Is the Safari itinerary in Kenya Promoting Ecotourism

Kenya remains a top safari destination in Africa despite stiff competition from Southern Africa and Tanzania. It is widely acknowledged that the Kenyan safari received a massive boost from the movie “Out of Africa”. The safari became associated with a jeep, sun-downer, game drive in the Savannah, wilderness accommodation and romance. This image continues to be replicated in safari itineraries and packages offered by tour companies.  As part of STTA project to assess the status of sustainable tourism in Kenya, STTA evaluated the safari itinerary against  some criteria in Martha Honeys ecotourism score- card in her book Ecotourism and Sustainable tourism- who wons paradise. How “eco” are the safari itineraries?

The survey focused on the safari program and how it is offered. In doing this, we are aware that there is a growing number of tour operators who are redefining the safari itinerary by including walks, adventure activities, volunteering, culture, history, and culinary experiences. We used the typical safari itinerary (see below) for study

Day 1

  • Pick up (usually an airport or a city hotel)
  • driveto park / reserve
  • arrive at lodge/camp on timefor lunch
  • rest at camp after lunch
  • 4pm gather for afternoon before game drive
  • overnight at camp with campfire and masai dance

Day 2

  • 6am -wake up call. tea/coffee and off for game drive
  • return to camp at 8,30 for breakfast
  • rest of day in room. lunch served at 12.30
  • 4pm gather for afternoon tea before game drive (sun downer an option)
  • overnight at camp (bush dinner available at additional cost. check with reception)
  • Day 3
  • Morning game drive
  • Breakfast and depart

The Score

  1. Travel to natural destinations

The safari itinerary is 99% travel to natural destinations. It is reported taht more than 60% of tourists to Kenya go on “safari” to a conservation area. This has been enhanced by the growth of community and private conservation areas that promise to offer a different safari experience. Even tourists to the beach go on safari for a day. There are a few itineraries that combine natural areas with city-based experiences. The safari itinerary scores big on this one. However, it should be noted that Kenya is making every effort to diversify it’s tourism offer because of concerns over a ‘tired’ safari product. Transforming the safari itinerary is a challenge for the excellent tour companies that are in Kenya. It remains to be seen whether the percentage of visitors travelling to natural areas grows or shrinks in the coming years.

  1. Builds environmental awareness

We found out that whether your itinerary contributes to environmental awareness depends on the guide. In a separate study STTA has categorized guides into tour drivers, tour guides and safari guides (look out for next post on types of guides). We found out that Safari guides are good at creating environmental awareness.  These are usually accredited guides with in depth knowledge of destinations. They have had long term interaction with the destinations and will be comfortable linking wildlife viewing with environmental concerns and local livelihoods. Through guiding they are able the build environmental awareness during game drives and the entire safari. Few tour companies use safari guides because they want to avoid costs of keeping guides. Your typical tour driver looks for wildlife (big five), ticks the box and moves on to look for the next on the list. This lessens the overall quality of the experience. There have been concerns of tour drivers who ignored visitor requests to stop and view wildlife en route to lodge on day 1. They declined visitor requests on the basis that game drive times are scheduled and that they will miss lunch . Some guests have ended up seeing less on scheduled game drives than during drive for lunch on day 1. Here the record is mixed. The challemge of guiding is by addressed by the new tourism Act that now provides for a national accreditation system. Without a safari guide, the safari itinenary performs poorly against this criteria

  1. Respects Local Culture

What does this itinerary say about the culture? Basically the itinerary is about game-finding and game viewing with cultural spicing.  The spicing is the cultural dance offered after dinner. However, tour drivers always add a visit to cultural centers en route to conservation areas because of personal gain. The centers pay the drivers for making stops. Tour operators are aware that their visitors are taken to cultural villages by guides or drivers yet they refuse to add village visits to their packages on claims that they cannot guarantee quality of cultural offers in cultural villages. So culture continues to be offered in the ‘black market’ with the beneficiaries being the “tour drivers”. Here the record is very poor.

But again, some operators have founds ways to promote visits to cultural villages by partnering with the villages and using a pre-paid ticket systems to ensure the villages benefit and not the drivers. One such program in Masai Mara was funded by Travel Foundation, the UK based charity. The participating villages have reported increased revenues while the lodges have reported improved visitor satisfaction from visits the villages.

  1. Creating economic benefits for host communities

One of the direct ways to create benefits for host communities is to employ local people in tourism. Guiding is considered an area of employment for host communities. However this is not happening fast enough to make a difference. Most tour operators, especially SMEs,  often use city-based tour drivers. These SMEs, do not own tour vehicles nor do they employ guides. They engage city-based tour drivers on need basis. Apart from lessening visitor experience, they deny local people economic benefits through employment.

The other way to benefit host communities is to include community-based offers in the itinerary. This is rare. Only operators who own a tour company and have a lodge/camp will include community-based offers in their itineraries. Here we have a mixed score. (read our previous post on status of community based tourism to understand reasons given by operators for not including CBT in their offers).

Review by Judy Kepher-Gona, Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda- STTA, Nairobi Kenya April 2016

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