Michael Mucci.
Illustration: Michael Mucci. 

The global financial crisis is well and truly behind us if the number of Australians travelling to Africa is anything to go by.

Not only are we flocking to the "dream holiday" continent, we're going for the luxury trips rather than the budget options.

Australasian visitor numbers to South Africa were up 26 per cent for 2010 and, while being the host nation for the World Cup soccer tournament was a factor, it was estimated to account for just 4 per cent of total arrivals for the year.

Travel to east Africa is booming, with figures from Kenya showing Australian arrivals were up 22 per cent last year.

The general manager of Adventure World, Andrew Mulholland, says the company's "exotic" destinations are up about 20 per cent across the board this year and Africa has been performing particularly well, with sales up 31 per cent on last year.

Mulholland says the World Cup generated significant interest in the continent and the strong Australian dollar has made it a more affordable destination.

Australian wholesalers buy much of their African product in US dollars, giving them greater buying power while the Australian dollar is high. The exchange rate with the South African rand is also very favourable, at about seven rand to the dollar.

"I've just come back from there and we spent about 20 per cent of what we budgeted, in terms of spending money," Mulholland says.

He says strong demand for luxury travel prompted Adventure World's recent launch of a brochure dominated by African content. Early interest has been "very good".

"I think we're through the GFC; I think a lot of people are looking for that bucket-list type of holiday," he says.

Fiona Orton, the product director of Africa specialist Bench International, says South Africa remains the biggest seller but eastern Africa is recording the strongest growth.

Bench's bookings for Kenya and Tanzania increased by 200 per cent and 235 per cent respectively last year, on top of already substantial numbers, Orton says.

The other clear trend is demand for high-end travel, with a significant increase in bookings for "connoisseur collection" trips.

Prices for these journeys typically range from $1500 to $2000 a person a day and include experiences such as travelling aboard the Rovos Rail from Cape Town to Cairo and staying in high-end lodges throughout Africa and nearby Indian Ocean islands.

The head of sales and marketing for Kumuka Asia Pacific, Brett Wendorf, is seeing a similar trend, with that company's bookings for luxury lodges up 30 per cent. Bookings for overland trips are down about 10 per cent, although Wendorf says this could be a result of more budget operators being in the market.

"Budget travellers are also becoming more internet-savvy; a lot more people are giving it [Africa] a go independently," he says.

Wendorf and Orton say there is fast-growing demand for family trips to Africa and a noticeable increase in the number of lodges catering to children. A no-child policy has been the standard at high-end lodges but many now offer dedicated children's programs, with activities such as star-gazing and wildlife spotting.

Orton says Zimbabwe has made a considerable comeback, despite ongoing issues with politically motivated violence.

Most travellers to Zimbabwe head to Victoria Falls, which is away from cities and farming areas and is considered a safe region.

Most stay just a day or two, often using Victoria Falls as a launching point for travel into the Chobe National Park across the border in Botswana.

There is also growing interest in taking tours to see gorillas in Rwanda, which offers easier access to the animals than Uganda.

Andrew Mulholland says Adventure World is seeing fast-growing interest in Madagascar and Reunion, which he attributes to flight availability from Sydney.

The company is actively searching for the "next" destination in Africa but it's too early to say where that might be. While Africa offers a wealth of scenery and experiences, finding quality operators to work with is not always easy.

Mulholland says Africa will never go out of favour because most travellers heading there are looking for wildlife experiences, for which the continent is unparalleled.

While South America and other adventure destinations are growing in popularity, the ability to get within metres of a lion, hippopotamus or gorilla will always be hard to beat.

Safe haven

If you dream of African travel but are concerned about safety, Botswana is a good bet. The Australian government continues to warn against travelling to Zimbabwe and advises a "high degree of caution" should be exercised in South Africa, Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania. However, Botswana is considered relatively safe. Botswana is more expensive than many of its African neighbours but enjoys political stability and a high standard of living. It has some of Africa's most popular natural attractions, including the Okavango Delta, Chobe National Park, Moremi Game Reserve and Makgadikgadi Pans.

jane@janeefraser.com.au

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