Singita Founder Luke Bailes On Asian Travellers' Growing Interest In Africa
Singita, a name synonymous with luxury African safaris, is the conservation vision of its South African founder Luke Bailes. A pioneer in African wilderness tourism, Bailes saw an opportunity 25 years ago to combine high-end hospitality with an exclusive safari experience to support the conservation of African wilderness—a model which has been at the core of Singita since he founded Singita Ebony Lodge, the brand’s first property in 1993.
14 luxury, award-winning lodges and camps have followed, located in iconic destinations across South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and most recently Rwanda. Singita attracts high-net-worth individuals who are willing to pay a premium for untouched nature paired with exceptional accommodation, food, wine and service—a “low-volume tourism” operating model that ensures a low density of visitors and minimal impact on the land.
While hospitality plays a part in Singita’s conservation work, partnerships with non-profit funds and trusts in each region contribute significantly to the brand’s long-term community development goal. By investing in key enablers of local livelihoods through conservation education, employment opportunities and small business development, Singita provides people living in and around the reserves an alternative source of income and food.
When he’s not at one of the safari lodges or his home in Cape Town, Bailes is constantly on the road. On his trip to Hong Kong, we caught up with the founder of Singita at The Upper House to talk about his first safari experience, local communities' role in the conservation model and what’s in store for Asian travellers.
Can you describe your first safari experience?
I was eight years old when I woke up one morning from a treehouse in Sabi Sands, which was owned by my family and later became part of Sabi Sands Game Reserve. I saw lions roaming around and they looked significantly different from the drawings and photographs of animals that I had seen before.
How do the local communities become part of Singita’s conservation model?
Lack of economic opportunity is one of the most pressing challenges facing rural african communities, pushing them into a cycle of subsistence agriculture and poverty. The minute they have a job, the need for cutting down trees or killing animals to survive no longer exists, and that’s the basis on which we build our business.
We have a chef called Peter in our Singita Grumeti Reserves in Tanzania, who is the fastest runner in his village—which makes him an exceptional poacher because he could run away so fast. One day he came to us and asked for a job. He started off sweeping and decided that he loved the kitchen environment. But he was at a huge disadvantage as he couldn't read recipes in English, so he had to teach himself English, with the help of Engish teachers at our lodges. He ultimately rose to become our head pastry chef of the entire property.
Peter's story is just one of the many examples of how we support the wellbeing of our neighbouring communities through local employment. Once these individuals understand what Singita means to them and their family, they then become the best ambassadors for us.
What can guests take way from a safari experience at Singita?
I’d love them to appreciate and respect what we’re doing and understand that we’re consuming twice of what the earth is capable of giving us, and that’s reality.
The reward for me is when the guests say that something in their life has changed having stayed with us. To some people it’s family time—we put them in a space where they realise that they don’t spend as much time together as they should. They would be sitting around the fire under the stars with no cellphone reception in some cases, so they have to talk to each other—and people don’t realise the value of it until they do it.
We create those spaces for them in our properties, that’s what our team strives to do on the ground, without it being contrived. That’s why people often leave our lodges in tears because they’re leaving that behind and they don’t know if they’d ever get it again. And that’s what brings them back, is to recapture that feeling.
We have guests who’ve stayed with us for more than 30 times now—every year they come back to the same room, same property, same butler. It becomes a relationship.
How is Singita planning to connect Asian travellers to Africa?
We take into account what our Asian guests love and value, and food is one of them. While we won’t change our food ethos, we’ll adapt it to cater to different cultures, as our goal is to make people feel at home. We have a lot of questions about food from our Asian clients, so we’re considering to translate the menu to Mandarin or Cantonese.
We’re anticipating Asia to grow into an important market for us. This time we’re only visiting Hong Kong and Singapore, and we’re expecting to visit mainland China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, India, Malaysia and the Philippines in the near future. For us, it’s about engaging and building relationships with our guests for the long term. There’s never a rush for us to enter a market if we can’t do it properly.
We're fortunate that Singita is family-owned, so we have the luxury of thinking from a long-term perspective. It has never been about money, it’s been about our purpose. We will forsake profit if our purpose is at stake.That’s what defines Singita.
How do you want to be remembered?
Someone who has made a difference. I’m so mindful that as the African population continues to grow, these pristine areas are disappearing rapidly. If we could help people see what can be done, and if we could in some way reverse the process, I could die knowing that I’ve helped save the landscapes and animal species.
Find out more about Singita at singita.com