Tour operators are reporting that smaller or private tour groups are becoming more popular because of health and safety issues around COVID-19.

“We’ve seen a trend of moving away from larger group tours to smaller group sizes, and also from small scheduled groups to private groups,” said Owner of Wild Wings Safaris, Onne Vegter.

He said the operator was running scheduled departures with smaller groups. “While demand is low, we’re happy to do this, but of course once the pandemic is over and demand for affordable group departures returns, we will want to get back to full capacity as soon as it is safe to do so.”

He told Tourism Update that clients felt more comfortable travelling with family or friends on private tours than potentially interacting with strangers.

Owner of the Cape Town-based Tours du Cap, Francoise Armour, agreed and said she anticipated that clients would be far more conscious of health and safety, which was easier to control in small tour groups.

“Requests are coming in from Switzerland for small group travel,” said Sales Director of Sense of Africa, South Africa, Suzanne Benadie. She said clients had been isolating for many months and would want to travel with the confidence that health and safety measures were in place.

Costs are a consideration

Vegter explained how smaller tour groups impacted both the operator and the traveller in terms of cost. He said operating touring vehicles at reduced capacity meant reduced revenue for operators and, to compensate, operators might charge clients more for private departures.

“But, for example, safari lodges with limited game drive vehicles can’t put each family in their own vehicle; that’s just not practical.” He said a surcharge for a private vehicle might be outside the budget of some travellers.

Armour acknowledged the costs involved but highlighted the positive aspects of smaller and private tour groups. “For travellers, there are several advantages, including flexibility on the tour, the potential to customise the experience, and it’s ideal for families or travellers looking to avoid large crowds.” She added that, for tour operators, there was an element of creativity in curating private tours.

She suggested that clients who were more concerned about health and safety could negate the potential risks of tour vehicles and guides, and opt for self-drive tours.

But Vegter said self-drive trips were not suited to everyone. “Many travellers still want the benefit of having an experienced guide, and some are not comfortable driving in a foreign country. They are happy to pay a bit extra for a private departure.”

Scheduled departures

“Scheduled departure tours have always been the easier, ‘value-for-money’ product to sell, offering guaranteed frequent departures,” said Product Development Manager of Tourvest Destination Management, Karien le Grand.

But she said scheduled departures did not necessarily equate to larger tour groups as many operators offered guaranteed departures with a minimum of two and a maximum of eight passengers.

However, she acknowledged that operators incurred additional costs with smaller groups. “Tour operators have to also absorb conservation and other entrance fees where suppliers didn’t hold 2020 rates into 2021.”