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Africa Sets Out to Woo China with Luxury and Transformative Travel

Africa is now one of the must-see destinations for many mainland tourists, with opportunities abounding in the luxury and experiential aspects of the market, according to delegates at World Travel Week, recently held in Cape Town.

Photo: Africa: Fast becoming a world-class luxury tourism experience.
Africa: Fast becoming a world-class luxury tourism experience.
Photo: Africa: Fast becoming a world-class luxury tourism experience.
Africa: Fast becoming a world-class luxury tourism experience.

Africa is now number three on the must-achieve list for the Chinese "super-tourist", at least according to Alison Gilmore, Senior Exhibition Director of Thebe Reed Exhibitions' International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM) portfolio.

This comes against the backdrop of Africa's fast-growing travel industry, which is now having a major economic impact on the continent. Research by the UN World Tourism Organisation shows that, between 2000 and 2014, the number of international tourist arrivals in Africa more than doubled, rising from 26 million to 56 million. The number of visitors to sub-Saharan Africa also rose in 2014, despite concerns over the outbreak of the Ebola virus.

Carol Weaving, Managing Director of Thebe Reed Exhibitions, organisers of Africa Travel Week, maintains that the travel industry in Africa is now responsible for economic drivers that account for "a substantial annual increase in employment and GDP on the continent". Patricia de Lille, Mayor of Cape Town, who officially opened World Travel Market 2015 (the exhibition component of Africa Travel Week), believes that the tourism industry is helping establish Africa as an "international investment and business destination, despite numerous challenges and difficult economic conditions".

As a destination, Africa offers tempting value-adding opportunities for Asian travel companies. PwC's Passport to Africa report reveals that the number of visitors to South Africa from the Asia-Pacific region increased by 6.7% in 2013. Of all non-African countries, China posted the largest growth in travel to South Africa that year, with more than 100,000 visitors. This, says the report, is partly due to the 2012 introduction of direct flights to Beijing by South African Airways.

Unfortunately, in 2014, South Africa's changes to its visa regulations resulted in a dramatic drop in the number of Chinese tourists. The Southern African Tourism Services Association estimates that arrivals from China fell by an alarming 50% in the last quarter of 2014 – after the strict new visa rules were implemented by South Africa's Department of Home Affairs. Visitors to South Africa from China and India now have to visit visa application centres in person to capture biometric data. In China there are currently only two such centres – in Beijing and Shanghai. This, then, has become a major barrier for tour operators and end consumers, many of whom are now opting for easier to access travel destinations in Africa.

South Africa's clumsy attempt to control immigration has proved a devastating blow for its tourism trade, with China previously seen as having the most significant growth potential of any source market in the world for South Africa's tourism industry. According to Derek Hanekom, South Africa's Minister for Tourism, his department has been in consultation with the Home Affairs department with regard to the issue, but the situation regarding short-term visas remains uncertain.

Holders of Hong Kong British National Overseas passports and Special Administrative Region passports, however, do not require visas for visits of up to 30 days to South Africa.

Luxury Travel in Africa

Despite South Africa's short-sighted new visa rules, the continent is – by and large – having a positive impact on the luxury travel landscape. Its mix of world-class destinations and unique travel experiences is seen as offering Asian luxury-travel specialists and agents something a little different to market to their affluent clientele.

This is borne out by the fact that there were several hosted buyers from Hong Kong and the mainland attending ILTM Africa 2015. This saw many of them meeting with providers of luxury hospitality and experiences from all over Africa.

Overall, the luxury end of the Hong Kong travel market is very different to that of its mainland counterpart. Whereas luxury travellers from the mainland see shopping as a priority when travelling, Hong Kong luxury travellers seek more experiential travel, with fine dining, entertainment and spas as their priorities, according to the organisers of the ILTM.

What, then, do African destinations have to offer the luxury segment of the market? Speaking at the Cape Town event, Anita Mendiratta, an international strategist and advisor on tourism, set out to define just how the luxury experience is now seen by world travellers to Africa. She also outlined how luxury has become one of the most important channels for Africa when it comes to showcasing its offerings to the global travel industry.

She said: "Africa is quickly overstepping other regions as a luxury destination. This is partly because the continent's attraction is less to do with the materialistic aspects of the travel experience and hinges more on travellers' personal perceptions of the continent, which appeals to a unique mix of sensory inspirations and stimuli. Africa redefines the meaning of luxury for the traveller.

"It's a continent that celebrates differences, where every country has a different story to tell. Luxury travel in Africa is not about the amenities or the number of stars a hotel has – it's about being able to be who we want. This is the dream that the travel trade needs to sell to its clients."

A prime example of this quintessential African luxury travel experience is Kenya's Maasai Mara region. Exhibiting at ILTM Africa, Angama Mara is a new luxury lodge due to open in June 2015. It sits high above the floor of the Great Rift Valley and commands spectacular views of the Mara Triangle. Director Kate Fitzgerald said the location is where some of the scenes from Out of Africa were filmed, almost giving the impression to visitors that they have been there before. This is an untouched, remote part of the Mara, but the lodge's private airfield provides convenient access via Nairobi.

According to Cindy Sheedy Walker, Manager of Extraordinary, an upmarket portfolio of lodges and hotels in southern Africa, when they visit Africa, Chinese travellers in the luxury segment often want the reassurance of a brand or name that is recognisable worldwide – such as Kruger. The group's game lodges and tented camps in South Africa's Kruger National Park were proving hugely popular with Chinese travellers until the recent changes to visa rules.

Photo: The Hoyo Hoyo Safari Lodge.
The Hoyo Hoyo Safari Lodge.
Photo: The Hoyo Hoyo Safari Lodge.
The Hoyo Hoyo Safari Lodge.
Photo: Botswana’s Ngoma Safari Lodge.
Botswana's Ngoma Safari Lodge.
Photo: Botswana’s Ngoma Safari Lodge.
Botswana's Ngoma Safari Lodge.

This unique African experience is evident to the many guests who stay in Residence's high-end ocean resorts in Mauritius, Maldives, Zanzibar and Tunis, all designed as havens of luxury that sit alongside the region's untouched beauty. Francois Liebenberg, the company's Director of Sales and Marketing, said that the region is likely to increase its appeal to Asian visitors with new Chinese flight destinations to be added by Qatar Airways, which will allow passengers to fly to Zanzibar via Dar es Salaam.

Transformative Travel

The economic impact of travel is increasingly becoming a resource that is helping transform Africa's often dubious image. Across the continent, some 20.4 million people now work in the sector, a vital economic asset for many communities.

Industry trends show that informed luxury travellers are increasingly seeking opportunities that will 'transform' both their own travel experiences and the lives of others. They want their short-term visit to have a more sustainable impact on the environment they visit or a lasting legacy on local communities. Africa is at the forefront of the contemporary travel trend for philanthropic and transformative experiences, something that has been promoted heavily by international media brands over the last year. It was evident at ILTM Africa that this segment of the travel business is becoming a growing opportunity for agents and operators.

According to several industry experts attending the event, this form of tourism has assumed some of the socio-economic functions of NGOs, in the sense that tourism can be a powerful vehicle for changing people's thinking and behaviour. Importantly, it's also emerged as a good economic model for the travel trade. Les Carlisle, owner of South African safari company &Beyond, believes the revenue that flows from the tourism industry can have a positive socio-economic effect, saying: "Visitors to Africa want to help make a difference to their destination."

Carlisle gives visitors to his safari lodges the opportunity to support the conservation initiatives he manages, such as the translocation of rhinos. Explaining the concept, he said: "All wildlife in Africa is under threat and transformative tourism has an important role to play in helping sustain this natural resource."

For Carlisle, the resources derived from tourism are crucial when it comes to helping educate people in wilderness areas about the importance of wildlife in the tourism value chain. Many rural communities don't understand the economic correlation between Africa's megafauna and international travel to Africa. Leisure travellers spent US$44 billion in sub-Saharan Africa in 2013, said Carlisle, and if the loss of key species continues to accelerate, the economic impact will be disastrous for all concerned. Whole communities – and not just tourism amenities – will lose their livelihood and wilderness areas will disappear.

Beks Ndlovu, Founder of African Bush Camps, a group of safari lodges in Zimbabwe and Botswana, believes the function of transformative travel is to provide a beneficial mutual exchange that gets local communities to appreciate tourism as a source of their economic livelihood, while providing visitors with an authentic experience. He said this relationship is starting to help change the attitudes of rural African communities to the value of wildlife as a long-term resource. Tourism-funded projects, he says, help turn rural communities into "custodians of the wilderness resources", even those that traditionally viewed game as "meat on hooves".

Taking this a step further, James Fernie, Director of South Africa's Uthando Foundation, has developed an initiative that links tourism with community development in Cape Town's deprived townships. The Foundation takes visitors to meet senior black South African citizens who lived through apartheid. Fernie said that while this has become "a magical learning experience for all concerned", the challenges are, firstly, how to avoid it descending into voyeurism for the visitor and, secondly, how to gain the local community's trust and respect for the Foundation's endeavours. He said it is particularly important that travel advisors screen organisations and work only with ones that have specialist experience in this area of tourism for their clients.

The Digital Travel Landscape

Everyone uses digital platforms these days to access travel, and the consensus at World Travel Market Africa 2015 (WTM), the continent's largest inbound and outbound b2b travel show, was that suppliers need to ensure that their customers can interact with them online. Failure to do so was seen as inevitably resulting in a huge loss of competitiveness.

Any destination or travel company's brand needs to come across via a digital strategy that is central to its marketing mix. This needs to draw the customer in to the brand, as opposed to digital being an adjunct to the marketing strategy. Unfortunately, many travel businesses are only just waking up to the importance of digital, with many hotels still refusing to provide free Wi-Fi, which, as travel blogger Keith Jenkins puts it, "is a bit like being charged for toilet paper usage".

Nick Hall, Founder and Chief Executive of the UK's Digital Tourism Think Tank, said that digital technology is now central to the five key phases in the visitor travel cycle – dreaming, planning, booking, visiting and sharing. All travel businesses and destination companies need to be able to connect with travellers throughout this cycle. Tourists now feel that the internet is a human right, said Hall, so if the travel industry doesn't allow them to connect, that crucial cycle is broken and business is lost.

Specifically, mobile technology has evolved rapidly in the travel industry and become much more prevalent in the visitor's travel cycle, but particularly so in the planning, booking and sharing phases. Cecile Lavarenne of Booking.com, an online booking website, said, "The travel business must factor in the mobile market and understand the mobile experience. There has been a huge increase in the number of travellers booking on mobile platforms." Booking.com experienced an eight-fold increase in the revenue from mobile-based bookings from 2011 to 2013. Lavarenne said that demand for last-minute bookings, often made by people on the go, is partly driving the trend for mobile.

Velma Corcoran, a Marketing Executive for Cape Town Tourism, emphasised, however, that travel businesses must view mobile as a means to an end and, in so doing, place the visitor at the centre of an overall marketing strategy that incorporates mobile technology. She said: "Mobile is no longer a nice-to-have, it's a necessity in the tourism industry. Don't forget, though, that mobility goes beyond the device – it is about understanding customers' needs, something has to be at the centre of this strategy."

Table: African Travel: Facts and Figures
Table: African Travel: Facts and Figures
Photo: Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, a new luxury travel experience.
Kenya's Great Rift Valley, a new luxury travel experience.
Photo: Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, a new luxury travel experience.
Kenya's Great Rift Valley, a new luxury travel experience.

LTM Africa and WTM Africa formed part of Africa Travel Week. The events all took place at the Cape Town International Convention Centre from 13-17 April 2015.

Mark Ronan, Special Correspondent, Cape Town

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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