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November 21, 2018

When Mass Market Just Won't Do

The East African winter is hardly the long dark night of the soul, but it does go on a bit. Time to flee the city, and this weekend I found distraction at Ol Pejeta - the region’s most successful wildlife conservancy. Ol Pejeta hosts many attractions, but I was privileged to follow a pack of Wild Dogs as they hunted, played, whelped and slept.

 I am conscious of the fact that many readers will find my enjoyment of Wild Dogs strange. It reads oddly. And on a continent where there is a distrust of wildlife inculcated by centuries of animal-human conflict, it seems positively barking.

But as I watched these supreme predators hunt at more than 40kph for kilometer after kilometer, turning as one to the commands of the lead dog, my thoughts turned to tourism marketing because the way they pursue their prey is precisely the way we do not market to tourists.

Here in East Africa we invented the most exciting (to foreigners) form of tourism the world has ever seen. The safari. The long journey spiced with adventure. New sights, new sounds and smells every hour. We became world famous for hunting safaris nearly a century ago, and then for photographic safaris in the late 1940’s.

Then came the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. Ugandan people and wildlife suffered for decades under the rule of despots. Tanzania became so inward looking during ujamaa (socialism) that foreign tourism simply stopped occurring to anyone. But Kenya, the biggest economy in the region ‘went large’ on tourism.

With hindsight, perhaps too ‘large’. For while mass market tourism boomed, created hundreds of thousands of jobs, educated three generations in the art of delivering great service, the seeds of a leaner future were sown.

You see, for tourism to work you need two things. A great product; and the right kind of tourist. The two are inextricably linked. So while Kenya galloped off down the trail of large beach hotels, a safe and well-accommodated safari circuit, package tours and charter airlines... something important changed.

Foreign tourists to Kenya progressively spent less. Less money on accommodation; on extras; at local bars and in restaurants. Fewer purchases from local craftsmen. And much less interaction with local people. Even before Kenya’s current internal security woes, the average British or Italian tourist was looking for a low-cost, all-in holiday.

So, add a touch of the Shababs, and what have you got? A broadly commoditised holiday offering that fares poorly in the package operator lists against safer destinations. And when I see the next shoal of tourists that Kenya is trawling, I really fear for our future. Just ask friends or relatives in tourism what it is like to host our friends from the East.

In Uganda, the rebuilding of tourism is aimed at mid to upmarket tourists. While in Tanzania, vast open spaces, huge herds of wildlife, and an unspoiled coastline offer the 'Children of the Revolution' a similar opportunity to the one presented to Kenyans post-Independence. So far the Tanzanians are enjoying much of the upmarket business that used to visit the Masai Mara every year. May they not waste it.

In the Far East, nations celebrate art, religion, culture, and offer tourists gastronomy and exciting shopping. In Europe, tourists taste centuries of culture, conflict, and societal development. In America everything, including the Americans, seems to be bigger than anything you have ever seen before. In those regions business, government and the people at large are broadly involved in evolving their tourism product. And in most cases, that evolution is towards layers of specialised offerings that speak more strongly to specific target audiences.

That is why I hope that Ol Pejeta is a forerunner of a more focused tourism offering that we may develop across East Africa. Take a look at It is a business that combines a number of revenue streams. From 6,000 head of cattle, to tented camps, to the nurturing of endangered species of wildlife, to real estate. Yes, you can even buy a house there with it’s own spectacular view of Mount Kenya.

More importantly, Ol Pejeta works closely with the local community so that many thousands of people have a stake in its success. The conservancy works to convince local people that wildlife-based tourism is relevant and improves their farming yields. And that is why they have a sustainable business attracting over 85,000 tourists every year. And I mean proper sustainability. Not the term NGO’s use when they are working out who gets the laptop after the consultant’s gone back to Washington.

Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside, an international company that helps organisations to deliver their brands and strategies through their people.

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