January 7, 2003 -- Africa as a leisure destination holds a great deal of understandable fascination for many Americans, including this one, but it's more of an armchair exercise than a hard and fast commitment for a number of identifiable reasons. These include time, distance and cost, political instability, acts of terrorism aimed at U.S. targets, a rash of armed conflicts, tribal warfare, pockets of staggering poverty, crime and a roiling AIDS epidemic.
The issues vary by region and degree, of course. Africa is a huge and complex continent and generalizations are dangerous. Despite all this, however, Africa remains a destination that I would revisit at any and every chance, particularly East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) and South Africa. A three-week journey to East Africa in 1966 still ranks as my favorite all-time travel adventure and an 18-day sojourn to Kenya and South Africa several years ago only served to confirm my partiality. And despite warnings at the time about both those countries--the State Department issued another alert about East African travel last weekend--my wife and I had a wonderful and safe experience.
Late last year I received a visit in New York from an entrepreneur whose tour company, Karell African Dream Vacations, specializes in customized itineraries to Southern Africa for individuals, families, groups and corporate clients. (You'll notice I wrote Southern Africa; that's because the region includes not only the nation that Nelson Mandela reinvented, South Africa, but also its neighbors: Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia.)
Norman Pieters, born in the Belgian Congo and raised in South Africa, these days owns and operates Karell. He strikes me as something of an anomaly in today's travel industry. He not only seems affable and honest, but he also recognizes that you cannot divorce tourism from the everyday realities of a treacherous and uncertain world. Put another way, he doesn't have his head in the sand.
An example of Pieters' realism: "You have to recognize there's crime, (especially) at night, so we give our clients safety tips, such as not to drive after sundown." Pieters goes on: "We choose hotels in safe areas...Whatever we do, we minimize the risk. We don't hide the fact that crime exists." Pieters says he's never had a client subjected to crime. "Precautions are taken and our guides are knowledgeable...We'd rather be pro-active than not address the issue. Ignore it and you get into trouble." He advises extra caution in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Pieters adds that some of his competitors are critical of his open handling of crime and other negative factors, such as AIDS and poverty. But Pieters and his people must be doing something right by accentuating the positive, so to speak. "Southern Africa is viewed as a relatively safe destination since 9/11," he says, with South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zaire generally viewed as "stable African democracies."
In the region, only Zimbabwe is beset by political and related unrest. Pieters believes Zimbabwe's platinum attraction, Victoria Falls, is "not affected" by that country's troubles, but "tourists are not comfortable" going there. (I had friends who went to the Falls last spring without incident.)
As a brand, Karell African Dream Vacations may still be little known, but the company is moving in the right direction. Bookings since 9/11 are up 2 percent, a modest but impressive performance in light of the beating the travel industry at large has been taking. Pieters is noncommittal about this year, however. "It's difficult to predict with Iraq and other uncertainties." But here's a kicker. He says advance bookings for 2004 are "way up." He's not sure why, but there's a submerged suspicion that things have got to get better. (Maybe?)
The business for '04 isn't just pie in the sky, either. When a potential customer calls Karell and wants to talk travel, there's a $250 deposit required. It's not refundable, but it is deductible when a deal is consummated. The $250 fee gets the client a conference call for one-to-two hours to discuss budget, expectations, hobbies, travel history and other relevant subjects. "People serious about going don't complain about the $250 and they get as many phone calls as needed," Pieters says He also says that "we're not budget snobs" and Karell tours are priced from "reasonable to luxury. We keep costs in line with each party's requirements to make sure they get the best use of their money."
Air travel is generally on South African Airways, the only direct air carrier from the United States (New York and Atlanta) to South Africa. It's a 14½-hour flight. Karell recently became the exclusive tour operator for SAA Holidays, the airline's tour operation. Karell is also a consolidator for SAA, which means it can offer lower airfares. (A consolidator acquires excess seat inventory from airlines, which he resells through travel agents or directly to the public. A consolidator is, in effect, a distressed-merchandise middleman.)
I asked Pieters to outline a typical two-week itinerary and it goes like this: Arrive Johannesburg with at least one day to rest; transfer to Botswana for three nights at each of two game camps; Day 8 back to Johannesburg; Days 9 and 10 at a South Africa park in the Kruger area; and the next four days in Cape Town. Among the add-ons are one or two nights at Victoria Falls. Pieters also talks glowingly of the River Club on the Zambia River in Zambia, particularly for honeymooners; Botswana for birdwatching; and Namibia, which has become "very popular." Best times of the year for a safari: South Africa year-round and Botswana between July and October. Pieters notes that Victoria Falls is almost dry in October.
To beef up his management team, Pieters recently hired Blacky Komani as director of sales and marketing. Komani was most recently based in New York as general manager, The Americas, for South African Tourism (Satour). Pieters himself began his travel career 30 years ago in London with a camping-tour company. He was dispatched to Australia to manage operations there before coming back as a tour guide for Europe. He returned to South Africa and eventually opened his own travel agency in 1982.
The Pieters family migrated to the United States in 1988. His first job here was with a travel company in Massachusetts. In 1991, Pieters moved his family to Miami, where he took over as president of Karell, which he now owns. He is fiercely dedicated to persuading Americans to experience "his" Africa.
You can contact Karell African Dream Vacations by phone (800-327-0373); by fax (305-446-8553); on the Internet or via E-mail.