Up close and personal in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Michael Girman
Story by Virtuoso Editors: Ask the Experts
Short answer: Yes. Here’s some insight from just-back Virtuoso insiders.
It’s hard to keep up with where travelers are allowed to go right now, and what current requirements and restrictions are. There’s also the question of whether we should travel right now. That’s a personal choice, but if you’re in good health, ready to adhere to all required safety protocols, and willing to be a little flexible, there are some incredibly meaningful travel opportunities available – including African safaris.
“Now is a great time to go to Africa,” says Tesa Totengco, a Virtuoso travel advisor who recently spent five weeks in Tanzania and Uganda. “Parks are uncrowded, and a safari is a safe outdoor activity with natural social distancing. Lodges and tour operators know and are abiding by all the standard protocols. And your trip can really go a long way in supporting wildlife conservation.”
The team at Virtuoso Life spent a lot of time pre-pandemic talking about the consequences of overtourism, but we know now that undertourism can be just as problematic. The economic impact from Covid-19 has already resulted in a loss of more than 12 million tourism jobs in Africa, as well as an $87 billion loss in tourism revenue on the continent, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. These dollars are critical in funding on-the-ground conservation organizations, national parks, and other wildlife-related initiatives. Also at stake: the livelihoods of local community members who rely on tourism dollars for income.
“Travel to Africa helps protect wilderness areas and vulnerable wildlife, and allows economic opportunities for the many communities who live alongside the game reserves,” says Lea Seguier, an Australia-based sales representative for Virtuoso hotel partner Singita, who recently spent ten days traveling in Rwanda and Tanzania with the outfitter.
Here, three travel industry insiders who have recently traveled to Africa – from gorilla-trekking in Rwanda to spying wildebeest in the Serengeti – shared their insights with us.
Currently, U.S. travelers can visit more than a dozen African countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. Each country has its own entry requirements, most of which include arriving with proof of a negative Covid-19 PCR test taken within the past 72 to 96 hours. Some countries also require additional tests, temperature checks and health screenings, or mandatory quarantines.
If you decide to go, you should work with a Virtuoso travel advisor, who in addition to helping you select the camps, lodges, tours, and activities, can also help you book flights, secure required visas, and be prepared to meet all entry requirements – down to the type of Covid-19 test you need to take prior to departing.
“On my trip, the airlines left more than a few people behind in the U.S. and Germany because they had gotten the rapid Covid test instead of the full nasal swab one,” says Linda de Sosa, a Virtuoso advisor who traveled to Kenya in October to visit family. (If only those people had used a travel advisor, right?)
Totengco adds that in some countries, digital proof of test results won’t work – you’ll need to have a printed copy. If you’re going to visit more than one country while you’re on safari, you’ll likely need to take additional Covid tests while you’re on the ground. “Covid tests are the most complex part of travel nowadays,” Totengco says. “For example, Uganda’s government requires that departing passengers present a negative PCR Covid-19 test taken no more than 72 hours before departure, so we had to arrange for tests while we were there. Results had to be printed so they could be stamped.”
What’s it like getting there?
All three travelers assured us that there was plenty of space for physical distancing on airplanes, and that airports were quiet, albeit with limited retail options.
“I never felt overwhelmed,” Seguier says. Rwanda requires all international visitors to quarantine upon arrival until they receive negative Covid test results, which usually takes 24 hours. “Upon arrival in Rwanda, Singita arranged for a doctor to come straight to my hotel for the Covid test, and I received my negative results the next day.”
[Editor’s note: International borders currently remain closed in Australia, but Seguier was traveling in Europe when the closure went into effect. When she returns to Australia, she’ll quarantine for 14 days per the country’s requirements for citizens.]
Bring your masks – you should have several – and be prepared to wear one at all times. On Totengco’s flights from the U.S. to Doha on Qatar Airways, all travelers were required to wear masks and face shields (the airline provided the face shields).
“More than 23 hours in transit is a long time to wear a mask, so I was prepared with multiple options, a face shield, and an infinity scarf for sleeping,” de Sosa says. “After a while, I forgot I was even wearing it. A new travel hack: You can wrap your mask straps around your noise-cancelling headphones if your ears start to hurt.”
What’s the safari experience like?
Parks that are normally packed with visitors – including Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve – are quieter than ever. “On each of our four game drives we saw six cars near us, compared to the much larger numbers you’d normally see,” de Sosa says.
Totengco said she felt the same way in Tanzania, where, on some days, she and her small group of travel companions had lodges completely to themselves, and there were only a few other vehicles along the banks of the Serengeti’s Mara River, the site of the wildebeest river crossing. “In Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, I witnessed a gorilla mother nursing her 2-week-old baby,” she says.
Seguier visited Singita’s Sabora Tented Camp in Tanzania, and, in Rwanda, went gorilla-trekking for the first time: “Because of the pandemic, I was alone with my guides, and we came across a family of eight gorillas. For an hour, I felt like I was a member of their family.”
“In Uganda, children waved and shouted from the roadside, ‘Hello, how are you?’ and at the same time they’d add, ‘Wear your mask!’” Totengco says, noting that the lodges in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest have had a 1.4 percent occupancy rate since reopening in October. “I was told that our presence signaled a restart to their tourism industry.”
What should I know if I decide to visit Africa soon?
While the experience will be incredible once you’re there, it’s worth noting that there might be some hiccups leading up to the experience. Flight schedules change frequently these days, and individual entry requirements for each country are complex and often in flux. In all honesty, there can be a little uncertainty with traveling right now, wherever you go. That’s why it’s so important to work with an advisor if you choose to travel – they’re your advocate if problems arise, or if you need help making last-minute changes.
“Tour operators, including Singita, have made wonderful use of this quieter time to make sure that all protocol requirements are handled, in partnership with their Virtuoso travel advisor,” Seguier says. “I believe that this pandemic has made travelers want trips that allow them to connect with the healing power of nature and will make them feel different once they return home. And this is it.”