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How the COVID-19 Pandemic Changed Safari Bookings


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“This is Africa’s moment,” proclaimed Abercrombie & Kent, USA’s Africa product manager, Suzanne Teng, but A&K isn’t the only safari operator feeling this way.

“We’re seeing a significant increase in the sheer number of bookings,” Sandy Salle, founder and president of Hills of Africa Travel, told Travel Market Report. “Demand for African safaris is extremely high right now, as delayed trips are rescheduled and new trips are planned.”

At &Beyond, the company is back to pre-COVID level sales, CMO Nicole Robinson said.

But the surge in bookings doesn’t mean everything is back to pre-COVID norms. As with the rest of the travel industry, new trends are emerging. Travel Market Report reached out to four safari operators to find out what they’re seeing.


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Shorter Booking Window
Shorter booking windows have been a trend throughout much of the travel industry and one that was already around pre-COVID. But travel conditions since the pandemic have intensified the trend.

“We’re seeing even shorter booking lead times as this gives travelers more certainty when it comes to their plans and country-level entry requirements,” said Robinson.

Salle echoed Robinson. “We have seen significantly shorter lead times on our bookings. Most of our requests used to be for trips 12 months away. Now, we’re seeing more and more requests for 90 days (or even less) out from travel. It is hectic and advisors need to know that suppliers are working on shorter timelines and availability can change quickly.”

Becca Fritz, marketing manager at Alluring Africa also told TMR that before the pandemic the average booking window was anywhere from 12 to 14 months. Since early 2021, she said the lead time has shortened to only five months.

“Travelers realize that after losing the ability to travel in the past, they don’t want to miss a chance now and are more eager to check off their bucket list items,” she said.

Her advice to travel advisors? “Due to the shorter booking window and pent-up demand making it more challenging to find space, new inquiries require more time and a sense of urgency than before.”

She also said, because planning a safari in a shortened time frame is time-consuming, advisors should be charging a planning fee if they’re not already doing so.

Abercrombie & Kent, USA is not seeing the shorter booking window at the same level as other suppliers. In fact, most of the peak season 2023 is already sold out, according to Teng, and the company is encouraging short window bookings for this summer.

“2023 is on track to be a banner year… Travel advisors should encourage their clients who are interested to commit and book sooner rather than later. 2022 Southern Africa peak season still has opportunity and availability. Travel advisors should advise guests postponing travel to 2023 and beyond that they will face a shortage of space, more crowded national parks in peak season and higher prices.”

More Experiential, Less Game Drive Only
Another trend several safari operators said they’ve noticed is a growing interest from travelers in doing more than just game drives.

“We’ve heard many times from travelers, ‘I don’t want to sit in a vehicle all day,’” Fritz told TMR. “Travelers want experiences that allow them to see and experience Africa in unique ways. Think helicopter safaris, hot air balloons, star beds, horseback riding safaris, cycling though the scenic landscapes, and city sidecar adventures.”

“We’ve also seen interest in being more active on safari,” Teng said. As a result, at a new camp in Kenya, A&K added activities that include cycling, running, horseback riding with rhinos, guided bush walks, and a “meet the neighbours” community visit.

At &Beyond Robinson said they’re seeing more interest from guests for activities related to sustainable tourism.

“There was a global shift in awareness around our natural resources and traveling to connect with a destination and its people, instead of just ticking the box,” she said. “It was a developing trend before COVID, but during the pandemic, there was a sharp increase in awareness. Stories circulated far and wide about the visible effects of giving nature a change to recover…Interest in travel that puts nature at the center of the itinerary definitely increased.”

To respond to this new awareness and the demand for related activities, the operator now offers add-on conservation options like rhino dehorning, elephant collaring, and more, as well as community visits.

Larger Budgets/Longer Itineraries
Much like in the rest of the travel industry, so-called “revenge travel” is making itself felt in safari bookings, as well. People are looking to spend more money and more time to make up for lost time.

“The average budget has increased 42% compared to pre-pandemic,” Fritz said. “We’ve noticed that budgets are more flexible because travelers haven’t planned a big trip in several years. They’ve been saving up for the perfect trip and they’re not afraid to spend a little more than they have in the past.”

“We’re also finding that people are lingering longer at each destination,” said Salle. “Whereas before they might have spent two to three nights at each location, they’re now spending four or even six nights to really fully experience a particular property or area.”

Robinson said they’re seeing similar interest in longer stays. “Some guests are more concerned with safety… such guests might choose to minimize time on flights and transfers. We launched longer stay options to meet this need where you would stay at a lodge for longer instead of moving every few days.”

At A&K this safety concern is translating into a greater interest in private air travel while on safari. “They want more space and privacy,” Teng said.

Safari Time Is Family Time
Lastly, some of the safari operators we spoke with also said they’re seeing a boom in multi-generational family booking, something Robinson said had started before the pandemic and only continues to pick up momentum.

“We are seeing a new sense of urgency – many guests feel they have lost two years and older clients are concerned about having fewer healthy years left to travel,” Teng said. “Many are reimagining postponed holidays as a way to reconnect with family members who live across the country – or around the world. They want to celebrate milestones together. As a result, A&K is seeing a growing number of multi-generational families traveling in groups of eight to 14 and ranging in age from 4 to 90.

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