Understanding the East African Luxury Travel Market

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The luxury travel market is growing in Africa, and consequently has attracted investment from the world’s leading brands. Some of the most luxurious hotels can be found in Africa, offering an experience unlike any other alongside global standards of excellence in fine dining, flawless service and world-class decor, despite often being tucked away in remote locations.

East Africa, in particular, is home to some of the most sought-after travel destinations in the world, and for good reason: the area boasts some of the most spectacular natural wonders on this planet. The Ngorongoro Crater, developed after a volcanic explosion of a mountain and a place that is now home to almost 24 000 animals, including one of the densest populations of Maasai lions. The great migration from the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania to Maasai Mara in Kenya is one of the most incredible wildlife sights to behold. It is truly nature’s grandest spectacle, with around 1.5 million wildebeests and some 200 000 zebras crossing the terrain, with a backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro’s peak rising into the clouds.

Kenya is home to Africa’s biggest fresh water lake, Lake Victoria, and the warm Indian Ocean coastline is dotted with white sandy beaches and tropical forests. The Great Rift Valley stretches 6 400km from the Red Sea to Mozambique, forging canyons and great lakes through Kenya. Nairobi, Kenya’s bustling capital city, is a cosmopolitan melting pot of various cultures and the hub of commercial and economic activity. In the 1920s, it became popular for the well-heeled and wealthy to visit Africa for leisure safaris and hunting expeditions. They returned home with exotic stories, photographs and trophies as proof of their adventures. The Norfolk Hotel is one of the landmark hotels that was built in Nairobi in 1904 and still stands today, owned and refurbished by global luxury brand, Fairmont resorts and hotels. The Mt. Kenya Safari Club, another grand Fairmount resort is located in Nanyuki. The 120 luxurious rooms reflect the 1950’s colonial architecture with the elegance of a country club and ambience of a plantation-style home, which was frequented by Winston Churchill. The actor William Holden originally created the ranch in 1959, and his original cottage still stands on the property.

Kenya is continually raising standards in luxury accommodation and leading the safari experience. Other luxury brands in Kenya include Finch Hatton’s luxury camp, located in Tsavo West, one of Kenya’s largest and oldest national parks, dating back to 1948. The camp has a feel for bygone romance and is named after the celebrity aviator, who was famed for hunting and photography safaris, as well as his untimely death when he crashed his aircraft in 1931. The luxurious tents, which were completely updated and revamped in 2013, include a presidential canvas tent fit for a king. Segera Retreat is another ultra-luxurious private 50 000-acre wildlife sanctuary and award-winning eco-safari destination located in Laikipia. Eight two-story wooden thatched villas are surrounded by tropical gardens with a view of Mt. Kenya in the distance. The exclusive retreat is managed by Wilderness Collection, part of Wilderness Safaris, which comprises of four premier African destinations, including North Island Seychelles, Odzala Congo and Abu Camp Botswana.

The tropical Thanda Island located at Mafia Island off the coast of Tanzania was createdusing thoughtful design to enhance and redefine luxury.

The tropical Thanda Island located at Mafia Island off the coast of Tanzania was createdusing thoughtful design to enhance and redefine luxury.

The Loisaba Tented Camp in Laikipia survived a bush fire in 2013 and was completely rebuilt, offering exceptional standards when it reopened. Aside from regular luxury tents, Loisaba offers guests the opportunity to sleep under the stars in one-of-a-kind ‘Starbeds’, four-poster beds built into the back of a Land Rover and positioned on open decks overnight to take in the African skies. An infinity swimming pool looks over the Laikipia plains all the way to Mt. Kenya. The camp is owned by the Elewana Collection of camps, lodges and hotels, which includes premium luxury destinations in Kenya, such as: Lewa Safari Camp; Sand River Maasai Mara; AfroChic Diani Beach; Kitich Camp Mathews Forest; and in Tanzania: Arusha Coffee Lodge; Tarangire Treetops; Serengeti Migration Camp; The Manor at Ngorongoro and Kilindi Zanzibar.

The extravagant OL Jogi Ranch in the north of Nairobi is a private game reserve previously owned by billionaire French art dealer Alec Wildenstein and his eccentric wife Jocelyne, “The Cat Woman” Wildenstein. The area used to be a cattle ranch, but is now focused on the preservation of endangered species. The five-star manor house and adjoining cottages can only be hired exclusively as a package in the price range of US $300 000 dollars per week. It is opulence and extreme luxury at its best, with the finest finishes and private staff compliment to cater to every need. Ranch Director Alec Wildenstein Jr. explains, “The experience I’m trying to offer here is how you would have seen Africa maybe 20 or 30 years ago.

The extravagant OL Jogi Ranch in the north of Nairobi is a private game reserve previously owned by billionaire French art dealer Alec Wildenstein and his eccentric wife Jocelyne, “The Cat Woman” Wildenstein. The area used to be a cattle ranch, but is now focused on the preservation of endangered species. The five-star manor house and adjoining cottages can only be hired exclusively as a package in the price range of US $300 000 dollars per week. It is opulence and extreme luxury at its best, with the finest finishes and private staff compliment to cater to every need.

“There is no other place in Africa, where you can have a 60 000-acre wildlife conservancy entirely to yourself. You will never see another tourist, never see another minivan. We want people to come here and feel it is their home. This doesn’t exist anywhere else in Africa.” The five-star OL Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia, near Nanyuki, is another grand ranch house. Formerly privately owned by multi-millionaire Adnan Kashoggi, it is one of only four private game conservancies founded in Kenya. The 110 000-acre grounds host a higher wildlife-to-area ratio than any Kenyan national park, and aside from an almost guaranteed viewing of the ‘Big Five,’ the area boasts the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa. A private restaurant with a dedicated chef and two private swimming pools ensure every requirement is met.

A popular trend amongst A-list billionaires is investing in a piece of Africa they can call home. One such example is Mahali Mzuri, 13 500-hectares owned by Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Group. The luxury five-star camp is nestled in Olare Motorogi Conservancy on the outskirts of the Maasai Mara national reserve. It is comprised of 12-tented stylish suites, which can be booked exclusively for US $28 800 per night, attended to by butlers and a Gordon Ramsey-trained chef. For a bit of nostalgia in the Mara National Reserve, Cottar’s 1920’s Safari Camp has been run by the Cottar family for five generations, their business dating back to the First World War. Drawn in by President Theodore Roosevelt’s exhilarating stories of his big game hunting adventure in 1906, Charles Cottar arrived in Africa from the USA in 1909. The Cottar family soon followed Charles to Kenya and registered one of the very first safari companies in 1919, offering big-game hunting and photography safaris throughout Africa. The award-winning five-star lodge is understated elegance, timeless romance and old-world charm rolled into luxurious tents adorned with family heirlooms and antiques.

A luxury retreat in Africa wouldn’t be complete without &Beyond, globally recognised as a world leader in luxury travel with a presence in 15 African countries. Established in 1991, the award-winning &Beyond began in Londolozi, South Africa, and in 1995, the company expanded its portfolio into Kenya, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia and India. In 2000, the company merged with Afro Ventures and Into Africa to form the large lodge- and tour-operating portfolio it is today, owning and operating 35 luxury safari lodges throughout Africa. The company is renowned for impeccable service and tailor-made packages, a growing trend offering tour packages, such as the ‘Treasures of Tanzania’ tour. The luxury lodges owned by &Beyond in Kenya include &Beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, &Beyond Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp in the Mara national reserve and &Beyond Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp in the Serengeti national park.

As a safari company, Singita takes into account 20, 50 and even 100-year horizons. People feel privileged to stay in unpopulated, untouched wilderness areas and they choose to stay with us because our lodges have a reputation for being rare and authentic, while embodying a philosophy of sensitivity.”
– Luke Bailes , CEO, Singita Private Villas collection

The name Singita is synonymous with the safari industry, with 12 lodges in Africa, half of which are located in East Africa. These include Explore Grumeti; Faru Faru Lodge; Sabora Tented Camp; Sasakwa Lodge Grumeti; Serengeti House Grumeti; Mara River Tented Camp Lamai and the Singita Private Villas collection, including Singita Explore and Singita Serengeti House. This super luxury option of private multi-bedroom villas offers the ultimate in privacy and exclusivity. Each is serviced by a private chef and staff, as well as private use of the game vehicles and guides at one’s own pace. Originally bought by the Bailes family as a hunting concession, the first lodge, Singita Ebony was founded in 1993 and built on their private 45 000-acres in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. Today, all the species of wildlife are protected in the area.

Singita’s CEO, Luke Bailes says, “As a safari company, Singita takes into account 20, 50 and even 100-year horizons. People feel privileged to stay in unpopulated, untouched wilderness areas and they choose to stay with us because our lodges have a reputation for being rare and authentic, while embodying a philosophy of sensitivity.” The Hilton is a hotel chain recognised globally and Hilton Nairobi features a similar skyscraper icon as one would see in major cities worldwide. Situated in the business district, it is convenient for business or conference travellers and offers a spa, swimming pool, business centre, fitness centre and numerous restaurants.
Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, launched in 1960, has become one of the greatest luxury hospitality brands in the world, managing 87 hotels and resorts worldwide. The Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti is a five-star luxury hotel based within the Serengeti national park in Tanzania.

The experience I’m trying to offer here is how you would have seen Africa maybe 20 or 30 years ago. There is no other place in Africa, where you can have a 60 000-acre wildlife conservancy entirely to yourself. You will never see another tourist, never see another minivan. We want people to come here and feel it is their home. This doesn’t exist anywhere else in Africa.”
– Alec Wildenstein Jr., Ranch Director, OL Jogi Ranch


It features local contemporary African decor and artwork combined with modern amenities one would expect from a Four Seasons: flat-screen TVs, fitness centre, minibars and free WiFi with high-speed internet. The 60 rooms and 12 suites have views over the nearby watering hole and Serengeti plains, whilst 5 villas are fitted with outdoor showers and private infinity pools. The presidential villa offers a private chef, 24-hour butler service, a full kitchen, private pool, two king beds and three full bathrooms. Boutique hotels include the ultra-luxurious Hemingways Nairobi, a charming 45-room hotel that offers a personalised, bespoke service with private butler, beds lined in the finest Egyptian cotton and hand-cut Italian marble features on the plantation-style property. It is constantly rated as one of the best hotels in Nairobi and being only 40-minutes’ drive from Nairobi airport, it is a perfect location for business and leisure travellers alike. 

Alfajiri, named by Condè Nast Traveller as ‘one of the most luxurious villas in the world,’ is located alongside Diani Beach, regarded as one of the best beaches in Kenya. It offers a view of the turquoise blue ocean lapping onto fine white sand. Scuba diving, snorkelling, deep-sea fishing and kite surfing are some of the activities available, and guests regularly use the beach-side villas as a base to visit the coastal game reserves, or to simply relax and enjoy private dining, the spa or the nearby 18-hole golf course. Five-star luxury awaits you at the exclusive Almanara Resort, located south of Mombasa along the crystal clear water of Diani Beach and surrounded by lush green forests. The owner, Nico Giovando was born in Kenya but left for Europe in 1971. After spending 25 years away, Nico returned to Diani with his family in 2003, and found the perfect location to build the luxury property. Six private villas as well as a Presidential villa are available with private chef and butler service. Snorkelling and diving at the nearby Kisite National Marine Park and Wasini Island is just one of the many recreational activities on offer. Flights run daily from the nearby airstrip to Amboseli; Tsavo and the Mara Game Reserve, and the family offer a private air charter with their Cessna Grand Caravan.

The state-of-the-art five-star Villa Rose Kempinski hotel in Nairobi has more of a European flair in design accompanied with service full of local charm. In comparison to the exclusivity of smaller lodges, the hotel’s 200-suites are perfect for business or conference travellers, one of the economic sectors which has boomed in East Africa. Situated in the heart of the commercial centre, the hotel offers amenities such as conference rooms, ballroom, a luxury spa, gym, pool, shopping centre and numerous restaurants.

Trends in spending on luxury
International trends have increased the demand for luxurious hotels for holiday- and business travel. As more and more consumers aspire to live luxurious lifestyles, they are becoming more brand-conscious and are spending more, opting for luxury resorts and hotels. The Luxury Network Kenya is an initiative that is promoting affinity network marketing to luxury brands in Kenya. Having only been in operation for a year, the company is already reporting huge success in launching the platform that connects luxury brands and affluent consumers. The aim is not only to partner brands at various events to create awareness and recognition, but to encourage conversations between brands and consumers for a more personalised experience. A recent project included involving luxury automotive brands such as Jaguar and Land Rover at a cocktail event held at the glamorous English Point Marina Hotel. The efforts of Luxury Network Kenya CEO, Michael Mwai and his team is educating brands on how to adapt to the market and provide personal contact with clients.

Singita Explore has a super luxury option of private multi-bedroom villas and offers the ultimate in privacy and exclusivity.The name Singita is synonymous with the safari industry, with 12 lodges in Africa, half of which are located in East Africa.

Singita Explore has a super luxury option of private multi-bedroom villas and offers the ultimate in privacy and exclusivity.The name Singita is synonymous with the safari industry, with 12 lodges in Africa, half of which are located in East Africa.

The average tourist stays for an average of two weeks in Kenya. Regional marketing has become a big trend and many of the luxury brands offer tour packages to encourage guests to book multiple itineraries. There is huge potential for mobile commerce, as over 30% of Kenyans have smart phones and bookings are made online. Luxury and boutique business hotels will need to meet the demands of the new-age business traveller by constantly updating conferencing facilities, connectivity and extending personalised service.

Hurdles to Development
Tourism remains the number one injection into the Kenyan economy, contributing to 10% of the GDP, while accounting for 1/11 jobs. However, international visitor arrivals to Kenya have been on a downward trend in the last five years. According to the 2016 Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, international visitor arrivals declined by 12.6% in 2015. This could be due to perceived security risks posed by terrorism, the aftermath of Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 and partly to some countries’ failure to lift travel advisories issued in the past.

Tourism remains the number one injection into the Kenyan economy, contributing to 10% of the GDP, while accounting for 1/11 jobs.

The number of visitors to national parks and game reserves declined by 10.8 per cent in 2015. Park entry fees also tend to be high for non-residents when compared to neighbouring countries. However, some zones, which include the coastal areas, Maasailand, Nyanza Basin, Western and Northern Kenya reported improved performances, more than doubling their occupancy from 2014 to 2015. Hotels in the coastal province, which accounts for more than 60% of inbound tourist arrivals reported above 80% bookings as compared to 50% made in the previous year during the same period.

In game lodge occupancy, domestic tourism dominated the growth sector, doubling in the period 2014 – 2015. The increase in domestic tourism could be due to the fact that wealthy Africans are travelling more often. The number of dollar millionaires in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, is expected to reach 62% to over 8 000 dollar millionaires. With 53% of Kenyan tourism coming from the domestic market, luxury hotels will begin to market tourism at the local and regional level and not primarily to the international market. The introduction of the Single Tourist Visa has further reduced the cost of visa-acquisition for domestic travel in East Africa, excluding Tanzania and Burundi.

General lodging witnessed growth of 4% in 2015, compared to luxury hotels, which grew by 3%. During the review period, Villa Rosa Kempinski, Norfolk, Hilton and Hemingway’s luxury hotels in Nairobi witnessed an upsurge in inbound arrivals from business and leisure tourism. Infrastructure capacity remains a challenge, as it currently cannot sustain the strategy for tourism development in the country. The Nairobi airport was operating at overcapacity for years, with almost six million passengers passing through per year, while having been designed for 2, 5 million. Further expansion is ongoing and improvements to road infrastructure is vital for the key tourist parks and coastlines.

Despite challenges, the luxury hotel and travel industry is set to grow in Kenya, and on the African continent. Wealthy tourists, local millionaires, healthy economies and abundant wildlife and natural resources, all promise huge potential for luxury tourism.

This article was written by Nicole Leschinsky.

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