An African safari is a bucket list item for many travelers who dream about seeing the continent’s unique wildlife up close in their natural habitat. It’s a thrilling and moving experience that requires a certain amount of expertise to execute. And while there are many excellent specialists in the arena, there is only one name that well-heeled travelers in the known turn to time and time again. We spoke with Luke Bailes, the founder of Singita, about his family’s history in the safari business, why conservation is a priority at their lodges across Africa, and what’s in store for travelers at the fifteenth Singita outpost, opening this August in Rwanda.
Tell us about how Singita came to be.
Singita’s story began in 1925 when my grandfather purchased a piece of land in what would later become part of South Africa’s Sabi Sand Reserve. Situated in a remote corner of the Lowveld region, the 110,000-acre game reserve has evolved from its early days as a hunting concession to become an exclusive conservation reserve where all species are protected. We opened our first lodge, Singita Ebony Lodge, in 1993 on this magnificent piece of family land, and our ecotourism brand has been growing ever since.
When and why did conservation become a priority?
My family has always been passionate about conservation, and the purpose of starting Singita was to preserve the wildlife. So conservation preceded the commercial aspect of the lodge.
Our first lodge pioneered the luxury safari offering and created a model that combines hospitality with a safari experience to support the conservation of the surrounding natural ecosystems. Sustainability – operating in an environmentally conscious way at every level of the business – is a key component of our conservation success, alongside maintaining the integrity of our reserves and their ecosystems and working with local communities to ensure that they not only benefit from the existence of the lodges but thrive because of them. The health and survival of each of these three aspects is crucial to the survival of the whole.
Luxury does not have to be at odds with conservation if it is done in an ethical, sustainable way.
What is “low-volume tourism” and how is that concept practiced at Singita?
About 25 years ago, an international demand for safari experiences drove an explosion of lodges in Africa. It soon became apparent that operations on this scale were unsustainable, doing more harm than good to the natural environments they were designed to protect. Around this time, I flew over my family’s land in the northeastern corner of South Africa with a team of conservationists and worked out a plan for returning it to its untouched state. We knew early on that the key to preserving the land and all its inhabitants was to combine a high-end hospitality offering with an amazing wilderness experience — a philosophy which is still in place at Singita today.
Exclusive, luxury safaris attract visitors who are willing to pay a premium for unspoiled nature. A high-value, low-impact strategy is the model that works best for conservation. The rates ensure a low density of visitors, offering guests an almost private game-viewing experience. We have about a million acres of land under our care, yet we operate low densities to have a smaller impact on the land.
What are some of the conservation efforts guests can expect to see and experience during a stay at a Singita lodge?
Being on a game drive, observing wild animals thriving in their natural environment, undisturbed by humans, is probably the best example of conservation guests will see during their stay with us.
Other initiatives include a 90 percent reduction in plastic at our lodges (there are no plastic bottles or straws) and the operation of solar plants that power half our buildings. There are also lodge-specific initiatives like the Singita Community Culinary School (SCCS) at Singita Lebombo Lodge. The state-of-the-art kitchen is home to a carefully selected group of students who attend a rigorous Singita-crafted professional culinary course that produces ten commis chefs each year. Or the 80 percent of fresh fruit and vegetables at Singita Serengeti sourced from local farmers' cooperatives to support local enterprise development.
Are there conservation efforts behind the scenes that guests may not see or experience?
Our conservation teams strive to restore, enhance, and protect the biodiversity of the ecosystems under our care to ensure they are functioning as close as possible to their natural, undisturbed state. Our efforts are organized into three clear focus areas: reserve integrity, ecosystem integrity, and external influencers like working with other NGOS and researchers. They are supported by a comprehensive program of research and monitoring that informs our management decisions.
Most of this work remains unseen to guests – for example, alien plant eradication, scout patrols, fire breaks, sustainable building, and research. We also work with various conservation NGOs because collaborative efforts are the future of conservation and the only way to make projects financially viable. Elite anti-poaching units on patrol or wildlife reintroductions are huge undertakings which occur behind the scenes.
Singita is one of the most luxurious safari experiences in Africa. Some might consider the idea of luxury travel to be at odds with conservation. What is your take on that, and how does Singita balance the two?
Not at all. In fact, it is our high-value, low-volume model that keeps very limited wildlife areas in Africa set aside as national parks. Luxury does not have to be at odds with conservation if it is done in an ethical, sustainable way. The alternative is to have more rooms and run high occupancies, which has negative impact on the environment, to reach the same results.
Our hospitality business is made up of low-impact lodges located in iconic destinations, providing world-leading safari and wildlife experiences paired with unparalleled accommodations, food, wine, and service. Singita is a well-known brand that is respected globally as a leader in conservation and ecotourism. We regularly attract high-profile people of influence. Bringing guests and conservation work together has had a far-reaching and positive impact that contributes to numerous conservation initiatives and community empowerment programs.
Which hospitality brands do you admire for their conservation efforts?
Wilderness Safaris, Great Plains Conservation, and Natural Selections are three hospitality brands whose operations and ethos I admire. We’ve known the owners for many years as committed conservationists and believe their dedication is unquestionable. We also work with them on a few projects. For example, we’ve just launched the Lionscape Coalition with Wilderness Safaris, &Beyond, and Conservation Travel Foundation by Ultimate Safaris, in conjunction with the Lion Recovery Fund, to help raise funds to double wild lion numbers by 2050.
What are your hopes for Singita’s future?
Our goal is to greatly expand the acres under our conservation stewardship in the next five to ten years. We will only develop new properties if they are better than, or as good as, those we already have. It’s a disciplined approach, ensuring that our reputation is continually elevated and able to deliver the best possible guest experience, while still benefiting the land and communities in which we are privileged to operate. There will always be a compelling conservation reason for future expansion and a link to preserving a natural area. In 20 years, together with stakeholders (government, NGOs and impact investors), we will have developed models for the sustainability of conservation.
Tell us about your newest opening, Singita Volcanoes National Park, in Rwanda. What can guests expect and how is it different from your other lodges?
Opening this August, Singita Volcanoes National Park is our first foray into Rwanda, and we are honored to be contributing to conservation, community development, and tourism in the region. In partnership with the Rwandan Development Board, programs will encompass everything from community partnerships to reforestation, and are all in step with our 100-year vision to preserve and protect large areas of African wilderness for future generations. Singita Kwitonda Lodge and the exclusive-use Singita Kataza House will provide a boost for the local economy and job creation, and the eco-conscious construction involves the expertise of several local artisans. For travelers, a gorilla trek is at the top of their list when they visit Rwanda, and a stay with us will allow them the privilege of encountering one of Africa’s most majestic creatures in the wild while immersed in the Singita experience.