Kenya’s Unending Big Five Appeal
By Susan McKee
Elephants, black rhinoceros, leopards, lions and cape buffalo are the “big five” of trophy hunters heading on safari in Africa, but not because they’re the largest animals. These mammals have always been considered the most dangerous to humans wandering the vast savannahs of Kenya.
Although today’s hunters stalk game for photographs, not taxidermy opportunities, the “big five” still draw travelers to Kenya. There is, however, much more to a trip to this East African country than animals – which, truth be told, are easier to see, up close and personal, in an American zoo.
Let’s start in Nairobi, the country’s bustling capital city and location of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. It’s not an ancient site, and thus isn’t historically significant for any particular Kenyan tribe (and that’s probably a good thing).
Established a century ago at Mile 327 of the East African Railway Line heading inland from Mombasa, Nairobi was merely the site where the British colonial engineers paused to deal with the challenges of building the tracks to climb the mountains further inland (the railway extends to Kampala, Uganda).
High Quality Crafts
A leafy neighborhood in this city of more than three million is named Karen, after the Danish novelist Isak Dinesen, who wrote (among other works) “Out of Africa” about her time in Kenya using the pen name Karen Blixen. She lived there from 1914 to 1931, and her house is now a museum. An obviously well-to-do section (the large houses and expansive gardens are surrounded by walls topped with razor wire and broken glass), here (and in nearby Langata) is where you’ll find the best art and crafts in Nairobi.
Utamaduni Craft Centre (www.utamaduni.com) is located in a two-story Kikuyu-style house. Inside, there are 18 separately-owned shops selling wares made by craftsmen from across the country. Founded in 1991 by Richard Leakey, the Kenyan-born paleontologist, it was set up to benefit not only the craftspeople whose work is sold there, but also local charities. You’ll find everything from the sublime (an antique silver necklace) to the ridiculous (A leopard-print toilet seat, anyone?). I spent an hour browsing the offerings and ended up taking home a magnificent beaded mask.
Kazuri Beads (www.kazuri.com) began more than 30 years ago, when Susan Wood (the Africa-born daughter of English missionaries) set up a small bead-making business behind her home in Nairobi. Kazuri, a Swahili word for “small and beautiful” now employs about 100 women to produce a wide range of hand-made, hand-painted ceramic jewelry and household items in the factory located on land once owned by Karen Blixen. Take a tour, then browse the shop. Although the pottery and jewelry are sold in 30 countries, this is the only place you’ll see everything they make.
Closer Encounters in the Wild
Not into handcrafts? In Nairobi, you can get up close and personal with animals – something definitely not recommended out on safari on the savannah. The David Sheldrick elephant orphanage (www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org) is a unique facility. Watch your timing, because it’s open to visitors only from 11 a.m. until noon. The nonprofit organization rescues orphaned baby elephants, raising them until they are ready to return to the wild.
Not far from the elephant orphanage is the Giraffe Center (www.giraffecenter.org), open every day from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. If you’ve never been licked by a foot-long tongue, this is the place. Climb up onto the viewing platform, buy some peanut pellets and get some giraffe love. It’s a non-profit project run by African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Kenya to save the endangered Rothschild giraffes.
But, your clients want to see the wildlife in its natural habitat. There are two general kinds of tours: the first explores the vast government game preserves, where wildlife roams unfettered, attracting tourists by the busload. Of course, that’s the problem – one van driver spots a lion, and suddenly fifteen more vehicles will converge on the spot.
The second way is to book with a company working in one or more of the privately-owned game preserves. Here, there are no government-imposed rules forbidding driving off the marked roads or looking for game after dark. Here, safaris sometimes start before dawn. At sundown, you can go back out on the savannah to enjoy cocktails before heading back to camp, using a spotlight on the van to look for the animals that come out only after dark.
Each has its advantages and drawbacks, and each appeals to a different category of tourist. The first is, of course, more controlled and “safe.” Accommodations are booked at resorts with swimming pools, with three-star chefs preparing lavish buffets and reliable Internet access. There are choices of activities for each day. Professional staff takes care of guests’ needs and make sure that the wildlife stays outside the complex.
A package like this, such as the one I took with Travel Wild East Africa, is perfect for the first-time visitor or someone skittish about traveling in the Third World.
The second, such as my tour with Gamewatchers Safaris, is almost as luxurious, but the accommodations are tents (albeit with indoor plumbing). Electricity – and hot water – are generated by solar power (caution: the showers are short). Neither the meals nor the activities offer choices, because the number of guests is kept purposefully small.
Visitors are, however, much closer to the action. Animals roam through the campsites at night. The native staff mingles with the guests, giving a glimpse into the changing Kenyan tribal life.
The Amboseli Porini Camp is located in the Selenkay Conservancy, near Kenya’s southern border with Tanzania. The region, often lush and green due to the water runoff from Mount Kilimanjaro, also sustains periods of drought. The native Masai entered into an agreement with the Selenkay Conservancy to limit cattle grazing, knowing that wildlife is better adapted to survival in such conditions.
In return, the conservancy built waterholes for the livestock and primary schools for the Selenkay Group Ranch residents. Of the 183,000 acres in the ranch (communally owned by the Masai), about 12,400 are set aside for the conservancy area.
Further north, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy near Mount Kenya, another wildlife restoration project is underway. This area of the country used to be overgrazed by cattle production, and periodic drought cut into this previously profitable business. About 25 years ago, the conservancy started with about 19,000 acres with the goal of restoring wildlife to the area. The area has been expanded over the years. Now, its 75,000 acres are completely enclosed (the fencing electrified by solar power) -- except for the wildlife corridors, which are guarded 24 hours a day to keep out poachers. (It’s on a major migration route.)
Ol Pejeta also has some unique areas within its fences, including the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa protecting about 75 of the endangered species. I stayed in the Porini Rhino Camp here. In the East African language of Swahili, “porini” means bush – as in land remote from urban areas covered with dense vegetation.
Everybody wants to see the enormous Masai Mara Game Preserve in Kenya’s southwest, even if it isn’t the right time for the migration of an estimated 1.5 million wildebeest and zebra across the Mara River.
On my first trip, I stayed at the Mara Serena Resort. High on a bluff, it offers a 360-degree view of the vast grassland. Our twice-daily trips into the plains flushed out many varieties of animals, including baboon, topi, elephant, jackal and giraffe.
One morning, the resort served us breakfast at river’s edge. An armed guard led us to a creek nearby, pointing out a crocodile not more than 20 feet away. It opened its eyes in a chilling gaze, seemingly contemplating the effort versus the reward of lunging toward us, and thankfully made the decision for inactivity.
On my second, I stayed at the Mara Porini Camp in the Ol Kinyei Conservancy, adjacent to the game preserve that borders Tanzania’s Serengeti. The land is leased from the Olempusia group ranch, providing its Masai owners with an opportunity to profit from tourism.
Gamewatchers Safaris was founded in 1989 by Jake Grieves-Cook, who’s been involved in Kenya’s tourism industry for more than three decades. A descendant of British settlers, he knew that wildlife in Kenya would be hunted out of existence if there were no way for the people to benefit from it. Cooperative ecotourism, he discovered, was a way to preserve the ecosystem.
Although Kenya is located on the equator, the weather on safari wasn’t tropical because of the altitude. Nairobi, for example, is almost as high as Denver. Sunscreen is a must, as is a hat and mosquito repellent. Anti-malaria pills are highly recommended (I took Malarone on both my trips to Kenya, but check with your doctor).
Pre-Departure Details and Dining
Small planes are the fastest way to get around in a country with mostly substandard roads. You’ll be buying airplane tickets for your clients to travel between game preserves.
If your clients’ medical insurance doesn’t cover them overseas, suggest purchasing a policy for the trip. Another good idea is signing up for a tourist membership in the Flying Doctor Service (www.amref.org/flying-doctors/). With a control center open 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, the Flying Doctor Service provides a range of services, including evacuation by air ambulance, in medical emergencies. Cost per person for 14 days’ coverage is from $15 to $30, depending how far you’ll be traveling from Nairobi.
A word about the unrest in Kenya: it doesn’t affect tourists. The dispute is tribal, mainly between the Luo and Kikuyu tribes, and hasn’t spilled over into the game preserves. If your clients stay out of the Rift Valley and avoid the dicey sections of Nairobi, they should see few signs of any lingering crisis, and they won’t be in any danger except the usual pickpockets, common to any area of the world.
Americans going to Kenya need visas, but this is a straight-forward transaction easily taken care of at the airport in Nairobi upon arrival. Download and print out the visa form from the website of the Embassy of Kenya (www.kenyaembassy.com/visa.html) for each client, who also needs exactly $50 in U.S. dollars per visa.
The currency used in Kenya is the Kenyan shilling (at the time of this writing, $1 was worth about 78 KES). There are ATMs in the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and alongside branches of major banks in most of the market towns in the country (including, of course, Nairobi).
Locally owned hotels that meet Western standards include those in the Serena chain. I’ve stayed in the Serena Mountain Lodge, Mara Serena Lodge and Samburu Serena Lodge. Visit www.serenahotels.com
In Nairobi, there’s also a Serena Hotel, but another popular choice for tourists in the capital is the Norfolk Hotel, part of the Fairmont chain (www.fairmont.com/norfolkhotel). In the Karen district, consider the small but elegant House of Waine. Visit www.houseofwaine.co.ke).
I’m especially fond of two restaurants in Nairobi. The “don’t miss” spot is Carnivore, certainly the most famous eatery in Africa. Needless to say, meat is the main attraction. It’s all-you-can-eat with a twist: carvers roam the dining room offering slices of the expected (beef, lamb, chicken, pork) and the exotic (camel, crocodile, and more).
More sedate is Talisman, in the Karen district. Set in a former colonial bungalow it has a certain blowsy charm and excellent Kenyan cuisine – a mélange of British, Swahili and Indian. Suggest that your clients order the feta and coriander samosas as appetizers.
For more information on Gamewatchers Safaris and its Porini Camps (www.porini.com). The North American Representative is Kate Daniel. Call 877-710-3014; E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; www.travel-wild.com
For more information on Kenya, contact the Kenya Tourist Board, www.MagicalKenya.com
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Kenya Airways Chief Executive Titus Naikuni
Kenya Airways’ Lofty Goals
JF interviewed Kenya Airways (KQ) Group MD Chief Executive Titus Naikuni about recent upgrades in its upgraded fleet, its openness to work with more tour operators and its efforts to make journeys to Africa a streamlined experience for North American clients. KQ is also expanding its network in Central Africa and has entered a new agreement with insurance giant AIG to benefit your clients.
JF: Can you update us on Kenya Air’s affiliations, ie Air France and KLM?
KQ: Kenya Airways remains in a joint venture with Air France/KLM on the Nairobi/Amsterdam route. KLM owns 26 percent of Kenya Airways and has two members on the Kenya Airways Board of Directors. This working relationship enables KQ to deliver seamless connectivity into Europe and the U.S. and for Air France/KLM passengers into Africa, including offshore islands.
JF: What have you done to strengthen Nairobi’s position as a hub for Eastern and Southern Africa?
KQ: Kenya Airways continues to lobby the government to improve the infrastructure at Jomo Kenyatta Airport (JKIA-Nairobi) and to improve conditions for passengers. For instance, visa fees have been reduced or removed for certain categories of travelers, visas can mostly be obtained upon arrival. KQ has sponsored field trips for immigration and airport personnel to attend focus group discussions in source markets in order to understand the concerns of these target audience groups.
JF: Which alliances have you joined?
KQ: We joined skyteam in 2007 as associate members. The partnership has opened some very valuable relationships with other carriers and has enabled KQ to link its customers to any part of the world seamlessly. KQ’s frequent fliers keep loyalty benefits even when they travel in areas outside KQ zones such as access to partner airline lounges where there are no KQ lounges and miles accrual on partner carriers flights.
JF: Can you give us an equipment update?
KQ: We have received four new planes into the fleet during the last 12 months: one Embraer E170 and three Boeing 737-800, so the total fleet size is now 26 (four, 777-200; six X 767-300; five X 737-800; four X 737-700 and four X 737-300; plus three Embraer E170). KQ also has a firm order for nine 787-800 and options for four aircrafts which will be received in about 2013.
JF: Where do you see Kenya Airways in the next five years?
KQ: We seek to continuously improve our service delivery to the clients in order to achieve our audaciously lofty goal to become the first SKYTRAX six-star airline by the year 2020.
JF: Do you have codeshares in place with U.S. carriers?
KQ: We have no codeshares at the moment with any U.S. carriers, but our Skyteam partnership enables KQ to connect its passengers in and out of the U.S. conveniently as three U.S. carriers are currently in the partnership: Delta, Northwest and Continental.
JF: Does Kenya Airways pay commissions to agents?
KQ: Kenya Airways pays commissions to agents and we have been enrolled in ARC in the U.S. since 2008. We also offer net fares to consolidators and tour operators.
JF: Any new products from KQ?
KQ: To add value for customers, Kenya Airways is in the process of signing up with AIG to enable clients to purchase insurance at the time of booking either online or at airport and city offices (ATO’S/CTO’S).
This would make KQ sales channels a one-stop-shop. KQ is also planning five new african routes mainly around Central Africa: already Brazzaville in the Congo and ibreville in Gabon have been launched in May and June and Malabo in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea will follow this month while plans for Kisangani are almost finalized.
JF: Do you work with more ground operators these days and does KQ have its own private label operator?
KQ: We have added more tour operators and encourage other operators to introduce Kenya in their brochures - over a span of seven years we have doubled the U.S. tourism market to Kenya and East Africa, a significant share of those tourists fly on KQ.
JF: Have current events had an impact on your business — if so, how is KQ coping?
KQ: First, when the fuel prices were up, we went out hedging. And I am very glad that we went out to hedge because had we not hedged, there
could have been adverse consequences. Then fuel prices went below our hedge level and started to work in reverse; and that’s where we are now.
By the end of December, we should be out of our hedges; but who knows what the future holds in terms of fuel prices? That’s one issue.
The other event that impacted us, of course, has been the economy shutting down, which has affected us in a number of other ways.
One, the number of people traveling, has come down. Two, a number of businesses have cut down on expenditures, and the first area that gets cut is travel. In aviation, people are becoming concerned as to what we should do with the aircraft with surplus capacity. And, finally, there has been an influx of airlines from Europe into Africa especially the East African region that has made the market more competitive.
Kenya Airways operates six sales offices in North America: Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and Vancouver.
Call 866-KENYA AIR; www.kenya-airways.com
January 2009 Feature
Selling Kenyan Safaris in a Dry Season
By Mark Laiosa
The excitement of your clients’ first encounter with a member of the “Big Five—” lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, or leopard - will outdistance any pause they may have about booking a trip of a lifetime during this economic crisis. At the same time, convincing them that this is the time to go on safari is challenging, but will be rewarding for clients and agents. This could be the best time to go - when money is freefalling and who knows what tomorrow will bring.
Additionally, now there is a newsworthy selling point as Kenya is the ancestral home of America’s 44th President, Barack Hussein Obama. New York-based tour operator, 2Afrika.com, is selling a Presidential Heritage Safari that includes a visit to the President’s ancestral town of Kogelo. Aardvark Safaris, among other operators, are also using Obama’s heritage as a selling point. Visit www.2Afrika.com and www.Aardvarksafaris.com
Several Ways to Go
From flying, driving, fishing, and a new addition to the inventory, an Obama-related safari, new combinations can have pleasant surprises. One client I met while on safari, said, “It was the only place I went during rainy season and came home with a tan.” Clients can save by avoiding safaris scheduled during Christmas or Easter holidays. Airfares are usually lower mid-September through the end of October, when the famous wildebeest migration takes place in the Masai Mara National Game Reserve.
Christine Eichin, a safari expert and owner of Above and Beyond Africa, based in San Jose, CA, also a certified master KATS (Kenya Authorized Travel Specialist) says traveling during low season can “shave-off” as much as $500 per person in airfare. Another saving tip for the single traveler is that there are usually no single supplements during April and May. Visit www.Yoursafariexpert.com
“Now more than ever, clients are looking for the best value for their money,” says Eichin and compares the all-inclusive aspect of Kenyan safaris to cruises. “They are a good value because arrangements include all meals, accommodations, activities park fees, driver/guide and transportation.” One advantage safaris have over cruises is a greater interaction with local people, cultural diversity, and animals, great and small, she added.
Specialty travel can be a focus in selling Kenyan safaris. Birders tend to be more affluent and the desire to add sightings to their log is a big draw. There are more than 1,000 recorded feathered species that fly over Kenya, and the not-to-be-missed spectacle of lesser and greater pink flamingos at Lake Nakuru awes birders and non-birders alike.
Alicia Laumann of Altiss marketing, a provider of marketing services for products in the Canadian market, advises agents whose clients are on a tight budget, to urge them to consider joining a tour. Laumann represents Nature Expeditions Africa in Canada, and suggests clients join groups of no more than six passengers traveling together in a chauffeur-driven minivan with a pop-up roof for easy game viewing and photography.
“At this number, each passenger will have a window seat. A 7th passenger may travel next to the driver-guide, which means this person will also have a window seat but has no access to the roof hatch,” she says. Additionally, this will sharply reduce the cost of booking their own minivan and may help to persuade clients to say yes to a safari. Visit www.natureexpeditions.com
Kenya has accommodations for every budget, from small family-run guest houses to hotels and luxury lodges. Tented camps range from standard with private toilets and showers, to deluxe accommodations with full amenities. Samburu Serena Safari Lodge, for instance, has a swimming pool, library, an airstrip, massage and beauty treatments, laundry services, baby-sitting that can help sell a safari.
Eichin sees a wide variety of accommodations in Kenya and notes that “some of the most luxurious “camps” are not necessarily in the best game viewing area, and you can have a more moderately-priced lodge smack in the middle of the best animal corridors.” Another factor to consider is proximity to National Parks or Reserve boundaries. Eichin says, “You may have a longer access drive into the park where there are many more animals.”
Laumann suggests agents sell more safaris by becoming a KATS after studying and passing a written exam, agents receive authorization and selective FAM programs. Eichin counsels agents to assist clients arrange airfare without or little markup, or to help them access their frequent flyer miles. She knows “there is little money in selling airfare, but agents are extremely savvy in finding their own discounted or consolidated fares for their clients. This can go a long way in securing the safari booking.”
Eichin suggests an agency and tour company team up and host small gatherings at the agency or potential clients’ homes for a slide presentation. Clients’ face time with an expert can overcome doubts, fears and objection on the spot. Mailing postcards, either by traditional mail or e-mail can help stimulate sales.
Looking toward the future, IATA’s Jet Fuel Price Monitor indicates jet fuel prices are down almost 25 percent compared to a year ago. The Nairobi international airport has almost completed its upgrade to FAA category one that means agents will have more flight options to sell making selling Kenyan safaris in 2009 more profitable.
Kenya Airways operates flights from major European capitals. Call 866-536-9224; www.kenya-airways.us. For more information on jet fuel prices, visit www.iata.com
For further information, contact the Kenya Tourist Board, 866-44Kenya; www.magicalkenya.com. For agents interested in becoming a Kenya Authorized Travel Specialist (KATS), visit www.kenyagent.com