How will we travel in the future?
Covid 19 hit the travel industry first and hardest. As countries started imposing lockdowns and restrictions on movement, travel was no longer possible. The impact to my business was immediate, and the first few weeks of lockdown were spent on logistic arrangements for those clients whose holidays I had to postpone. After this had been done, I started working on areas of my business that needed improvement, such as improving internal processes with the aid of technology and sorting out some of my accounting processes which had fallen by the wayside during the busy booking season. I also reduced my business running costs down to as close to zero as possible, so that I can wait this out. My biggest business costs are both variable – marketing and travel, and these could easily be reduced. With my operational issues in process of being resolved, I could turn to the fun part – my business strategy and thinking about the future of travel.
Everyone in tourism is in a very tough place right now. I have grave concerns about how all players in the ecosystem will make it through the crisis. Hotels, lodges, airlines, B&Bs restaurants, tour guides, attractions and ground transport operators are all severely affected. There is no doubt that Darwinism will come into play and sadly some businesses will not survive to see a post Covid world. However, businesses in all parts of the ecosystem need to survive in order to give travellers the best experience possible. To ensure the recovery of travel, government support for the sector is critical. The current Tourism SME fund is far too small in size and scope, as was acknowledged by the Minister for Tourism.
Despite all of this, I believe in the resilience of travel. I feel optimistic about the future of travel and the future manner in which we will travel. I think we will travel less, travel better and for longer. Travel will become more sustainable. Hopefully mass tourism, overcrowding and the “instagrammisation of travel” will be a thing of the past. I expect travel to become more immersive with a strong emphasis on local culture, communities and knowledge. In South Africa, we always felt disadvantaged by the fact that we are a long haul destination. It is relatively expensive and time consuming for foreign tourists to travel here but because of this, trips are usually longer and planned further in advance. With Covid 19, our remoteness is now a plus. I think people will feel more comfortable travelling to a place where there is a low human density. Of course, they will only feel safe if we have the virus properly under control and the correct sanitation and protective measures in place. Government and business need to do their part in making tourists feel safe.
I look forward to a future where travellers use a local operator such as myself to plan their holidays. For tourism to be sustainable, most of the tourist spend should remain in the destination country in order to properly benefit communities and local businesses. By booking with a local operator, like Leopard, travellers will support many small South African businesses, instead of foreign owned conglomerates. 90% of the suppliers Leopard works with are South African owned. Also, our deep local knowledge allows clients to experience the real South Africa, off the beaten path and completely tailor made. This is the way I personally enjoy travelling.
One of my favourite trips of all time was a 3 week holiday to Cuba in 2011. I used a local operator for the first time to plan this trip and it greatly enhanced my experience of the country. I didn’t speak Spanish, which was the main reason for using a local operator. But beyond the language barrier, the benefits were numerous: from local transport arrangements, excellent and well located casas (small B&Bs) and superb tour guides. I had a particularly excellent tour of the tobacco fields in Viñales with a young guide who spoke exceptionally good English and invited us to a village party that evening where we got to know other young Cubans. The language barrier made itself known when I was staying at a casa in Cienfuegos. The proprietor was cooking breakfast and asked me what kind of eggs I would like. I thought she was asking if I would like eggs, so said yes. So for breakfast that day, I ended up with scrambled, fried and boiled eggs. I think I managed to eat them all but did not eat eggs again for the rest of the holiday. Another highlight was going to a nightclub in a cave in Trinidad de Cuba where I learned to dance salsa. I don’t think I would have had these wonderful memories and experiences if I had not had access to the local knowledge of my Cuban operator.
When I created Leopard, and as I run the company, I often think about that experience in Cuba and hope that I am able to create similarly memorable experiences for travellers coming to South Africa.
To end, my favourite quote from the French accountant turned songwriter, Gustave Nadaud. “To be, is to exist, but to travel, is to live.”
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