Carry on camping
YOU DON’T OFTEN HEAR a chief executive inviting competitors to join a lucrative market. But Malcolm McCulloch, CEO of Wilderness Safaris, says there’s room for more in the industry. “Wilderness Safaris has done lots of pioneering work throughout the continent but we’re not looking at going into new areas at the moment. I sincerely believe there’s scope for three or four operators to enter the market. If you look longer term, Africa’s still an untapped resource.”
Wilderness Safaris was founded by the Bell family in 1983 as a mobile safari outfit converting old army ambulances into game viewing vehicles. McCulloch, ex-MD of construction firm Murray & Roberts, bought into the company in the early Nineties,
and Wilderness Safaris currently operates 60 permanent lodges, seasonal bush camps and provides safaris and aircraft tours in southern and eastern Africa and the Seychelles. “In the early days passion sometimes overrode economic sense and there were times when we wondered if it would ever be a real business. But we’ve matured out somewhat.”
Wilderness Safaris can be described as an eco-tourism operator. If only the word eco-tourism hadn’t been hijacked by everyone with a game farm, rondavels and a white rhino. “The ‘snazzy’ lodge where you drive from one big five to the other is a peculiarly South African phenomenon. Too many people are doing it – it’s a dogfight. Wilderness Safaris is about something different. People want something authentic and want to know they’re in a real wilderness. There was a time when you couldn’t persuade someone to go and stay in a tent in the middle of Botswana, but that’s the market outpacing all other forms of tourism,” says McCulloch.
Wilderness has been growing at a rate of 22% to 30%/year over the past four years and this year will turn over more than R750m. It’s a close number three to CC Africa and Abercrombie & Kent in this market.
While some operations in Zimbabwe have been mothballed, the company has opened several new camps in Kafue Park in Zambia, with more planned this year. In contrast to other safari tour operators it has a material equity interest in almost all of its branded lodges. The territory covered by its concessions, varying from 15 to 45 years and a few spanning 99 years, is 2,5m ha – bigger than the Kruger National Park.
Says McCulloch: “Sossusvlei (in Namibia) is the only property we own. It may be worth a lot of money, but it’s not a major asset. In Africa, land issues are better dealt with through alternative ways. The African understanding of the principles of land ownership is different to Eurocentric views and we prefer not to own the land.”
For Wilderness Safaris, conservation is an issue of land use. “In remote areas it could be mining, pasturing (usually involving bush clearing) or hunting. While hunting may also lead to the conservation of an area, our model employs more people.”
Wilderness has won numerous awards for its community involvement programmes, conservation efforts and sustainable tourism, including overall winner of the 2005 conservation award from the World Travel & Tourism Council for its Damaraland camp in Namibia and number two tour operator and safari outfitter in the world by Travel + Leisure magazine last year.
Wilderness runs a conservation trust and a charity fund that sees children affected by extreme poverty or illness take over camps closed to paying guests each year. Its Children in the Wilderness programme was started in conjunction with American actor Paul Newman after he visited the Okavango in 2001.
McCulloch says 97% of visitors are from abroad, with the US making up more than half and the remainder from Britain and Europe. “However, our southern African visitors play an important part, as they can influence others concerning land use and – because they also frequently host foreigners – they can refer our business.
“But some don’t appreciate our ‘exclusivity’ and pricing,” says McCulloch. Asian tourists only make up a fraction, mainly because the average Wilderness property is small and can’t accommodate large groups, which is the preferred mode of travel for Chinese visitors particularly.
Wilderness Safaris does no direct selling, and 50% of its business is repeat visitors or by word of mouth. With regard to its pricing that South Africans complain about: the cheapest night on offer is R1 600, but you can also spend R25 000 for the pleasure.
Wilderness Safaris employs roughly 2 100 staff in its operations and will continue growing. “How big do we want to be? That’s an issue weighed up inside the company all the time. How big can your brand grow before it starts losing some of its attributes? I wouldn’t want to grow so big that the Wilderness culture and ethics disappear. On the other hand, if we weren’t a substantial business, we couldn’t have gone into Kafue and changed the world there. The demand is definitely there. How much of it Wilderness will catch is an open question.”
The demand is definitely
there. Malcolm McCulloch