Too much of a good thing can be bad, a reality a large proportion of SA’s more than 700 private game lodge operators catering for ecotourists are learning the hard way. “The game lodge sector is in dire straits,” says Colin Bell, an ecotourism industry consultant.
“There’s blood out there,” says Jan van Heteren, owner of Jaci’s Lodges, operator of two lodges under concession in North West province’s Madikwe game reserve. “No more than 5% of game lodges are making money.” Thanks to costly marketing and a strong brand built over 16 years, he says, Jaci’s Lodges is one of the 5%, but even its occupancy rate is down from 80% to 60%. Bell says the average lodge occupancy rate is about 20%.
“The Americans are still coming,” says David Evans, a director of MalaMala. “The big fall has been in visitors from Europe.” The result, he adds, is that many lodges have been forced to cut prices and raise commissions to travel agents.
Chick Legh, owner of The Outpost, a concession lodge in the northern part of the Kruger National Park, says visitors pay R3500/day each but his lodge receives only about R1700 after agents’ commission.
Director of ecotourism services firm Livingstone s Supply Co Peter Anderson says the slump has sparked big staff layoffs by lodges. He and Bell lay the blame for the lodge sector’s plight on tourism marketing bodies. “The lodge sector is under threat because we don’t get enough foreign tourists,” says Bell. “Kenya, Botswana and even Zimbabwe are pumping but SA is stagnating.”
SA gets, at best, 1,2m leisure tourists annually after adjusting for factors such as people visiting family and friends, says Anderson. “We need to at least double that number.”
No doubt SA needs to up foreign visitor numbers. But it appears unfair to lay all the blame for the lodge sector’s woes on tourism bodies. Though Van Heteren agrees that tourism marketing is falling short he also believes there has been overdevelopment of lodges.
“The rich have hijacked the [lodge] market,” Van Heteren says. “They have thrown money at developing lavish, five-star lodges. The result is that the market is overtraded by look-alike boutique hotels in the bush.”
Evans agrees. He says many people buy a game farm for their own use and then realise that it is extremely costly to run. They then open a game lodge hoping to cover costs, not realising that it is not an overnight path to profit. “It took us 22 years to make our first profit out of a joint venture with the Botswana government,” he says.
Even a concession in a game park is not a route to quick riches. “Our concession costs us R1m/year,” says Van Heteren.
Evans also criticises the lodge sector’s look- alike nature. “Most focus on taking visitors on photographic game drives,” he says . “That’s no different from what we began doing 50 years ago. Innovative thinking is needed.
“Increasingly, people want adventure tourism,” he says . A few lodges are moving away from stereotyped game drives by offering game viewing using horses, quad bikes and even elephants.
Van Heteren sees European visitors as the key to the lodge sector’s recovery. “It looks like Europe’s economy will take another two years to recover.”
Evans takes a pragmatic view. “Some [lodge owners] will leave and buyers will pick up bargains. But the animals aren’t going to go away.”