Rich travellers escape to the wilderness
For almost four months, Kenyans had shelved their holiday plans due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. But with the relaxation of the rules, a few people have started booking vacations in destinations where they are unlikely to come into contact with another human— except for their drivers, guides, chefs and butlers and their families or friends.
These groups of daring travellers eager to hit the road and ease the sense of being trapped at home want to wake up to the roaring of lions as the sun comes up and elephants emerge from the forest, away from the fears of contracting coronavirus.
These socially distant safaris in Maasai Mara, for instance, are being priced slightly lower than before, when Covid-19 shut down travel.
“We’ve opened Porini Mara Camp situated in Ol Kinyei Conservancy in Maasai Mara, and are receiving guests,” said Mohanjeet Brar, the director of Gamewatchers Safaris & Porini Camps in an interview with BDLife.
By last week, two families had made reservations in the six tents camp which sits on 18,700 acres of land. The camp says they have also started receiving August holiday booking inquiries from international travellers.
“People are tired of being home and want to experience nature and take a break from life,” Mohanjeet said.
Gamewatchers Safaris runs ten lodges, alongside Porini Mara Camp, located in different parts of Kenya, and they hope to open them in one week. However, Porini’s Nairobi tented camp, located inside the national park, has been receiving guests, with the nine tents fully booked most weekends.
“We’ve tested our staff for coronavirus, have been inspected by the county health officials, and reorganised how we work to maintain hygiene,” Mohanjeet said.
Once booked, guests are sent a health and safety protocol document.
“We expect them to wear masks throughout, their temperatures will be checked and baggage sanitised before entering the camp,’’ he said.
The lodge will offer two meal times allowing guests and staff to social distance. For these wilderness destinations, bush walks, day and night game drives and sundowners are still part of the itinerary.
The reopening of the tented camps will see locals in Maasai Mara, Laikipia and Samburu who had lost their livelihoods when tourists stopped coming, start earning income from the lodges located in the private wildlife conservancies.
Last year, Porini Camp employed over 240 community members and paid about Sh150 million to the conservation communities they partner with.
“I remain extremely positive that we will bounce back better and stronger,” Mohanjeet said.
Alfred Korir, the owner of Zebra Plains Mara Camp has also reopened with a hope that the sector will sputter to life sooner rather than later.
At the moment, he is operating at half the bed capacity in line with the guidelines and set up outdoor food serving stations with tables placed at six feet apart.
“I’m adopting a wait-and-see attitude because the local borders may be opened but the international visitors need some assurance from their governments before they come,” Alfred says.
The European Union has asked its citizens to shelve travelling plans to Africa and the local clientele is too small to sustain tourism. Some foreign tourists are too cautious, and they refuse to travel until a coronavirus vaccine is available, or at least until things are more stable. Zebra Plains is welcoming only weekend vacationers for now. So far, the lodge has received three bookings. Alfred says most inquiries from locals are for August.
To cater for the price-sensitive domestic market, he has had to reduce charges even if August is the most crowded and expensive time, which sees thousands of tourists travel to experience the massive movement of wildebeest and zebras and accompanying predators from Serengeti in Tanzania to Maasai Mara.
Sh1.2 million a night
“We have had to reduce the charges to Sh12,000 from Sh20,000 a night,” he said, adding that he is also lucky that his landlords have also halved the land rates. Most of the tented camp owners in Maasai Mara lease land from locals and pay an annual rent.
Globally, the high-end travel is likely to pick up first because the well-heeled travellers can afford to pay for coronavirus testing for staff and extra space where they buy out the whole property, especially those secluded in remote locations.
At Zebra Plains, for instance, Alfred has set up self-catering tents and family villas within the camp.
“These are for those yearning for exclusivity and minimal contact with people, save for the ones they came with. Designed like a single-dwelling house, guests can cook and clean for themselves,” he adds.
Mahali Mzuri, a luxurious tented camp owned by Sir Richard Branson is also opening its doors in August, just in time for the wildebeest migration. The camp in Olare Motorogi Conservancy in Maasai Mara will charge Sh47,500 per person and Sh1.2 million per night for groups buying out the 12 tents.
“We have always remained optimistic that we may be able to open this summer and we are thrilled to open just in time for the annual Great Migration. Guests can even stay at camp while working from home on a longer stay basis with the peace and serenity of the Kenyan bush, and the thrill of a game drive when it’s time to pack up work at the end of the day,” said William Odhiambo, the general manager of Mahali Mzuri.
John Kinaro, a director of Keshi Tours is also anticipating a huge influx of people travelling outside of Nairobi. Keshi Tours had been curating travel itineraries for international customers but it has recorded an increase in demand from locals.
“Since the first weekend of May until today, I’ve been taking 24 people per weekend on a tour of the Nairobi National Park. The domestic market has enabled tour agents to keep the lights on,” says the 35-year old, adding that most of his customers have been young families.
With reduced human traffic in the parks, he says, the trips have been memorable because animals have come out from hiding due to fewer distractions.
“Just last weekend, we spotted ten lions, a heard of rhinos and group of giraffes in all their magnificence,” he says.
When the ban lifted, people are making inquiries, wanting to travel outside Nairobi. International customers are also rescheduling their visits.
“For now, Maasai Mara is the most popular destination. People want to avoid social interactions. Unfortunately, Mombasa isn’t a favourite because it is hard to control the people one interacts with, even in an exclusive hotel,” he says.
Domestic air travel is also on a rebound. Safarilink Aviation says bookings for picking up, following the resumption of domestic air travel on Wednesday.
“Our Coast flights and Mara are especially busy heading into the weekend,” the airline said.
This story first appeared in the Business Daily