Travel How the middle class are being priced out of...

How the middle class are being priced out of wildlife holidays

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Arguing that “the balance between private profit and public resourcing has slid far too far away from nature”, he believes authorities could even be bolder: “When compared to the fees charged to spend a couple of hours in the company of mountain gorillas in Africa, even doubling the park fees to $200 for a full week in the islands barely touches the sides.”

That’s certainly true for those with deep pockets. But for the majority of middle-market holidaymakers, it raises concerns. Is there a risk wildlife holidays will soon only be accessible to those with lots of money to spend?

In the Maasai Mara, peak-season park fees will more than double to $200 per day from July 1, meaning a couple could expect to pay an extra $1,000-plus for a four-night trip. Vanessa Dean, product manager for luxury operator Mahlatini Luxury Travel, fears the increases could make a safari holiday impossible for many, especially families.

“I don’t feel this fee increase is the right solution and it has the potential to do more damage than good, particularly in the long term,” she says. “It is crucial that safaris and the opportunity to explore Africa’s natural landscapes and wildlife remain accessible to individuals from all income levels.”

But many tour operators believe there is simply no other option.

“In an increasingly overcrowded world with shrinking wildlife habitats, it’s likely that wildlife tourism will become more exclusive over time,” says Rose Hipwood, founder of the Luxury Safari Company.

Safari cars are following a large African Elephants in the plains of the Masai Mara

Pura Aventura’s Tom Power agrees paying more is the only way to protect our wild areas and that we should accept there are higher costs to pay.

“I don’t buy the idea that we all somehow have a right to go and sit with a mountain gorilla,” he said. “We don’t. The truth is that nature and wildlife is generally much better off the less direct contact it has with humans. If you can get away with charging a massive amount to admit visitors, then it’s the way to go.”

He argues that the spend is justified by investment in the engagement and education of communities, the very people who need a financial incentive to protect the trees and animals sharing their shrinking space.

In Uganda, where costs for a gorilla tour permit have risen from $700 to $800 – effective from July – there have been considerable benefits to conservation.

“While the announcement of the fare increase is unlikely to come as a delight for tourists, it is important to remember where the money is going,” says local tour operator Lydia Eva Mpanga.

“It has been incredible to see the [gorilla] populations grow so significantly since I started Nkuringo Safaris back in 2007. Back then, there were just 880 mountain gorillas left in the entire world. Now there are over 1,000 – all thanks to gorilla trekking.”

Mountain Gorilla, Uganda

There are certainly enough people willing to pay higher prices. Mahlatini has seen a boom in luxury safari bookings – up 17 per cent in Rwanda, where lodges can charge between $1,000 and $3,000 per night. The Luxury Safari Company says demand for prime wildlife-viewing locations is so great, travellers need to book up to 18 months in advance.

No one wants to see a Costa del Savannah situation in Africa, but there are alternatives to simply selling safari slots to the highest bidder. In America and Canada, lotteries are used to give everyone some hope of visiting popular wildlife destinations.

Meghan Verbeek, wildlife category manager for Intrepid Travel, suggests veering away from bucket-list destinations and choosing lesser-known options to spread tourism spend between more communities.

Travelling off season is another option. Dereck Joubert, co-founder of the Great Plains Conservation collection of safari camps, says March, typically considered the rainy season, is one of his favourite months to visit the Mara, when prices are much lower and crowds fewer.

Otherwise, it’s simply a case of saving up. Hans M Pfister, co-owner and president of Arenas del Mar in Costa Rica, believes committed nature lovers without a big bank balance will be willing to make necessary financial sacrifices.

“Somebody that really wants to have a wildlife experience will pay for it,” he argues. “If, for example, you were to compare it to the prices people spend to go to Walt Disney World or Las Vegas, travellers would hopefully pay that for an authentic wildlife tourism experience instead.”

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