Inside Tanzania’s Lucrative Safari Business
What it’s like behind the scenes of one of Tanzania’s leading tourist attractions
When considering an African Safari, Tanzania is frequently at the top of bucketlists, and for good reasons. The country boasts multiple natural parks encompassing nearly every type of ecosystem. Its vast game reserves, including the famous Serengeti National Park, boast the the “Big Five” animals — elephants, lions, leopards, buffaloes, and rhinos — in addition to hundreds of other species. And when the safari is done, there is a plethora of activities to choose from: climb Mount Kilimanjaro and take in the views from the alpine summit, relax by the beach in Zanzibar, enjoy the bustling city life of Dar es Salaam, to name a few. But what is life like for the hard workers making it all possible — park rangers, drivers, guides, translators, lodge staff, bathroom attendants, and cooks? And how does this massive influx of tourists affect the local economy and natural environment? I travelled to Tanzania seeking to answer these questions — interviewing the industry’s stakeholders with the goal of creating an unbiased, comprehensive report on the safari industry of Tanzania.
From day one of arrival in Arusha, the northern city where most safaris begin, I quickly noticed the two main demographics purchasing safari tours — white couples in their sixties, and white couples on honeymoon. To learn more about those funding the industry, I sought to find the main motives behind going on a safari. As expected, “seeing animals in their natural habitats” was the overwhelming response from those polled. “Going on an adventure outside of our comfort zone” came in a close second, understandably. And in third, variations of “strengthening our relationship bond;” which, I’ll admit, was a bit surprising.
With these motives in mind, the demographic began making more sense. Traveling to Tanzania alone is out of the comfort zone of many Americans and Europeans, let alone going on a multi-day excursion through the wilderness, making it the perfect place for those trying to break the bubble. As for seeing animals, it made sense that the main group would be composed of people who don’t have the same, majestic creatures in their own country. When it comes to strengthening bonds, though, it could go either way — if these relationships are in need of mending, spending an extended period of time together in the middle of nowhere may not be the ideal remedy.
While the physical infrastructure of Tanzania could be its own topic alone, I was more interested in the infrastructure of the entire safari process — from booking to execution. More so than other tourism businesses, safari companies desperately depend on TripAdvisor reviews. It is nearly impossible to differentiate many of the packages offered, with a single raving review can be the make-or-break in getting the sale.
As for the safari guides, it is an extremely competitive and sought after occupation. Guides go to the safari college in Arusha where they learn how to identify hundreds of species, when and where they are most likely to be spotted, and how to navigate the nation’s immense national parks. Once getting the job, they can expect to do a handful of trips per month, depending on the season. Guides for busy companies can do upwards of four 5-day trips in a single month, and larger groups may need an additional guide. In the backend, the safari companies work with lodges around the country to ensure a seamless checkin experience, and the restaurant kitchens prepare lunch boxes for the group.
Tanzania is very protective of its national parks and thus requires entry fees and registration of visitors. In turn, the government funds anti-poaching efforts and rangers to keep the parks pristine. Every bathroom within the park is even staffed with a maintenance worker keeping the building in a constant state of sterilization.
While Tanzania has a lot to offer to nature tourists, it faces tough competition in the safari industry with countries such as Kenya, South Africa, Uganda and Rwanda. Fortunately, each country has a relatively distinct ‘offering.’ For example, if you want to see gorillas you have to travel to Rwanda or Uganda. If you’d prefer to see the massive wildebeest or zebra migrations, Tanzania and Kenya are your best bet.
So it really depends on what type of safari you’re after. If you are anything like me and picture the animation of Lion King when imagining a safari, then Tanzania’s Serengeti is the place for you. Plus, the close proximity of Zanzibar (25 minute flight from Dar es Salaam) provides the opportunity of diving for a sort of ocean safari!