Luxury Safaris are expensive! With the cheapest, most watered down experience starting from around R2000 per person per night sharing to places that charge more than R150 000 per night, it is no wonder that the average person is wondering, “what in the actual is going on there” and at times, I almost agree.
However, there are many factors that goes in to a Luxury Lodge’s price structure, ranging from construction costs to conservation costs and everything in between. Here we will take a look at the major factors that drive the prices up so much and why just maybe this is a good thing.
Construction costs in cities are expensive. Anyone who is trying to construct a small, 2 bedroom home can attest to this. Now keep in mind, that building material, labor and basic infrastructure (such as water, electricity, telephone lines etc.) is easily accessible in urban areas.
A luxury lodge is built in the bush, with materials having to travel up to 400km or more just to reach the building site. Some of the building sites have no roads leading to them, which means roads need to be constructed just to get the materials there.
Labor, which in urban usually live within the city itself and can go home to eat and sleep, in the bush needs to be housed and fed during their time there.
Large construction vehicles are also required to do essential parts of the building, such as digging foundations etc. These vehicles are usually available within urban areas, however in the middle of nowhere, just the transport of these vehicles to the building sites can be astronomically expensive and then the hire and running costs still have to go on top of that.
Infrastructure is generally unheard of in areas of new lodge construction. This results in the lodges needing to lay down things such as pipes for water from a water source that could be several hundred kilometers away. If they are lucky, they can drill a borehole close to the lodge, saving them a few millions.
Power is also a big problem. Laying down power cables is extremely expensive…as anyone who has to do it can tell you, costing in excess of R1 000 000 per km. Some lodges opt for solar power, however a solar system capable of running 3 air conditioning units on their own costs around R250 000.
With all of these challenges, with the word “challenges” being interpreted as HUGE costs, we can make a quick comparison between building a house and building a place in the bush.
Let’s say that a house costs R1 000 000 to construct in an urban area, in the bush, it could easily be as much as R10 000 000 for the exact same building in the bush. A 10 suite lodge can easily cost around R50 000 000 – R100 000 000 just to construct.
Most lodges operate on a piece of land in a game reserve that does not belong to them. They rent a concession from the game reserve in order to have the right to operate on their land. Some of these concessions are more expensive than others depending on their location, some ranging from R100 000 per month to others running at over R3 000 000 per month. A lodge has to pay these amounts whether they have only one guest the entire month or are running at 100% occupancy.
These fees are used by the various game reserves in order to maintain game fences, which are expensive to maintain because some animals (elephants mostly) have a habit of destroying them. If the animals get loose, they also need to be returned to reserve and this is also an expensive process.
There are other costs, such as if a lion gets out and kills a farmer’s livestock, the livestock needs to be replaced just as one other example.
Other requirements for the reserves are various staff members, such as anti-poaching unit (referred to as APU), ecologists, general laborers, security staff etc. These people are essential to keeping not only the animals happy, safe and prosperous, but the guests as well.
If a lodge can only afford a smaller concession of let’s say 1000 hectares, they usually pay for traversing rights on other concessions in order to provide their guests with a better experience. These fees are also quite expensive.
But here comes the real kicker. Concessions are usually given on a time limited basis only. A concession only lasts between 30-60 years depending on the game reserve. This means that the lodge needs to pay these fees on top of their astronomically high construction costs and they need to make a return on investment before 30 years are up. At the end of your concession time, the lodge must remove all signs of the lodge from the area COMPLETELY. The pool, the suites, the staff village…everything must be removed.
The Luxury Safari market is incredibly competitive, with everyone trying to provide the best experience to their guests within their price range. The most important part of this factor is their staff compliment. Remember that hypothetical 10 suite lodge I spoke about earlier? Well that lodge can have a staff compliment as high as 30-50 people…and some lodges have even a higher staff to guest rate.
The average staff member at a lodge, the guests very rarely see. These are the support staff such as cleaners, maintenance, kitchen staff and lodge admin staff. These staff members are constantly busy behind the scenes cleaning your suites when you are out on safari, cooking your meals and doing all of the other nitty gritty things that keeps the magic of the bush alive and the lodge’s service levels high.
All of the other staff, such as the managers, servers and game rangers are the staff that guests regularly interact with, always giving the illusion that the staff compliment is small, intimate and adding to the average nuance of the relaxed bush experience.
However, this level of service, with several staff members per guest at the lodge, comes at a massive price. Not only do these people have to be paid, they need to be housed and fed. This results in massive overheads, as well additional construction costs due to the need of building lodging for the staff close to the lodge as well as other consumables, such as toilet paper, electricity, water and other needs that every person has.
Most lodges offer a wide array of things to eat and all of it must be fresh. Nobody wants to eat soggy fruit, limp vegetables or “ripe” meat. This has resulted in many of the lodges having regular fresh food delivered. Madikwe Safari Lodge actually has fresh food delivered every day of the week.
Now I hear the argument that is coming, “all hotels do this”. And this is very true and most lodges aim at creating experiences most hotels in the world could never come close to, so it is normal that they have these very high standards when it comes to their food.
The thing that escalates the cost is the distance that the food needs to travel. Madikwe Safari Lodge as an example, receives their food from Johannesburg which is almost 400km away. This transport cost escalates the prices and some food stuffs easily becoming 300% more expensive than what a hotel in Johannesburg would pay for exactly the same items.
With lodges being out in the middle of nowhere, phone lines are expensive to install and these usually use copper cables, meaning no broadband facilities over such large distances (some being hundreds of kilometers far).
With needing up to date communication with their reservations offices (some being at the lodge itself) especially with the prevalence of online bookings, they need some form of internet connection. Many lodges make use of satellite or cellular internet, which is very expensive. Also add on to this the need to have free Wi-Fi available to guests, these costs can get really high.
There is an old saying, “in the bush, if it can happen it will happen”. This is especially true with maintenance. Small maintenance can usually be done on-site by the lodge’s maintenance team. These include faulty wires on your bed lamp for instance or maybe a broken hair dryer. These things are usually relatively inexpensive to fix.
But what about the big things? I have heard of geysers bursting, pool filters packing up due to a lot of debris from the bush when the winds are strong are filtered into these expensive pieces of equipment, air conditioning units ceasing entirely because it is 45 degrees Celsius outside for three weeks in a row and much more. These things require specialists to come to the lodge to fix or replace and with the huge distance for these specialists to travel, these can quite often create a VERY expensive problem for a lodge.
And don’t forget animal damage. Elephants can dig up your extremely expensive water piping just to get to the fresh water flowing there. You wouldn’t think it, but elephants are master diggers.
On top of this, safari vehicle maintenance is a large overhead. With a safari vehicle costing around R800 000 – R1 000 000 per vehicle just to buy, it is already an expensive asset. With dealerships being so far away, many lodges have expensive deals with individual dealerships coming out to service the vehicles when major issues arise. With small things the lodges usually service the vehicles themselves. Another large overhead is tires. Anyone who owns a 4×4 vehicle knows the headache with the cost of tires and the average safari vehicle needs at least one tire replaced per vehicle per month. Add that some lodges have can have as many as 10 vehicles at a time, the costs quickly rack up.
With fashion and style constantly changing, lodges need to renovate every few years in order to keep up. Some renovate constantly with something they call a soft refurbishment, also known as a soft refurb, once every year or two and then do a large refurbishment after a few years. Other lodges do a great job at maintaining their lodge and then only do large refurbishments when it is really necessary. As an example of the latter, Cheetah Plains are breaking down their entire lodge and rebuilding it from scratch.
No matter which way you do it, refurbishment is a massive running cost for lodges. To give you an example, Lion Sands Ivory Lodge recently did a large refurbishment at the “negligible” price of only R20 000 000. However, their dedication to keeping the lodge up to date has resulted in it being one of the most sought after lodges within the Greater Kruger National Park (and incidentally one of my favorites to stay at).
A safari lodge can take years, if not decades, to recoup their initial investment. They have huge overheads, operate in some very difficult circumstances and provide a service and experience very few other places could come close to.
They are expensive…and the better ones are really expensive and the ones that are beyond amazing are beyond expensive. There is no help for it, it is the reality of the situation.
So why is this a good thing?
Most importantly, the large amounts of money coming in to these conservation areas are providing the funds to keep these large areas of natural habitat in as pristine a condition as possible while these areas support the diverse animal lives that play out at these locations. Without this massive influx of money into the private conservation industry, the amounts of natural habitat would be greatly reduced by now due to large scale human development. With many studies proving that the more natural habitat is available in the world, the better off the world is, and thus better off us humans are, this contribution is without value.
Secondly, with such an unsurpassed experience such as an African Luxury Safari, which I have yet to see the equal in all my travels in the world, it provides something so unique and special that only Africa can provide. It exposes people to Africa and make us “real” instead of just a place on a map, a place that they can relate to, enjoy and empathize with. The social benefits of these amazing lodges, amazing experience holidays when it comes to our relationship with the world cannot be measured.