Jo Austin investigates the influences that have changed the way in which people plan, prepare and book their trip
Booking an African safari in the late 1990s was an adventure in itself. It used to involve phoning or writing a letter to a specialist tour operator with expert knowledge. Brochures were the norm and clients would expect to be sent an itemised itinerary, a map and printed air tickets. They would then go to the library to do some further research, read a guidebook, visit their bank to order travellers’ cheques and probably buy a phone card to give them cheaper rates when calling home.
Today, however, habits are changing. The main shift has been towards online. When Chris McIntyre joined Sunvil (Expert Africa), in 1994, the company was making bookings by fax, and telex was still in use. “I had to insist that I needed a PC for my spreadsheets and tailor-made quotes!” he says. His 1996 Bradt guide to Zambia did not even include an email address. But now he admits that this year could be the first time that Expert Africa relies on the web for bookings instead of a brochure.
This evolution is across travellers of all ages. A recent Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) survey showed that 76 per cent of respondents booked their holidays online in 2016. Interestingly, it was the 45- to 54-year-olds and those with older children who chose to book online, while those over 65 still preferred to book by phone.
The ability to research and book holidays online has made Africa considerably more tangible to all. “Much younger clients are now looking to experience an African safari, and technology has made the destination much more accessible and appealing,” says David Ryan, managing director of online operator Rhino Africa. This greater accessibility has changed people’s perception of Africa. “The mystique of the destination as one fraught with hassles and danger has been replaced by an attitude that an African safari is simply an adventure, albeit a relatively expensive one,” explains Bill Adams of Safari Consultants.
Ryan continues: “However, an Internet tour operator still needs to provide that extra human factor.” Indeed, there is a new wave of tour operators that are providing this hands-on web service.
Like Rhino Africa, Timbuktu Travel uses technology as its key interface, working totally online. Co-founder Johnny Prince says he is on a mission to give his clients transparent pricing and freedom of choice, so they can build their trip according to their style and budget. “This ensures a greater degree of independence with the reassurance that someone is there if you need them.”
The rise of TripAdvisor and other community sites, social media channels, YouTube and television programmes has made the modern-day traveller savvy, confident and well informed ― but there are risks attached to online research. More information doesn’t necessarily mean better information, so it all has to be sifted through with care. “We’ve seen scores of impossible itineraries self-booked by people attempting to drive 1000km in a day on roads where they will be lucky to reach a top speed of 60km an hour,” warns Aulden Jones, founder of online operator Cardboard Box in Namibia.
In addition, the challenge of who takes the blame when things go wrong remains a stumbling block, even when payment is made by card. So it’s always worth checking that a UK supplier has ATOL protection, which ensures that you do not get stranded abroad. Flights booked directly with airlines are not covered under this scheme and the fact that an online booking can involve several suppliers has its challenges, especially in Africa. Further peace of mind can be achieved by going through an ABTA bonded company, as this offers a course of redress if anything goes wrong.
So there is certainly still a place for traditional tour operators today, but given the changing world we live in, their role is evolving. Broadly speaking, it seems there is a tendency for travellers to research and design their African safari online and then turn to experts to help them to refine and build the trip, and provide support in an emergency.
As Chris McIntyre concludes, “The majority of our clients now tend to book their flights direct and then leave the more complicated elements to us.”
How people book
As many as 76 per cent of people booked their holiday online in 2016 with the desktop PC being the most popular choice. 23 per cent booked using a tablet and 13 per cent used their mobile phone.