The cost question

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There’s no doubt that travelling in Africa is a unique and wonderful experience, but is it becoming too expensive compared to other destinations around the world? Graham Boynton reports

Cheetahs in Hwange National Park, ZimbabweHaving just spent a month in Zimbabwe, much of it in bush camps in Hwange and the Zambezi Valley, I return with a perennial question about African travel rekindled: are African safaris becoming too pricy?

One thing is for certain: African safaris are miles more expensive than similar trips to Asia or the Far East, and yet all the lodge owners and operators I spoke to on this trip say they are struggling to break even. The reasons they give are convincing enough: in most African countries the safari industry pays local communities for the privilege of using their land; the peak seasons are relatively short and the low seasons are long and empty; and the sheer logistics of moving equipment and supplies to remote safari camps across the continent comes at a considerable price. So it is difficult to equate an African safari to, say, a luxury river cruise in Myanmar.

It is, however, worth looking at some comparisons. A rough price guide from the British operator The Ultimate Travel Company shows that a two-week wildlife trip to India costs between £3500 and £4500 per person, two weeks in Ecuador, including a week in the Galapagos, is £4900 and two weeks in Brazil, including wildlife tours, £5500. By comparison, a ten-day safari in Botswana falls somewhere between £6000 and £8000. Added to which, the really high-end camps in Botswana are charging up to £1600 per person per night, which seems stratospheric.

Nick Van Gruisen, managing director of The Ultimate Travel Company, insists that although African safari holiday prices are higher, “in my view nowhere in the world can match Africa’s grand scale, areas of wilderness, beauty, diversity and quantity of wildlife or rich diversity of communities.”

But how prepared will the travelling public be to pay more when there is so much on offer to them elsewhere on the planet, at more competitive prices? Tourism to Africa is not growing at the same pace as South America or the Far East and there are fears it will start shrinking over the next few years. As Ultimate’s Van Gruisen says: “Lodges must be mindful not to price themselves out of the market. Their fondness for increasing rates to compensate for falling occupancy is not the way, I suggest, to attract more business.”

It is certainly true that costs to African tour operators and lodges are high, but surely now is the time for the African travel industry to take a look at itself and plan thoughtfully for the future. It is indeed a rare and exquisite product, but, as Kenya’s Masai Mara has found over the past few years, when the tourists stop coming, bankruptcy looms.

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What do you think?
Pricing is a very complex issue. In a future edition, we will be further examining the costs of going on safari. In the meantime, please send your experiences and suggestions to editor@travelafricamag.com.

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Graham Boynton has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including Vanity Fair, Esquire and Condé Nast Traveller, and was the travel editor of The Daily and Sunday Telegraph between 1998 and 2012. A regular visitor to Africa, where he grew up, his current consultancies include work as media director for the African Travel & Tourism Association (www.atta.travel). The views expressed in this column are his own.

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