People in the times of the coronavirus crisis – Eyewitness Suzanne Benadie from Sense of Africa in South Africa

Being the not-so-secret ambassador of South Africa, I feel this natural curiosity for the country. I like to know what South Africans are up to. Suzanne Benadie who lives in Johannesburg has worked in tourism ever since leaving school in 1989. She started her career as a tourist guide. Over the years, her love of nature and conservation areas across Southern Africa grew even stronger. Today, together with travelling, the protection of wildlife and creating sustainability for locals is what she is most passionate about.

Suzanne Benadie  - Sense of Africa South Africa

Suzanne is the Sales and Marketing Director of Sense of Africa South Africa, one of the leading destination management companies in Africa. A company strongly committed to local communities and the environment in all countries they operate. They help you with wildlife safaris, self-drive trips, cultural experiences, and group travel trips in Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. To Suzanne, this is a dream of a job. Being in a position where she can share all there is to know about wildlife, the people, and the different cultures with guests from around the world.

A tourist and traveller at heart, spare time is spent on safari, exploring new areas, and learning about how best she can support responsible tourism. She loves gardening and spending time at home with good books and interesting documentaries. We are taking a trip to South Africa, and I am thrilled Suzanne Benadie tells me about South Africa in times of the Coronavirus crisis.

The world is in a state of emergency. What helps you right now? How do you personally experience this crisis?

Suzanne Benadie: I do a lot of online research of interesting articles on leadership and self-improvement. I focus on credible news sources and don’t have television at home. The current crisis keeps highlighting how unbalanced the world is in terms of health care, political structures and will, and distribution of information. It’s very interesting to understand how some countries have been much more badly affected than others, and some of these outcomes are unexpected and have not been based on modern development, or monetary wealth. I try to stay calm and positive by focusing on the things that I can influence and that affect those around me, instead of worrying about what I have no control over. For me, the best way to be distracted is a complete digital switch off – from news, from social media, even from some friends who always share the latest crisis. I love reading print magazines, good books, doing handwork such as knitting and crochet, and mosaic using recycled materials. Another thing I really enjoy is cooking and baking.

What would Sense of Africa customers (in non-coronavirus crisis times) experience this time of the year if they were on the road right now?

Suzanne Benadie: In Southern Africa right now, it’s the most ideal time for safari, as the rains have stopped, and there is still water and green vegetation. It’s ideal for photography, with wide open spaces and beautiful night skies. The weather along the Garden Route is still good for enjoying beaches, coastal walks, and the city of Cape Town, and some visitors might be lucky enough to catch the last few harvests of grapes down in the winelands.

People working in tourism are used to be around people all the time. How do you, Sense of Africa and staff feel now, at a time where international tourists cannot visit so easily (if at all)?

Suzanne Benadie: It’s very frustrating for us right now, because we have been fortunate enough that our borders have been largely open for international tourists since November 2020, and we are officially in Level 1, which means that life is virtually back to normal, except for a few obvious precautions that we all need to take. As a destination and as a country, we really are “travel ready” and waiting for guests to arrive, as soon as airline capacity returns and increases, and as soon as South Africa is considered safe for post COVID travel once again. We are all working hard to drive the narrative with our stakeholders and industry associations that people can return to South Africa, practice social distancing, enjoy all excursions and sights and sounds of the destinations, and with a few small steps such as a PCR test, can return home safely.

Did you so far come across something rather unusual which would probably never have happened under 'normal' circumstances?

Suzanne Benadie: Sofa Safaris! So many of our beautiful private lodges still needed to keep their morning and afternoon safari drives going out in the reserves to assist the anti-poaching units, and so many started live feeds on Instagram and other platforms where we could all experience real-time safari action.

The daily presence of the safari vehicles out in the reserves acts as a deterrent to any potential poachers, they have more chance of being seen by the trackers and field guides. Also, when looking for animal tracks in the bush, the trackers and guides might come across unknown vehicle tracks, or footprints, that could lead them to poachers, so by guests going on safari, it actually assists the anti-poaching units, because if anything unusual or suspicious is seen out in the bush, it can be reported to the units to go and investigate.

The field guides use video and create live camera feeds which are broadcast on Instagram, YouTube, and other platforms. Some lodges also have live camera feeds at waterholes.

It’s been a really positive way to promote conservation and the importance of many of our own company initiatives that we support, and some lodges are continuing with these feeds once the properties re-open. All of our properties are selected based on criteria such as membership to Travelife, Fair Trade Tourism, and their affiliations to organisations such as the Endangered Wildlife Trust. We work with many lodges located in conservation areas where levies are paid to protect wildlife areas. It has inspired many people to take an interest in booking a trip to Africa.

We have an exclusive product called the “Green Seat” which can be bought when booking with our company, either on one of our guided tours, or simply when travelling with us, and guests can donate as much as they would like to. Each green seat contributes to projects such as reforestation in the Garden Route area, supporting the Honorary Rangers who volunteer at all of our national parks, supporting our anti-poaching unit dog who belongs to the EWT, and projects where people make up authentic crafts, handwork and other items. Some of these projects are also available to be visited for first-hand experiences and to see where the funding is utilised, which guests really enjoy.

What do you predict, when do you expect the situation for international tourists looking to visit Southern Africa to normalize? How has the summer season been? Were there fewer international tourists compared to pre-Covid times?

Suzanne Benadie: Most definitely, far fewer international tourists, and I expect the rest of 2021 to remain as it is now. This means that a slow start will occur from some of our source markets, mostly FIT travellers (free independent travellers) to begin with, and they are generally booking quite last minute at the moment. Real growth and recovery is only expected in 2022.

From where you are today, is there anything Sense of Africa plans to do differently once the coronavirus crisis is over?

Suzanne Benadie: We have consolidated our offices in Johannesburg and will be adopting a hybrid working model combining remote and office working, we are also reviewing products, supplier strategies, our sales collateral and placing even more focus on our sustainable and responsible initiatives. This crisis has created the opportunity to review many facets of our business and to keep adapting as we move forward.

We already work with suppliers/lodges who use green energy, drive hybrid-powered vehicles, this is already part of what we do, but we’d intensify some of this work. Right now, I am aware of only one lodge that uses the prototype electric vehicles for safari drives, but this is the way of the future for sure. We also promote some tours which offer walking safaris, which is greener, and a different experience to driving out in the bush every day. Some of our plans include using fewer partners but supporting them better to make more of a difference and to work more closely with partners who have the same company values as we do.

The tourism industry depends to a certain extent on the global economy. Is your business experiencing problems due to the coronavirus crisis and is there help available for businesses in South Africa?

Suzanne Benadie: As a business, we had to react quickly in April 2020 to the situation, including shifting to working from home, and also right sizing the business, and managing our expenses on every level. We are fortunate that we are a long-established integrated tourism company with strong roots in Africa and we believe in surviving through this, to emerge stronger and ready to work in the new tourism environment that is unfolding in South Africa. There has been some help from the government for employees for short periods of time, but as an industry, we need to take care of ourselves and ensure that we manage our resources carefully.

Imagine there would be no coronavirus crisis and (even better) there has never been one. Describe your personal dream trip and/or adventure.

Suzanne Benadie: For me, it’s about sharing My Endless Africa with my most favourite people – friends and family and to spend quality time together in secluded places where we can safely disconnect from the digital world, and enjoy wonderful food, great South African wines, a few sundowner stops on safari and experience the beauty of nature in Africa. I would include the Greater Kruger, The Okavango Delta, and the Victoria Falls in my dream trip.

Would you like to share a message with old and new customers and friends?

Suzanne Benadie: My message is to reassure our valued partners that we are as resilient, reliable, and relevant as we have ever been, and now, more than ever, there is great value in the services of a DMC with our boots on the ground in country. Our years of strong relationships, trusted partnerships, and experienced staff will guide us into the new era.

Thank you so much for your time, Suzanne.


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