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Safaris Need to Become More Diverse—and Now Is the Time

By Jennifer Flowers

Jul 30, 2020

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Beks Ndlovu, founder of African Bush Camps, guides a safari guest in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.

Courtesy of African Bush Camps

Beks Ndlovu, founder of African Bush Camps, guides a safari guest in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.

Black travel to Africa has gained momentum in recent years, but safari travelers remain mostly white. Travel experts are trying to change that.

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Beks Ndlovu has been a safari lodge owner for close to 15 years, and he’s been a guide for more than two decades. Yet the Zimbabwean owner of African Bush Camps sees few Black travelers passing through any of his 15 camps in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. He’s not the only one who’s noticed a lack of diversity on African safaris.

Over the last decade, a boom in global travel among Black Americans has brought with it a growing interest in trips to Africa, especially to the thriving arts, fashion, and music scenes of urban hubs such as Accra, Ghana; Dakar, Senegal; and Johannesburg, South Africa. In 2019, the Ghana Tourism Authority launched the Year of Return campaign, an invitation to visit the country on the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving in the United States. That year, 1 million travelers visited the West African nation—double the number the tourism board had expected to attract. Yet safaris, which bring in the lion’s share of tourism dollars to the continent—an estimated $12.4 billion each year—haven’t seen as much interest from Black travelers, says Naledi Khabo, executive director of the Africa Tourism Association, a nonprofit industry trade association based in New York. 

“Black travelers primarily visit the urban hubs and take in all the cultural offerings when traveling to Africa,” says Khabo. “When you think about how many first connections [to the continent] come through food, music, art, and fashion, this is not surprising.”

The sparsity of Black travelers on safaris, which can cost upwards of $1,000 per person per day in the luxury space, is not about resources. In 2018 alone, Black Americans spent $63 billion on trips. Instead, it’s connected to a larger issue in the travel world: a shortage of Black representation in both media and marketing, say travel industry experts, including the Black Travel Alliance, which in June called upon companies and media outlets—including AFARto hold themselves accountable for an overall lack of diversity.

Travel experts say safari marketers need to do a better job of connecting wildlife to cultural experiences in one itinerary.

In recent years, travel companies geared toward audiences of color—including Nomadness Travel TribeTravel Noire, and Fly Brotherhave been taking matters into their own hands and promoting travel to Africa in new ways. In 2019, Black & Abroad launched a Go Back to Africa campaign, which turned a derogatory phrase used against Black Americans into an empowering message about exploring the continent. Even during the novel coronavirus pandemic, Tastemakers Africa, founded by Cheraé Robinson to help the Black diaspora learn about and visit Africa, has pivoted from travel experiences to virtual communities to keep travelers connected to the continent.

Evita Robinson, founder of Nomadness Travel Tribe, an online community for travelers of color with close to 25,000 members, has visited Africa close to half a dozen times. She’s considering buying property in Johannesburg, South Africa—the second-most popular country among Nomadness’s group trips.

“As Black travelers, Africa is empowering for us,” says Robinson, who lives in New York. “It’s empowering to be in a place where being Black is revered, where you’re actually not the minority anymore. It’s empowering to be in a place that wants your dollar, that wants you to invest. And it’s influenced by your culture as much as you’re influenced by theirs. That is unlike what we’ve experienced in the United States.”

On the African continent, safaris are an estimated $12.4 billion industry.

Yet Robinson has been on safari only once, citing the fact that most safari advertising and storytelling portrays white travelers—and mostly couples or older generations—making it especially hard for her to picture where she or fellow Nomadness travelers might fit in. While Black people do appear in camp brochures and Instagram feeds, they are mostly presented as camp staff, cultural performers, or wildlife trackers rather than as guests. According to the Africa Tourism Association’s Khabo, this is a common critique. 

“It’s always a white traveler with a black servant,” says Khabo. “And that’s not appealing.”

Safaris, and their current positioning, make a similar impression on Black African travelers. Ayomide “Mimi” Aborowa, the Lagos, Nigeria-based founder of a new travel magazine called Irin Journal, has explored 25 countries, including China, Russia, Sudan, Mexico, and Portugal. But she’s never been on safari, because she says it’s mostly still presented with what seems like a white gaze.

“I would go on safari, because I like to travel and I would want to experience everything once, but when I think of a safari, I do think of a white audience,” says Aborowa. “If we [Black Africans] see more Black owners that are behind these reserves, then maybe we’d feel a bit more comfortable about it.”

A growing number of Black-owned companies has the potential to change the perception of the safari.

It’s this lack of diversity among both travelers and the industry that Ndlovu wants to change. His African Bush Camps is part of a growing number of Black-owned companies whose very existence has the potential to change the perception of the safari—a Swahili word derived from Arabic meaning “journey,” which was appropriated more than a century ago by white Europeans to describe big-game hunting expeditions on the continent. According to the African Travel and Tourism Association, a trade group with more than 600 camp owners, tour operators, and travel advisors working in Africa, an estimated 15 percent of its members are Black owners. (In addition to African Bush Camps, other safari lodge companies with Black ownership in Africa include Tangulia Mara in Kenya’s Maasai Mara and Verney’s Camp in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.)

Ndlovu started his career as a guide in Botswana close to 25 years ago and launched African Bush Camps in 2006. But when he was pivoting to lodge ownership, he recalls getting a few double takes when he was seeking business opportunities.

“As an industry, I think we need to give Black people who are guides or in middle management the opportunity to make that transition to ownership,” he says. “The amount of time it has taken for us to start to see any shift has been far too much.”

A huge opportunity, Ndlovu adds, lies in better collaboration with other Black travel professionals—a power-in-numbers approach to both increase the visibility of Black-owned businesses in Africa and to communicate better with Black travelers and tailor experiences to their interests.

With this in mind, Ndlovu has been having more discussions with industry peers about safaris and diversity, in large part due to the new momentum around racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s killing earlier this year. Among these contacts is Wazha Dube, the Africa manager for Index Select, a travel consulting group based in New York City.

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Dube, who is originally from Botswana and a longtime collaborator with Ndlovu, sees a missed opportunity to broaden the cultural and historical aspect of nature experiences, especially in southern Africa, where the region’s precolonial and modern histories are often overlooked. 

“There’s so much history that is just not talked about when we talk about southern Africa. You’ve got the San people dating back 80,000 years, and you’ve got kingdoms like Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe,” says Dube. 

Khabo, who points out that safari itineraries tend to gloss over urban and cultural experiences that might appeal to a broader audience, agrees. This is especially true in eastern and southern Africa, home to most of the continent’s biggest wildlife habitats, including Tanzania’s Serengeti and Botswana’s Okavango Delta, where tourism boards spend most of their resources marketing the lucrative safari, according to Khabo. 

“Most of the world already associates Africa with wildlife and conservation, so the opportunity truly lies in showcasing all of Africa’s diverse cultural offerings,” she says.

Change is on the way: This summer, Dube joined United Voices in Travel and Hospitality, an international group of about 80 travel industry professionals who intend to tackle diversity issues in travel, while also coming together to speak in a unified voice to a Black travel audience. He has also been working independently with friends and contacts in southern Africa, including Ndlovu, to develop nature-based itineraries that better integrate the human stories behind the landscapes.

One such example is an itinerary built around African Bush Camps’ Khayelitsha House, in Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park, where guests get a taste of the history that predates European imperialism, while also learning about key historical moments in African independence. Near the lodge is the UNESCO-designated Matobo Hills site, home to some of southern Africa’s most impressive examples of rock art. The area is also regarded as one of the most important sites for the Mwari religion, which dates back to the Iron Age and is still practiced today. Nearby in the park, the remains of the controversial Cecil John Rhodes, a British imperialist, are a reminder of the area’s anti-colonialist wars with the British.

“People need to realize that there are more than animals to visit,” says Dube. “Both the history and culture of these regions can and should be mixed with the adventure of seeing our wilderness.”

Dube, Ndlovu, and others in the travel industry acknowledge that there’s still a long way to go in presenting the safari in more inclusive ways, which affects everything from the way the fashion industry talks about safari clothing styles to a debunking of negative stereotypes around the relationship of Black Africans with national parks. But there is hope.

Most tourism marketing to Africa is focused around the safari experience.

With Black voices in travel coming together to broaden the appeal of nature experiences in Africa, Khabo sees a huge financial opportunity for destinations on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic. Africa is still the second least-visited continent, according to the World Trade Organization, which Khabo attributes to the fact that international headlines about Africa favor stories about famine, disease, and civil unrest. But it’s also the world’s second-fastest growing tourism industry.

“It’s crazy that we only get 5 percent of tourism dollars globally, but that’s definitely changing,” says Khabo. “And I do think the Black travel movement is going to drive that change in Africa.”

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