Interview

Justin Huxter: Africa’s luxury hidden gems

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August 5, 2019

We catch up with private travel designer Justin Huxter to discuss the trends behind the growth in luxury travel to Africa.

Justin is co-founder of luxury travel consultancy Cartology Travel, who create personalised itineraries for bespoke trips across Africa.

Now based in London, he grew up in South Africa and has the travel and hospitality business in his blood, so he has more insight than most about where African luxury travel is going next.

Have you seen more demand to visit Africa in the past few years?

There’s been more demand for Africa in general. South Africa has been more popular than ever and we’ve seen significant growth for Namibia, Kenya and Tanzania too, helped by much easier flight access from the UK and the US.

Africa doesn’t seem as difficult to reach anymore and it's increasingly perceived as no more dangerous than anywhere else in the world. People are more comfortable going to exotic destinations now.

Are any destinations or experiences becoming more popular with your clients?

More remote African destinations are increasingly on people’s radars. Visiting the gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda is a big part of that. Suddenly experiences which used to be once-in-a-lifetime trips don’t seem so inaccessible anymore.

There are several reasons why. There’s been a growth in high-end luxury, with operators like Singita offering luxury safari lodges in several African countries, the new Odzala Discovery Camps in the Republic of the Congo, Wilderness Safaris in Rwanda and various other high-end operators in Rwanda and Uganda, all focused on gorillas.

People are looking for experiences that are unique and different. These are the only places in the world where you can visit wild gorillas, so that's a big draw and it’s driving people to visit countries that would have been perceived as dangerous or difficult a few years ago.

Vastly improved access and better logistics are the other big factors. At a basic level, Africa is more popular because it’s so much easier to get there and to travel around and between African countries. There are many more flights into Africa now from across the world, particularly Europe and the USA, and within Africa too, with national carriers like Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airlines and RwandAir leading the way.

This means that Africa is opening up and becoming demystified. Ethiopia is getting interest, Zimbabwe is bouncing back and Namibia is getting more and more popular. People are more educated and understand more about the different countries and regions within Africa too. Where people used to say, “I’m going to Africa,” they now recognise the continent’s huge diversity and they’ll say they’re going to Namibia or Botswana or South Africa.

What ‘hidden gems’ do you recommend to clients visiting Africa for the first time?

Well the ‘hidden gems’ I’d recommend to a first-time visitor may be different to those I’d suggest to a seasoned Africa traveller.

 

I'd normally recommend that clients going to Africa for the first time visit South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Kenya or Tanzania as they are easily accessible with great infrastructure and luxury properties, so they offer a gentle introduction to some of the amazing experiences Africa has to offer.

For most first-time visitors, the safari is still the key reason to visit Africa. For a really unique safari experience, I’d recommend Odzala Discovery Camps in the Republic of the Congo, where you’ll find one of Africa’s last pristine wilderness areas with true remoteness, beauty and biodiversity like nowhere else on the planet.

Splendid isolation. Image: Odzala Discovery Camps

The two-island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, 140 miles off the coast of Gabon in West Africa, is another unique destination. Príncipe’s forests are among the most bio diverse in Africa, with species of wildlife found nowhere else on earth, yet it’s relatively unspoiled and offers stunning beaches, jungle, snorkelling, fishing, birdwatching and truly characterful accommodation.

 

There are beautiful remote resorts in Mozambique, like the White Pearl on the Lagoon Coast, where you’ll find eco-sensitive luxury in a stunning natural setting, or the new remote luxury lodges in the wilderness of Namibia, one of the most sparsely populated countries on the planet. Some of these places are just incredible, set in otherworldly landscapes that make you feel like you’re on another planet.  

Shipwreck Lodge, Skeleton Coast, Namibia

 

What themes or trends emerge when your clients ask about Africa?


People want more than just a safari now. It’s all about the add-on. They increasingly want to combine a safari experience with a completely different kind of trip, and they want more than the simple safari experience too. They’re keen to get much more involved in conservation, working with the animals and connecting with local communities.  

 

I have very few clients who fly in and do 16 days of safari and fly out again. They want to know what else they can do, whether that’s visiting more than one country, combining a safari experience with a city break or opting for the beach and bush combination. In a wine region like Cape Town, it’s very much about combining a safari with a tour of wineries. If you’re on safari in Mozambique or South Africa, you can wake up in the bush and have dinner by the sea in the Seychelles.

Breakfast in the bush, dinner in the Seychelles

 

My clients definitely want to understand the culture of the countries they’re visiting much more and a lot of them want to get involved in projects where they feel like they’re giving back. I think people are beginning to better appreciate the work that lodges and operators do from a sustainability and conservation point of view. While on safari, they can go out with anti-poaching units or tag animals in the field alongside veterinary professionals, and they witness sustainability in action with lodges growing their own produce, farming their own livestock and investing in solar power.

Dental check-up time. Image: Wilderness Safaris

There’s much more interaction with local communities too. Lodges want the wider community to benefit from tourism, while tourists experience the joy of interacting more closely with people who live in a very different culture.

What would surprise us about luxury travel in Africa?

People are blown away by the diversity of experiences and landscapes throughout Africa. I don’t think they realise until they arrive how amazing the people are too. That’s a huge reason why people go back – the warmth and friendliness of people throughout Africa.

It’s in simple things like the food. South Africa has a great international reputation for food, but I don’t think people outside Africa understand how diverse, unique and excellent food is across the continent. I think people are also still surprised by the high standard of luxury experiences in Africa.

What is the best VIP experience in Africa?

There are so many different countries and so many different experiences to have. If you were to spend a month flying by private jet through the whole of Africa, then maybe you could cover them all. Maybe!

The most iconic places where you can have a VIP experience are Cape Town, the astonishing landscapes of Namibia, a walking safari in Zambia, the classic safari experience in the Serengeti or Maasai Mara National Parks in East Africa and then one of the gorilla experiences in Rwanda or Uganda. And that’s not even including North Africa.

What is the height of luxury in Africa?

For most people the height of polished luxury would be a private villa safari experience or a stay at one of the super-luxurious safari lodges in South Africa or Botswana.

But for a lot of people, luxury is really the ability is to get away to somewhere remote where they can disconnect from daily life. Even top-end lodges are moving away from fine dining and silver service. People increasingly don’t want over-the-top, polished service.

What does luxury mean to you?

For me the height of luxury is taking a group out to set up a in private camp in a reserve they’ve never heard of. The real luxury is the genuine adventure in a remote part of the world, or on a tropical island where there are no cars and maybe only 40 people. It’s the sense of escape. For me, the best part of going to Africa is being able to relax, switch off and just enjoy being away from it all in a completely different culture.

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