Safari tracks a new flightpath

International tourism dropped by 72% between January and October 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, according to Kenya’s Tourism Research Institute. It was a body blow for the airlines that focus on supporting the industry.

Perfect for safari airline operations: the Cessna Caravan is capable of operating in remote airstrips. Picture: Safarilink Aviation.

While 2020 was a tremendously tough year for the global aviation industry, small players, like east Africa’s safari airlines, suffered badly as many potential tourists cancelled or postponed their visits due to fears of exposure to the virus. Edward Njeru reports.

Alex Avedi, chief executive of Safarilink Aviation, one of the leading players in east Africa’s safari airline network, said the pandemic came on the back of a successful boom in business.

“In 2019 there was a record for Safarilink in terms of numbers,” revealed Avedi. “And it wasn’t just us, as most other players benefitted as well. There was a lot of renewed focus on eastern Africa tourism, especially from Europe and North America. And all was going well until March, when Covid set in and changed everything."

Most of the African safari airlines, like Safarilink, were experiencing growth before the pandemic struck. The airlines’ fleets were made up, predominantly, of the Cessna Caravan, a versatile aircraft, capable of operating in remote airstrips, which is perfect for safari airline operations.

However, the phenomenal drop in 2020 traveller numbers has seen many airlines now downsizing their fleets.

“It’s a gone year for us,” Avedi said. “We have done our estimates and, for the next two years, we will not need all our assets. Out of 10 caravans, only four are currently flying."

“We have decided to sell off the oldest aircraft and, so far, we have sold the first two Caravans that we started the company with, as part of our fleet renewal process.”

Avedi plans to keep the newer Caravans, fitted with the modern Garmin 1000 avionics, and bring new models into the fleet.

Safarilink is not alone. A number of other east African airlines have sold off some of their aircraft, mainly to the North American market.

“Unfortunately, little support has been shown by the government to help boost the recovery of the safari airline industry, with fees and taxes remaining high, despite the low numbers being experienced,” Avedi said.

Kenya’s Association of Air Operators has made several petitions to the government calling on all players – governments, aviation authorities and airports – to put incentives in place to boost the post-Covid recovery of the struggling airlines. “We are hopeful the authorities will act positively on this request,” Avedi said.

He believes that the tourism business will rebound once passenger confidence is restored and said it was essential that Safarilink is ready.

“Kenya has been in the safari world since the early 1900s and it’s something which is here to stay; I don’t see that changing,” he said. “But, for us, the only thing that we may think of is how we can diversify our revenue streams to other segments.

“Our bread and butter will always be safari, but our strategic plan is to make that only 50-60% of our revenues and see how we can grow our non-safari streams.

“It could be more domestic routes, it could be cargo, it could be humanitarian and other ancillary revenues. We had a strategic plan in 2019 to leverage our brand and work on that. And then, unfortunately, Covid happened. So, we haven’t executed the plan fully, but we’re in the process of doing so.”

Certainly, revival of international tourism can’t come fast enough for the beleaguered safari carriers or, indeed, east Africa as a whole.

Tourism plays a huge role in Kenya’s economy, contributing about 10% of the gross domestic product (GDP).

It is the country’s third largest source of foreign exchange and secures about 1.1 million jobs.