Q: We haven’t seen a Kaingu newsletter for a long time. Why?
A: Well, the whole world has been on fire with bad news for well over a year now, so I kind of think it was a bit redundant to write monthly newsletters. It was also very obvious that travel was off the cards for a good while and there probably wasn’t going to be that much to talk about… But we didn’t take our foot off the gas when it came to social media. In fact we went into overdrive. A lot of people seemed to enjoy our constant “almost live” updates with a lot of pictures and video being posted. We uploaded somewhere over 30 videos to Youtube last year! So many past guests reached out to tell us how they were enjoying getting close to nature through our social media and that it was a good distraction from all the terrible news.
Q: So are you open for business?
A: Yes we are. Our opening date last year was set to be the 1st of April and we had our first guests on the 2nd of April and have remained open since then. We did close as per normal over the worst of the rains, and re-opened for 2021 for Easter.
Q: How has your business been affected by covid-19?
A: Massively. It goes without saying that international tourism basically didn’t happen last year and looks pretty similar for this year. Fortunately, we have always had a local market to fall back on and we have been really well supported with so many repeat guests traveling to us from all over Zambia. Historically we have always had pretty much a 50/50 split with local and international trade. But revenue is massively down compared to last year without the international aspect of our business. Revenue was down by just over 75%.
Q: So how have you managed with this massive drop in revenue?
A: Well, let’s start with the obvious one; we haven’t paid ourselves anything. Then in terms of staffing we have kept 7 critical staff members on full contract with unchanged salary amounts and conditions. These are staff members that have been with us for years and are absolutely the core of Kaingu. The other staff we have been then rotating through on a casual employment basis. Those 12 staff were to have been on contract from the 1st of April last year and obviously this didn’t happen. We are also providing monthly food support to those 12 staff members who are not on full contracts. The reality is that some of those 12 staff members are actually taking home almost as much as they did last year (on contract) but of course they are not getting paid holidays and the other benefits. We have also massively reduced things like insurance payments, donations, advertising and anything else that can be reduced. We are still paying salaries for the community teachers in Itumbi and Keela though. As well as the bursary payments for the two students in higher education that we are sponsoring from the area. Obviously any major investments in the lodge or other projects are on hold right now.
Q: Everyone talks about how covid-19 has affected conservation. Have you seen a rise in poaching?
A: No. Not yet. However direct conservation contributions from tourists has dropped massively. But the reality is that lodges and so tourist revenue are part of the revenue stream and not the whole stream. Fortunately African Parks has stepped in with a very large budget support for the Kafue. But it’s the longer term that worries us. If tourism doesn’t bounce back quickly then conservation and lodges and all the rest of the downstream industries will be in trouble – not just conservation but every single person and business that is in anyway associated with nature-based tourism. From conservationists to guides to pilots to bartenders.
Q: How has covid-19 affected Zambia in terms of actual numbers?
A: Compared to many nations Zambia has been let off quite lightly. As of the beginning of April 2021 we have a total of 1,220 deaths. But here we have to be honest – Zambia has been incredibly slow to approve vaccines. Then of course there is the fact that the the rest of the world tends not to believe African numbers. So we have little doubt that despite our low numbers we will be on red lists while countries with major case numbers will be ‘green’. So the result is that despite Zambia being about as safe as it can get, tourism will continue to be wrecked by nonsensical decision making in other countries.
Q: Are tourists now allowed into Zambia?
A: Yes. The concise answer is that tourist arrivals must have a negative covid test but there is no quarantine.
Q: What does tourism look like at the moment?
A: If you are prepared to travel then you will have the holiday of a lifetime…. Parks are almost empty and as are the lodges. Not that many lodges are even operating. Many of the ones that rely basically exclusively on international travel didn’t even open last year. Livingstone is not rammed with tourists – we were there and had the falls to ourselves! As I say – if you are prepared to travel and can travel then this is a great time to do so. However, let’s get real for a moment. It’s all very well to talk about tourism, but for a lot of travelers, international travel to Zambia is just out of the question. Apart from the legitimate concerns of infection from being in crowded airports and planes, many governments are enforcing quarantine on returning tourists when they get home and not recommending anything but essential travel or even making it illegal, and in turn this means that travel insurance can be very difficult to obtain or even impossible. And let’s again face reality – if you are feeling that you are in a more vulnerable age class or have other health conditions or generally worry about corona, then international air travel for a safari holiday is probably about the last thing you are considering right now.
Q: We don’t see you posting on social media or sending out emailers about covid-10 precautions in the lodge. What are you doing to mitigate risks?
A: We are doing the normal best practice – staff wearing masks, disinfecting tables and serving utensils, not doing buffets unless it is for exclusive groups. The list goes on. We have even made all activities ‘private’ – so you get your own guide for the duration of your stay and you do not have to share activities with others. However, we also must point out that a safari here is intrinsically very safe. Everything is outside and everything is spaced out. I am not going to go on at length about all these obvious precautions, telling people we wipe down tables and posting a photo of Benny in a mask is not going to kickstart tourism.
Q: How has tourism changed?
A: I talked earlier about the parks and lodges being quiet. Apart from that what we have now is everyone looking to the local market. Lodges that previously shied away from the local market (and in fact didn’t even want anything to do with it) are now advertising their “local specials”. Everyone is now fighting over the few local guests and discounting heavily. It’s not a nice place to be.
Q: Has there been any positives to the whole covid-19 disaster?
A: I will answer this firstly from a business perspective and secondly later from a personal perspective. From a business perspective I can think of two or three things. Travel Industry trade shows went virtual, that saves a lot of money and honestly speaking worked well. We saw an upswing in indigenous Zambian travel. People that said to us “normally we would go to Dubai” came and experienced the wonders that the Zambian bush has to offer. This is a positive thing. That is about it as far as the positives go. I could come out with cliched statements like how the virus has made us re-evaluate links with nature but the fact is here we are over a year on and over 3 million people dead and there is basically zero media noise about making efforts to prevent this all happening again. The narrative of how it all started and the links to wildlife trade has gone very very quiet.
From a personal perspective, the big issue has been not having friends or family come out to Zambia. Normally this happens each and every year. But the positive has been that we have had huge amounts of time to enjoy the bush in periods when normally we are too busy to actually pause and take in the reasons why we live where we do and do what we do.