Ready for the trip of a lifetime? It may just be the perfect time for an eco-luxury African safari.
Covid took a toll on travel across the globe. For Africa, it was no different. Ninety-three percent of tour operators reported at least a 75 percent decline in bookings; 90 percent of travel businesses across the continent said they had concerns about their survival, according to Aviation Benefits Without Borders.
The organization says pre-covid, tourism was a $39 billion industry for Africa, with safari travels accounting for nearly a third of it — $12 billion in annual revenues for several countries, including Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.
Covid didn’t just take a toll on tourism — it increased concerns over elephant and rhinoceros poaching for ivory. As other sectors shut down, many turned to illegal poaching as a means of survival.
“For rural communities, the safari industry represents an important source of income for thousands of families and local businesses,” ABWB says. “The absence of tourism funds also hinders community development projects that support schools and health clinics.”
Now, three years after the pandemic started, Africa’s tourism industry is once again coming to life.
Best eco-luxury safaris
One of the biggest trends in safari tours — pre- and post-covid — is eco-luxury. These tours are reducing their overall impact and encouraging guests to do the same. Sustainable tour operators and vegan tour operators alike are cropping up all over the continent, bringing a deeper awareness to visitors about the entire regional ecosystems and the impacts being felt from climate change, deforestation, and biodiversity loss.
In June, the Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia will be home to Lolebezi, a new luxury safari camp set to open on the park’s east side, created by African Bush Camps.
Completely off-grid, the camp is powered by a solar farm in a nearby forest clearing. The resort manages its wastewater to ensure it doesn’t pollute the forest. Food is sourced locally. The safari camp, which can accommodate 16 guests in its suites, emphasizes environmentally sensitive design.
Family suites offer private pools. All suites open to a view of the river. The hotel features a spa and wellness facility, open-air cinema, and river “pods” that allow for retreat and private picnics. Guests have no shortage of activities including game drives and guided walking safaris, riverboating, canoeing, among others.
“Lolebezi is a dream setting for travelers to experience the abundance of Africa and the beauty and power of the Zambezi River,” said Beks Ndlovu, a veteran professional guide who established African Bush Camps in 2006.
“As ABC expands its expertise in Zambia with a second lodge, our newest destination continues to redefine the safari experience with opportunities for adventure, learning, abundant wildlife amidst pristine wilderness and pure comfort designed to sustainably blend with its environment.”
Lolebezi is just one of a growing number of eco-luxury safari opportunities across the continent.
2. Marriott Maasai Mara Lodge
Earlier this year, Marriott International and Baraka Lodges signed an agreement for opening the JW Marriott Masai Mara Lodge — Marriott’s first safari accommodations. Expected to open next year, the property will be located in the Mara National Reserve in Kenya, overlooking the banks of the River Talek.
“As a brand rooted in mindfulness, we cannot think of a more perfect retreat for the mind, body, and soul than the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya,” Bruce Rohor, JW Marriott’s VP and Brand Leader, said in a statement.
“JW Marriott Masai Mara Lodge will offer guests a luxurious backdrop to make once-in-a-lifetime memories as they connect with nature and wildlife as never before. We are thrilled that the JW Marriott brand will be welcoming adventure travellers, including families, to this breath-taking part of the world.”
Conservation will be at the heart of the property, “creating harmony with the natural world and drawing inspiration from the elements: earth, wind, fire, and water,” the hotel chain says.
“The signing of JW Masai Mara Lodge is a milestone in Marriott International’s growth in Africa as the company enters the luxury safari segment. This landmark project is in response to travellers’ growing desire for experiential offerings that enable them to build a deeper connection with their chosen destination. JW Marriott encourages guests to be mindful and present, which perfectly lends itself to meaningful safari holidays,” said Jerome Briet, Chief Development Officer, Europe, Middle East & Africa, Marriott International.
The announcement comes after fellow points hotel, Hilton, announced its plans to open in the Galápagos Islands, for an immersive nature experience and conservation.
3. Emboo River
In the heart of Kenya’s Maasai Mara, Emboo River is bridging sustainability and safari as the first tour operator in East Africa with a fully electric vehicle fleet. The safari facilities are also powered by solar and take other sustainability measures including recycling efforts and vegan meals.
“Emboo” is the Maasai word for a pride. “It is our honour to introduce you to our wonderful community,” the tour operator says on its website.
“Let’s do things better,” reads the Emboo River website. “Let’s be leaders in sustainability. Let’s change the status quo in the tourism business, because there’s nothing luxurious or relaxing about a holiday with loud and polluting safaris.”
Emboo River offers “silent safaris” for a meditative experience that’s reinforced with luxury accommodations. Rooms have floor-to-ceiling views over the river. Furnishings are made by local artisans, a move Emboo says supports the local economy.
3. South African Vegan Tours
Operated by the U.S.-based Vegans, Baby — which produces Vegan Month in cities including Las Vegas and New York — this safari tour operation focuses on South Africa and Botswana in partnership with Alluring Africa. The Luxury tours include all vegan meals, many featuring locally grown vegetables, and sustainable accommodations that even ensure walls are free from hunting trophies such as animal heads and horns.
“I hope that through the tours I offer and sharing my experiences, the guides sharing theirs and conveying the impact we have on animals when we use them for entertainment, can hit home for people and help open their eyes and understand that these living, sentient beings deserve to live their lives without working for us,” Edelman recently told VegNews.
The South Africa itinerary is operated by local tour guides and an emphasis on supporting small, ethical, and sustainable businesses across Cape Town. The safari properties are chosen because of their relationships with local communities and their commitment to conserving the environment and protecting the wildlife in the area where the tours operate. Guests learn about the regional ecosystems as much as the animals and are invited to plant trees at the reserve to help offset their travel footprint. Every trip fee also includes a $50 donation to SANCCOB, a seabird conservation facility based in South Africa.
5. Roar Africa
Roar Africa, founded by Deborah Calmeyer, doesn’t just offer luxury safaris, but it also prioritizes carbon offsets, conservation, elevating women, and community empowerment.
“I got sick and tired of what I call the pale male safari industry, so I wanted to change that picture,” Calmeyer says. “Tourism is a natural fit for women; we are caregivers—it’s in our DNA. My vision for Africa has always been, ‘If African women rise, wildlife will thrive.’ That’s been a thread I have hung onto all the way and I weave that into every single trip.,” she says.
“We not only want to break the Western glass ceiling, but the tribal one,” she says. “The only way to shift the perception of working women is by actually demonstrating it. Now you’re seeing lodges promoting women to executive chefs, sommeliers, or general managers, and promoting it on their Instagram.”
Since 2005, Roar has been delivering clients top-notch safaris — including one it dubs, The Greatest Safari on Earth. That 12-day excursion starts at $125,000 per person. Roar’s tours cover 13 countries including Botswana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
“Selling a destination is very different to selling ones’ home,” Calmeyer told Penta. “The thing about Africa is that it never disappoints, but it can be completely life-changing if it’s done correctly by the right people who are truly connected to the land.”
Previous tours have taken guests on life-changing journeys: “Mount Kenya, flying through the Great Rift Valley; picnicking atop the Selali crater; walking with anti-poachers; visiting the last-remaining pastoral tribes; walking with bushman; tiger fishing on Lake Kariba; flying in the Out of Africa plane; museum tours; and private dinners with conservation legends, ministers, chefs, filmmakers, and poets,” reports Penta.
Roar chooses luxury accommodations—often villas or lodges—replete with private pools, gourmet cuisine, and access to wildlife. The Greatest Safari on Earth spans 12 days, including a private jet that takes guests across the continent with ease.
“Travel is incredibly powerful,” Calmeyer says. “It’s something that speaks to so many of us in different ways, but we have an enormous responsibility as humans to make sure that where we go and what we do when we’re there has an impact.”
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