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Travel's new philanthropists

By Francisca Kellett - 27th June 2019


These days, luxury travel is as much about hands-on engagement with a destination as it is opulent escapism, and increasingly that means conservation and community. The smell of burning rhino horn is exactly the same as the smell of burning human hair. I know this because I’ve helped a vet cut the horn off a live rhino with a chainsaw.

This sounds brutal, but dehorning has become common practice in Africa. Cut off the horn, the thinking goes, and the critically endangered rhino is devalued; there’s nothing left to poach. It’s working, too. In Phinda Private Game Reserve, in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal, they’ve not lost a rhino in two years.

There is a push to turn experiences inside out by letting guests take part in what is being done at the community and conservation level.

These trips are one of a new slew of luxury philanthropic experiences that let guests get their hands dirty for a good cause, in between sampling the finer things in life. They might help collar lions, take part in cheetah tracking for a breeding project, or de-horn a rhino (the horns grow back). The idea is to allow a deeper understanding of how a game reserve works, with money raised going towards funding projects.

But that deeper understanding comes at a price. These trips cost from US$8,800 (£6,900) per person for six nights. Translocation trips with safari tour operator Great Plains Conservation are also possible to capture and move rhinos from South Africa to poaching-free Botswana. Each trip is tailor-made for particular donors, with prices on request. There’s a long waiting list.

There is a definite shift from passive observation to a more participative experience with a sense of purpose and as a result, many guests are becoming lifelong donors.

Ted Turner, the founder of CNN and owner of Ted Turner Reserves, agrees. “There are more people out there today who want to travel with purpose instead of just lying on a beach somewhere,” he tells me. 

Luke Bailes, founder and CEO of luxury safari operator Singita, says it’s the access and experiences travellers are looking for. “There’s a new breed of philanthropist genuinely worried about the state of the world. It’s the experience they’re looking for, not the luxury.”

The luxury probably helps, though. Singita is known for running some of the most opulent lodges in Africa. A one-night stay at Singita Sasakwa Lodge in Singita Grumeti, fringing Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, costs from US$1,234 (£967). A-listers love it (former guests have included the Clooneys, the Beckhams, Oprah Winfrey and Natalie Portman) and visitors can expect beautiful rooms, manicured grounds, a private vehicle and guide, superb food and an incredible wine cellar. 

Beyond the buzz words

The trend for sustainable travel, or travel that has a positive impact, has gained marketing traction. ‘Sustainability’ and ‘conservation’ have become buzzwords, and greenwashing — where companies make misleading claims about their environmental credentials — can be a problem. Claiming a luxury hotel pool is made from recycled tiles is all well and good, for example, but when that hotel is unwilling to cut its plastic use or employ locally, it rings hollow. 

One way of ensuring your tourist pounds are going in the right direction is by booking via a tour operator with a philanthropic slant. The Explorations Company, founded by Nicola Shepherd, charges £200 per booking, which is matched by the company. This fee goes to support projects that benefit the host community. Shepherd encourages her clients to visit a philanthropic project during their trip. “We find out what our clients are passionate about,” she says. The Explorations Company’s latest initiative, Philanthropy Plus, includes a surcharge of at least 5% of the cost a trip, to be funnelled into a cause close to the client’s heart.

How much do clients pay for a trip?

Nicola Shepherd, founder and CEO of luxury safari and holiday operator The Explorations Company says, "Our trips tend to start around £15k per person excluding airfares, the most expensive trip being £1.5 million for a client who wanted a super yacht in Alaska followed by a week at a lodge which included unlimited flights in a Super Cub, a two-seat, single-engine plane, during their stay in Alaska".

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