From cluster travel to cosmopolitan destinations, the US market is evolving – and Africa is its next stop.

2018 delivered a 4.27% increase in arrivals from the United States to Africa. The heightened focus on Africa by the American travel market is opening doors for the continent’s tourism products and services, from tourism and job creation to contribution to the broader economy.

In this two-part series, Tourism Update looks at the US source market: what it seeks from Africa as a travel destination, and how the American market is shifting in its travel patterns to the continent; and advice for African tourism product and service providers on how best to connect with the US market, and sell destination Africa.

Africa: a growing attraction

Developments between Africa and the US over the past year have seen Kenya Airways being the first airline to launch a direct flight between Nairobi and New York, which Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta believes will open up the country to the rest of the world. The US was also recognised as the top source market for Kenya, according to 2018 arrivals statistics (year-to-date), with a 50.85% increase. South Africa’s arrivals statistics saw a year-to-date increase of 3.9%; and for the first half of 2018 versus 2017, Zimbabwe saw a 9.3% increase in arrivals from the US.

Perceptions form opinions

Ronald Mracký, International Advisory Committee Member of the Africa Tourism Association (ATA), confirms that southern and East African destinations are popular with the consumer market, and are shaped by perceptions of the continent and its respective countries. “In the US, perceptions of Africa were formed primarily (within the ‘popular’ culture) by National Geographic and Africa-themed films.” He says there are ‘word associations’ the industry has noticed, from interacting with visitors at consumer and trade shows: “Safaris = Kenya; Africa = South Africa; migration = Tanzania. In terms of numbers and popularity [of each country in southern and East Africa], the numbers are ‘scattered’, however, the three mentioned lead the pack for southern and East Africa.”

Traveller profile transition

Mracký notes that the travel market is changing and moving toward organised tour or group offerings versus FIT (fully independent traveller) bookings. “The industry has evolved to offer three types of products: group tours – date-specific departure tours; custom groups – where the participants know each other, share a specific interest or are family; and traditional FITs. Much of the change has to do with safety/feeling protected, and the perceived cost advantages of selecting a tour. In the cost area, we always urge travel sellers to position Africa as ‘to experience Africa is not expensive, it is priceless’, plus urge them to note to the clients that a ‘safari should be viewed as all-inclusive’ – a sales category or travel concept that has attained the highest consumer favour and sales percentages.”

Craig Drysdale, Head of Global Sales for Thompsons Africa, seconds the affordability of Africa as a travel choice: “I would say our biggest draw and offering are that we are a very affordable destination. You get more for your ‘buck’. Our reputation as a fantastic destination, from our flora to fauna, has been celebrated many times over in publications and in the media.”

Why travel to Africa?

First-time travellers to Africa, says Mracký, are superficially conscious of tour operator brand names and key safari destinations/areas. They wish to capture as much of the Africa experience as possible. And Drysdale sees safaris as being the primary experience that the US market seeks when considering coming to Africa. This is echoed by Suzanne Benadie, Sales Director at Tourvest DMC, who adds: “Africa is an iconic destination in the USA, and very much a bucket list item. Guests want to see Table Mountain, Kruger and Victoria Falls, and repeat guests will often add the Okavango Delta, or East Africa for the Great Migration, to their itinerary.”

Mracký also sees an increasing number of travellers becoming interested in experiencing the ‘cultural’ aspect of Africa – museums, people, and the arts. “The US market is often keen to learn more about South African history because of our well-known past,” comments Andrea Schaffner, Market Manager for North America at Tourvest DMC, “so historic monuments like Robben Island and Mandela House are still places of interest. They also enjoy visiting the winelands – taking in the scenery and local wine.”

Mracký notes that the exception to the above is the ‘cosmopolitan destinations’ that have emerged. “When the industry sells Europe, typically it markets the cities – Berlin, Paris, London, Madrid, etc. and then adds the surrounding or close-by environments or attractions. Africa operators, lodges, and hoteliers do not do that. Many of the SA and African cities have great histories, architectural and culinary credentials, art galleries, unique lifestyle, etc. however, it is bypassed. For example Durban was an important part of Mahatma Gandhi’s life, however, it is not featured or mentioned in any of the Durban promotions or operators’ points of interest – and no operator features Durban.”

Cluster travel

Clustering of friends, family members, individuals or couples within same interest sectors is the current phenomenon, says Mracký. “An interesting one is the solo women group. It still amazes me that not many of the safari operators and lodges understand the solo women travel market – years ago when this sector became important, we urged [tourism service providers] to add massages after an afternoon or a day in a four-wheeler. That should be included.” Mracký says some lodges do offer spa facilities or treatments, and a good massage with a sundowner will be more attractive than “just another pitch for a spa package, which becomes a turn off”.

Millennials aren’t everything

Mracký believes that there isn’t a specific US traveller demographic that travels more than the next. “Everyone is an excellent prospect, as long as they have the time and money, and many do in each age category. Plus, the travel market should be considered in psychographic groupings, not only demographics. For instance, which psychographic group is more apt to consider mountain climbing, versus a relaxed beach holiday or fishing – each one has its own entry points to consider Africa.”

Potential of cruise tourism

A growing travel option for US travellers is river and ocean cruising from African ports, which is translating into an important aspect of national, regional and city/port tourism. “A good example is Croatia, where they took all the local yachts and small boats and made it into an industry – sailing the sea coast of Croatia – in fact, some of their ship/boat operators could be available during their off-season to sail the SA southern coast and bring new excitement to South Africa’s tourism mix,” says Mracký.

“The MSC cruises from Durban are a potentially fantastic product, beyond the SA domestic positioning,” he continues. “The port of Cape Town is perfect to develop as a cruise port – I know as a fact that no one has seriously approached the product development staff of the cruise majors to start and originate cruise schedules from Cape Town. There need to be repeats of several years ago where we assisted South East Asia, where there was no cruising and we assisted in getting the area to the current marketing level as a major cruise market.”

The big (bad) four: visas, birth certificates, water crisis and land expropriation

The US market doesn’t see visas and birth certificates as strong a concern as has been reported, says Mracký. “This is a resolvable situation at the initial sales/reservation level; and when a family wish to take the children, it is resolvable.”

He continues that for travellers from southern California – the largest source market for southern and East Africa – the water crisis isn’t a major concern: “We are used to water shortages, and in Southern California, the Cape Town water demise has not made a great bend [in the travel curve].” What Mracký sees as having a more significant effect on bookings is one or more restaurants getting a Michelin-star rating, a new wine vintage, new art gallery, or fashion week.

The fourth potential concern is the land expropriation situation. Mracký says that, as yet, the political aspect of the land issue hasn’t hit the US main news, “however any political circumstance has real potential to be problematic and industry damaging”.