Written by Tracey Bell
There seems to be a common misperception that Africa should be a cheap holiday destination, and many are shocked when presented with a quote for their safari. This article investigates the reasons why Kenya is expensive for travellers and offers some tips on how to reduce your costs and still enjoy your safari.
For decades, the western media has presented us with images of Africa, showing starving children and families living in poverty, barely able to scrape together a living. So it is logical that we would assume that for such poor people to survive the cost of living must be low. Indeed it is if you are a subsistence farmer.
One thing that surprises many on arriving in Nairobi is the level of development. This is not the African village of the World Vision advertisements – rather it is a major city, the business hub of East Africa, similar to Western metropolises. There is a burgeoning middle class in Kenya, with people going abroad for education and returning to well-paid jobs; they can afford nice cars, flashy suits and expensive jewellery.
Tourists are more likely to move to the same areas as this middle class rather than the subsistence farmers in the villages. In a 2012 Cost of Living Survey, 13 out of the top 50 cities were in Africa and 20 in the top third. Ms Constantin-Métral explains, “The main driver behind this is the difficulty finding good, secure accommodation ... the limited supply of acceptable accommodation is very expensive. The cost of imported international goods is also high.”
The Cost of Living Survey is focused more on expatriates’ expenses, and may not seem entirely relevant to tourism. So what are the costs that make an African safari so expensive? We can start with the cost of getting to Africa: flights and travel insurance. Most insurance companies charge higher premiums for travelling to Africa because they do not have confidence (rightly or wrongly) in medical treatment. Rather they will pay to repatriate you and treat you in your home country.
High national park fees are often the biggest surprise to tourists. The fees go back into park conservation, as Kenya Wildlife Service constantly battles against irresponsible safari operators who insist on driving off-road to get better animal sightings. They do this in the belief that they will get bigger tips from their clients, but they do not consider the damage they do to these fragile ecosystems. (As a side note, I request you keep your safari operator in check regarding keeping to the roads and being responsible for their behaviour in the parks.) As more operators flaunt the rules, the need for more rangers increases, the need for more maintenance increases, and thus the park fees also increase.
The costs of fuel and vehicle maintenance also raise the price of a safari. The poor road conditions mean regular repairs and maintenance are necessary. Fuel is the same price in most of sub-Saharan Africa as it is in Australia, despite the differing income levels. If you want to avoid the costs of road transportation and fly instead, consider that flights within the African continent are among the most expensive (as a dollar per kilometre measure) in the world. There is little competition between African airlines, and so those few that do operate can charge a premium.
Many compare Africa with Asia, somehow likening the two continents based on their development levels, one assumes. Finding the $5 hotel rooms of South East Asia is not possible in Africa. To pay $80 per person is cheap, $200 is about average, and the sky is the limit if you have the cash to burn on accommodation. My experience in Kenya leads me to the following theory: the growing middle class are keen to show that they have “made it” and luxury holidays are one sign. Kenyans do not understand why you would stay in sub-standard accommodation for your holiday – it’s your break and you must enjoy it. Camping is definitely not something the average Kenyan would consider for their holiday. And so the majority of accommodation caters to that attitude.
But it’s not just Kenyans influencing prices. As Africa becomes more stable politically, more and more tourists are coming to enjoy their safari. For most, it is a once in a lifetime adventure, and people are prepared to pay top dollar for that. In addition, there is a growing concern as we global citizens look out for our fellow man. We want to ensure the staff who serve us on our holiday are paid fair wages and not being exploited. On the other hand, I am often surprised at how many employees are on deck at hotels, restaurants, and even supermarkets. It is excellent that many people are being employed, as it shares the wealth among many families. But when we demand their wages to be up to Western standards, it puts pressure on the business to increase prices. Of course, I’m not suggesting we should encourage businesses to exploit their staff. But we just need to understand that our demands will be reflected in our bills.
The best way to reduce your expenses during your African safari is to go local as much as possible. Skip the full-board option wherever practical and ask your safari guide to take you to local restaurants instead. Not only does it save you money, but it also gives you the opportunity to interact with the culture, and directly assist the local economy. Where possible, stay in locally-owned accommodation, especially those that give profits back to their community. At least if you are paying more than your budget, you can feel good that your money is helping. My only hesitation with going completely local to cut costs is using public transport. The problems of where to store your luggage, of being comfortable, and of being safe (the drivers are crazy!) far outweigh the expense of hiring a car and driver for your safari.