Europe’s borders may be reopening to U.S. travelers, but another continent is also once again quietly welcoming Americans: Africa. Kenya opened last summer to Americans, citing tourism’s importance in employing 2 million people in the country; South Africa, which has one of the largest tourism industries in Africa, opened last fall. Most of Africa’s dream destinations are open and ready for business—and they really need it.
“We operate across 17 destinations in Africa, and of those 17, 15 are open—only Madagascar and Mauritius are not,” says Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel, Inc., a tour company that specializes in planning trips to Africa. “People have moved Africa up their bucket list, and bookings are up.”
In celebration of Pride month, AFAR sat down with Banda, an LGBTQ+ travel expert and South Africa native who currently lives in Los Angeles with his husband and nine-year-old son, to dive into what LGBTQ+ travelers can experience while traveling in Africa.
African Travel markets specifically to LGBTQ+ guests with these 2021/2022 itineraries and plans any desired personalized journey.
Do you actively promote LGBTQ+ travel as something you specialize in?
100 percent. You know this is personal for me, having grown up in Africa and lived through some of its most horrific times. To be LGBTQ+ during Apartheid meant having to hide who we are. One of the greatest struggles for this community is the fear of—is it safe? My homeland is now safe for this community.
Every one of our team members was either born in Africa, lived in Africa, or traveled to Africa multiple times. We say “We Know Africa,” and you can depend on us to match the right Africa with the right client, like LGBTQ+ travelers.
Most people are surprised to hear that South Africa legalized same-sex marriage in 2006, before it was legal in the U.S.
Wow, I did not know that. On the other hand, you have some countries in Africa like Kenya, which is not at all inclusive. The continent is not a monolith, of course.
Absolutely! South Africa is a safe destination for our LGBTQ+ community, but beyond that, all of our teams in our camps, hotels, and experiences across the continent in our destinations are trained to meet the needs of our LGBTQ+ travelers.
So even in a place like Kenya where the government is not aligned, you have the resources and training for someone to feel 100 percent comfortable. What are some of the things that you’ve trained people on?
Our training focuses on three important outcomes: knowledge, attitude, and behavior, so our team members understand the service expectations our LGBTQ+ guests require. For example, we can make sure that the guest has a LGBTQ+ guide to take them around.
For me personally, we travel with our young son and the language becomes even more important because I don’t want my child to experience prejudice, or to be asked where his mom is.
Have you seen big shifts across the continent in the last 10 years, as far as acceptance and change?
It is exciting to see how far we have come in travel. LGBTQ+ guests can travel safely to some of the most remote parts of Africa. This is a huge achievement for the destination. LGBTQ+ guests are warmly welcomed with a genuine sense of hospitality.
African Travel is a long-established safari operator that really focuses on giving back to the destination. How do you create those kinds of experiences?
For the preservation of culture, one of our favorite hotels is a Red Carnation hotel called the Oyster Box in Durban, South Africa. It has been rated the number one hotel in all of Africa. Apart from the amazing cuisine and the property itself, we are really proud of our partnership with Ardmore Design Studio, a collective of local artists who create bold and beautiful things.
The art inspires us, but the people and the stories inspire us [more]. The experience is very empowering, especially when guests learn how local artisans from really impoverished backgrounds now successfully sustain themselves and their families.
For wildlife conservation, one example is at the Shamwari Private Game Reserve. Actually, this is close to the area where Nelson Mandela was born. To first understand the South African story and the beginnings of our democracy better, it is best to visit areas in Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg that tell different parts of the Mandela legacy.
But here you will also experience incredible game viewing on one of the largest privately owned game reserves in South Africa. Shamwari has always been at the forefront of wildlife conservation. They have a Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, where rescued injured rhinos and other wildlife are nursed back to full health before being released again back into the wild.
Shamwari is also home to the Big Cat Sanctuary whose mission is to rescue big cats held in captivity and release them in an area of the reserve cordoned off for their safety since they never learnt to hunt. Some of these cats have never felt a blade of grass on their paws a day in their life.
One of the things we always ask people to do is to turn off the GPS function on their devices, as it has embedded software that can inadvertently support poachers trolling the internet at night and looking for where Africa’s most endangered animals are.
And for the environment, we are actively working to have carbon neutral safaris for 2022, which will be an amazing achievement. [The Travel Corporation has pledged to be totally carbon neutral across all 42 of its brands by 2030.]
You have a nine-day Namibia luxury train journey on Rovos Rail that takes travelers through the stark desert landscape and red sand dunes that Namibia is known for—as well as the Grand Canyon–like Fish River Canyon. A train journey is not what I’d first think of when traveling to Africa.
Train travel was the only mode of transport when people first came to Africa. And Africa has some of these beautiful Old-World train journeys that give you a different view of the destination.
One of my favorite properties, situated at the entrance gate to the Namib Naukluft Park, is Sossusvlei Lodge, which offers direct access to the towering red sand dunes, the famous pan of Sossusvlei, the scorched black trees of Dead Vlei, and the remarkable depths of the Sesriem Canyon.
If someone is going to Africa for the first time, where would you send them?
It’s such a difficult question to answer. That being said, South Africa offers the greatest diversity of experiences. For our LGBTQ+ travelers, there’s also what we call the pink district, De Waterkant, located in the heart of Cape Town. And obviously, the wildlife experiences speak for themselves.
Botswana is home to a “secret” migration that most people don’t know of, the mass zebra migration, which occurs twice a year as herds of zebra move first from north to south, then back from south to north. They move with the seasons and the rainfall, always in search of fresh grazing land. While it’s not Africa’s largest migration, it is the largest in southern Africa.
Speaking of Botswana, your sister company Red Carnation Hotels recently opened Xigera Lodge, which is 100 percent solar-powered, and it made a huge splash. Are you seeing a lot of bookings?
Yes! There is nothing quite like this anywhere in Africa. Xigera is situated along the water channels of the Okavango Delta. When the Delta floods after the rains, the Kalahari Desert literally comes to life. And because of its watery channels, you see wildlife from a different point of view on a mokoro or boat, rather than the traditional Land Rover experience. It’s so quiet because you don’t have the drone of the car engine. Watching the predator and prey activity when animals come to drink water reminds us of the fragility of life.
You decide the timetable of experiences you want. If you want to get up at the crack of dawn to do a game drive, it is your choice or if you want to sleep in and go later, that is also OK.
In Botswana, you have fewer people and fewer camps. I like to refer to Botswana as a high-touch, low-volume destination.