For a few days recently, Cape Town's Mount Nelson hotel, a genteel colonial-era compound in the shadow of Table Mountain, became Safari Central, where in the course of one day, you could—and I did—learn where to dart rhinos (for science!) in South Africa, find newborn lion cubs in Kenya, kite board on Lake Malawi, and hunt using bows and arrows with the Hadzabe people in Tanzania.
As part of the first International Luxury Travel Market in Africa, some 70 travel agents from Michigan to Malaysia flew in to meet the owners and managers of top bush camps, wilderness lodges, and tour companies from around the continent. Also in attendance were a handful of journalists, local hoteliers, wildlife conservationists, and at least one futurologist (economist Clem Sunter). Where better then to take the pulse of tourism in Africa these days? Here, some of the hottest topics at the conference:
Kenya’s presidential election: Fearing that last month’s election of the controversial Uhuru Kenyatta as the country’s new president would trigger the same kind of violence that led to 1,200 deaths during the 2007 election, droves of tourists have cancelled their Kenyan safaris this season. Add to that the fact that Kenyatta is being charged at the Hague for crimes against humanity (for his involvement in the deaths surrounding the last election), and it’s easy enough to understand why travelers might steer clear of Kenya right now, to say nothing of marauding Somalian pirates. But Kenya is safer than it’s been in some time, say many locals: This year’s election was largely peaceful, Kenyan security forces have successfully kept the pirates at bay, and Kenyatta himself is well liked among tourism folks and wildlife conservationists (the war criminal charges are unwarranted, they say).
Luxury in the bush: With the opening of the Four Seasons property in Tanzania’s Serengeti earlier his year and dozens more extremely pricey new safari camps and lodges, some veteran safari operators worry that there’s too much focus on high-end properties—and all the ecological harm they do—and fewer visitors looking for the authentic African wilderness adventures. “Is there really a need for swanky shag palaces in the bush,” asked Stefano Cheli, of Cheli & Peacock, which runs several tented camps in Kenya. On the flip side, pointed out safari sage Colin Bell (co-founder of Wilderness Safaris and Great Plains Conservation camps), there’s a big upside to the ultra-luxury properties, like Singita Pamushana Lodge, which through its charitable arm, feeds more than 20,000 children daily in Zimbabwe. Still, Bell said that he’s detecting that the luxury sector may be going “too far.”
How to save Africa’s dwindling wildlife populations: “Will our children have the same Africa we had?,” asked Colin Bell. Fair question, considering the dismal population declines, due mostly to land encroachment and rampant poaching. The answer? Community conservancies, like those in Kenya’s Maasi Mara, where the bush camps and lodges pay the Maasi community to use their land, and in exchange the locals agree to controlled cattle grazing and hunting bans.
Up-and-coming destinations: Mozambique has skyrocketed to the top of the list in recent years, thanks to its rustic-chic beach resorts. And now in July, Asilia’s Kubatana camp opens in the country’s Gorongosa National Park, which might just help put the park, once the best in Africa, back on the map. Next door, Malawai, long overlooked, also has a crop of new properties, including the newly redone Kaya Mawa, on its own island. There’s also Ghana, where a Kempinski hotel plans to open in August, and Bom Bom Island, in Principe, a luxury eco-resort that completed a major renovation a few months ago. Neither one offers Big Five sightings, but for under-the-radar, authentic African adventures, Ghana and Principe, certainly qualify.
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