Joss Kent, CEO and founder of andBeyond, describes the impact of COVID-19 on conservation tourism.
Nelson Mandela once said: “Ultimately conservation is about people. If you don’t have sustainable development around... wildlife parks, then people will have no interest in them, and the parks will not survive.” This became the mantra of Joss Kent, son of Abercrombie & Kent founder Geoffrey Kent. In 2011 Joss left the family business to set up andBeyond: a luxury travel company that offers safaris in Africa, Asia and South America. It has an ethos of 'Care of the Land, Wildlife & People' and encourages guests to make a meaningful contribution to the preservation of culture and wildlife.
When the coronavirus pandemic brought the collapse of tourism, it had a devastating impact on wildlife conservation tourism, and with it, an end to collaboration between many governments and non-profits as funds were repurposed to more immediate needs. Many reserves rely on tourism dollars to keep conservation activities going, and without it, poaching has soared in many places.
Here, Kent describes the challenges and opportunities of the last few months.
How is andBeyond coping with the slowdown in tourism?
It’s difficult not to be overwhelmed with this impact on such a massive scale, and our thoughts go out to all those affected, whether in terms of their health or their livelihood. As a business, we have planning in place for various scenarios and we are holding onto assumptions lightly. Unfortunately, our best-case scenario sees us running with very few international guests until May 2021. Perhaps one of the areas hit hardest during this time in the entire tourism sector is conservation and community development work. For us, revenue generated from guests staying in our lodges is a crucial part of our work. So, we know first-hand the challenges facing environmental preservation efforts.
andBeyond has always operated on the premise of care of land, care of wildlife and care of people; we believe that the three are inextricably intertwined. Now that tourism has been so adversely affected and the economic consequences arguably impact rural communities disproportionately, these efforts are more important than ever. To this end, we are supporting our community development partner, Africa Foundation, in its call for assistance to the 73 communities surrounding our lodge operations for clinic support, water access, food assistance, business support, and school face masks. Thanks to the rapid mobilisation efforts of andBeyond and the Africa Foundation, US$406,431 has been raised to date. Outside of Africa, we have also deployed funds to Bhutan and Chile.
How has andBeyond continued to connect with guests virtually during this time?
We have found creative ways of hosting live safaris on our social media platforms. We also provide our guests with small-group virtual chats that give real- time interaction with our rangers. We’ve also created the Wildchild Virtual Party: an online session for up to 20 children, where they can come together for a fun time and pick up skills related to becoming a ranger.
What are some of your current conservation efforts and how have they been impacted by the pandemic?
We are very much focused on looking after the communities who live around our wildlife reserves. The premise is that if we look after these communities, the wildlife will look after themselves. That said, at andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, for example, we continue to dehorn our rhino to reduce the risk of poaching; we are still reintroducing pangolins that have been reclaimed from illegal wildlife trade, and we are still participating in cheetah range expansion. Our research and monitoring work with Oceans Without Borders has also continued.
Collaboration in conservation efforts between governments, non-profits and private sectors has been significantly impacted. The silver lining from this crisis is that being in the same storm together could be a catalyst for collaboration.
How are you preparing for the eventual reopening of the safari to tourism?
andBeyond’s priority remains the wellbeing and safety of all our guests and staff, as well as the communities surrounding our lodges. Preserving the guest experience is very important to us, not sanitising the soul out of travel. Travel is about cross-cultural connection and experience. It will be all too easy for health-and-safety concerns to translate into fear of the unknown.
We continue to care for our past guests and others over this tough time by providing engaging entertainment and inspiration through our virtual initiatives, and we’ve been able to connect with people all over the world, many more than we’d have ever expected. The response to the content has been overwhelming and we will continue connecting with our guests in an innovative manner.