The fu­ture of lux­ury travel: celebrity sa­faris

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - GLOBE TRAVEL - ELLEN HIMEL­FARB

Evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist Richard Dawkins, BBC’s Jeremy Pax­man and Michael Buerk among the guides adding value to voy­ages

Next Septem­ber, Rovos Rail’s five-star Pride of Africa train will de­part Vic­to­ria Falls, ar­riv­ing at Zim­babwe’s Hwange Na­tional Park in time for sun­rise at the coun­try’s largest game re­serve. Later, guests of cazen­ove+loyd’s South­ern Africa by Lux­ury Train jour­ney will visit Ce­cil Rhodes’s grave in Zim­babwe’s Mato­pos Hills; the Great Zim­babwe ru­ins; Mpumalanga, South Africa; and fi­nally Pre­to­ria.

The price for this eight-night jour­ney starts at $6,550 a per­son, ex­clud­ing flights into and out of Africa. But there is added value built into the cost, be­yond the cushy ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing es­corted be­tween the Mato­pos Hills and Lowveld in the man­ner of the wealth­i­est colo­nials. For at least the first leg of the jour­ney, the stan­dard tour guide will be re­placed by vet­eran jour­nal­ist, BBC per­son­al­ity and Em­pire au­thor Jeremy Pax­man.

Ex­plor­ing the story of Rhodes’s con­quest and David Liv­ing­stone’s mis­sion with a high-pro­file ex­pert on Bri­tish rule in Zim­babwe de­liv­ers the ul­ti­mate brag­ging right – not to men­tion the feel­ing of be­ing in­side a BBC doc­u­men­tary. It of­fers the kind of ac­cess that is dif­fi­cult even for high rollers to come by, and equally hard – though clearly not im­pos­si­ble – to put a price tag on.

And it is the di­rec­tion in which lux­ury ad­ven­ture tourism is mov­ing, par­tic­u­larly in Africa. An­other of cazen­ove+loyd’s emi­nent guides is Michael Buerk, the vet­eran Africa cor­re­spon­dent for the BBC who helped ex­pose the world to apartheid and whose re­port­ing in Ethiopia in­spired the mu­si­cal char­ity Band Aid. Buerk led a suc­cess­ful Rovos trip around South Africa’s Boer and Zulu bat­tle­fields last win­ter.

This year, Washington-based tour op­er­a­tor Na­tional Ge­o­graphic Ex­pe­di­tions en­listed con­ser­va­tion­ist and ex­plorer Laly Licht­en­feld to lead two tours around Kenya and Tan­za­nia, at a cost of $12,000 a per­son for eight nights. The old hands be­hind Wild China are of­fer­ing 10-day foodie tours around Beijing, Sichuan and Yun­nan with the well-con­nected food writer Fuch­sia Dun­lop from $7,750 a per­son. And in Septem­ber, Bri­tish au­thor Alexan­der McCall Smith will ac­com­pany a six-night sa­fari in Botswana, through the high-end sa­fari out­fit Bel­mond, whose Ea­gle Is­land Lodge is fea­tured in McCall Smith’s novel The Dou­ble Com­fort Sa­fari Club.

To the cynic it sounds, at best, like a win-win for the wealthy and the in­dus­try serv­ing them; at worst, like an ex­er­cise in cash for ac­cess. In re­turn for shar­ing his ex­per­tise on Zim­babwe, Pax- man gets a free va­ca­tion for him­self and his part­ner, plus a per diem (though cazen­ove+loyd co-owner Christo­pher Wil­motSitwell won’t say ex­actly how healthy that pay­ment is) and an op­por­tu­nity to tag on a spot of tiger fish­ing, one of the man’s great pas­sions.

Yet there are third-party ben­e­fi­cia­ries to these souped-up celebrity sa­faris – of­ten in ar­eas des­per­ate for tourist dol­lars to in­ject into their fail­ing economies or wildlife pro­grams. In Botswana, McCall Smith waives his fee; Bel­mond sim­ply cov­ers his travel costs.

With pro­ceeds from Septem­ber’s sa­fari, they’ll pro­vide the neigh­bour­ing Nx­oga vil­lage with a mo­bile wa­ter tank to as­sist vil­lagers dur­ing the dry sea­son. In the past, they’ve do­nated hous­ing and med­i­cal as­sis­tance.

This year, Rovos’s Pride of Africa will op­er­ate on a new route through Bu­l­awayo – im­por­tant Rhodes ter­ri­tory, which en­hances the his­tor­i­cal heft of the trip while help­ing to stim­u­late a com­mu­nity un­der­mined by Robert Mu­gabe’s bru­tal regime.

“There’s now a groundswell of sup­port for Zim­babwe among peo­ple con­scious of Mu­gabe’s hor­rors,” Wil­mot-Sitwell says, “and it helps to bring back jobs to the re­gion.”

“We char­ter a lot of trips with peo­ple who have good links to con­ser­va­tion bod­ies, and ac­cess to ar­eas we nor­mally wouldn’t be able to go to,” says Jar­rod Kyte, prod­uct di­rec­tor at up­mar­ket Bri­tish tour op­er­a­tor Steppes Travel.

“We cot­toned on early that a good leader with gen­uine ex­per­tise can make what would have been a good trip ex­cep­tional. A real, ab­so­lute au­thor­ity with a bit of per­son­al­ity – and not just some in­tel­lec­tual – can re­ally en­thuse peo­ple, and open doors.”

As an ex­am­ple, Kyte men­tions a $4,700 tour in Rus­sia led by Katya Gal­itzine, a Her­mitage Mu­seum ex­ec­u­tive in St. Peters­burg who brings the group into the off-lim­its Her­mitage stor­age rooms.

Next De­cem­ber, Steppes will take cus­tomers with $12,600 handy on an eight-day Gala­pa­gos Is­lands voy­age on the MV Evo­lu­tion with English evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist and provo­ca­teur Richard Dawkins. And this March, the Mon­treal-born sci­en­tist Steven Pinker will lead a sim­i­lar jour­ney – now with a last-minute dis­count of $800, bring­ing the price down to $11,800 a per­son.

“Any­body can buy lux­ury,” Kyte says. “Any­one can spend a for­tune on a five-star ho­tel. But not ev­ery­one can sit down and have din­ner with Steven Pinker and lis­ten to his thoughts on evo­lu­tion. That’s where lux­ury is go­ing.”

And what of the no­to­ri­ously prickly Dawkins? Will he be re­gal­ing the high rollers with tales from his lat­est Tin­der date, or his col­lec­tion of whale ex­cre­tions?

“Well,” Kyte hems, “on his last trip, he didn’t so­cial­ize to the ex­tent that [other guides] did, but he was there on board and did all the ex­cur­sions and lec­tured and was, for all in­tents and pur­poses, one of the clients on the trip.”

He also do­nated his $33,000 fee to his Richard Dawkins Foun­da­tion, which pro­motes “sci­en­tific lit­er­acy and his sec­u­lar world view.”

Whether or not your world views col­lide, you must ad­mit it sounds like a win-win-win.

MARK WIL­LIAMS/BEL­MOND

In Septem­ber, Bri­tish au­thor Alexan­der McCall Smith will ac­com­pany an ex­cur­sion in Botswana through Bel­mond Sa­faris, whose Ea­gle Is­land Lodge is fea­tured in one of McCall Smith’s nov­els.

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