First published in ITIJ 97, February 2009
Some tour operators that sell or specialise in safari holidays recommend tailored travel cover for such trips. Others do not. David Craik dons his pith helmet and goes in search of the various travel insurance options
At the end of August last year, a tragic accident that claimed the lives of four members of Hollywood actress Helena Bonham Carter’s family when travelling between game reserves in South Africa brought to the world’s attention the potential risks faced by the safari tourists. It also made prospective safari travellers think carefully about what travel insurance cover they might need for a holiday spent seeking out some of the world's most beautiful animals in their natural habitat. Here we discover the ins and outs of safari holiday insurance coverage, and what kind of trip cover advice is given by different tour operators.
Is standard cover enough?
First of all, tourists could opt for taking out a standard travel insurance policy with a small provision for safari travel. Direct Travel Insurance in the UK covers safari in a vehicle and on foot but only if a guide is present in its standard policy. A spokesperson says: “Personal liability cover is included but we don't cover you if you decide to wander off on your own to feed the lions.”
Some other standard travel insurance policies offer cover for safari in motor vehicles but not on foot unless an extra premium is paid; some stipulate the need for guides to be present and no firearms to be used. Some differentiate risk between a UK organised safari trip and an non-UK organised trip with an extra premium to be paid in such a case. Most cover personal accidents and medical expenses.
"there are issues, especially with vehicle accidents. The roads are poor and it is not a case of the Highway Code, it's a case of the biggest vehicle has priority"
Another option open for the budding safari tourist is to follow the advice of their safari tour operator. Indeed, some recommend the use of standard travel policies as being adequate for safari travel. For example, due to its medical evacuation and cancellation coverage, US tour operator Safari Legacy recommends AIG Travel Guard for insurance to its customers. Jennifer Kunath, director sales and marketing for North America at Safari Legacy, says: “We believe that they offer the best coverage for trip interruption and cancellation insurance. We also highly recommend additional evacuation coverage through the air ambulance operator AirMed because accidents happen even on dream vacations.”
Similarly, tour and safari company Uyaphi, based in Cape Town, South Africa, does not see the need for specialist safari cover. It recommends the standard travel insurance cover of US-based Seven Corners. “This policy gives enough coverage for safari travellers,” says Uyaphi's operations and sales director Verity Bester. “We have never been advised otherwise. I don't think it is necessary to have greater cover because you are on a safari or hiking or swimming.” Bester adds that insurance should need to cover cancellation, loss of baggage and medical costs. “The latter is perhaps the one that people really overlook. If you get malaria out in the wilderness you need to get out fast.”
Other tour operators recommend more relevant, though not exclusively safari specialist, policies.
Tim Best Travel in the UK is an independent tour operator that provides safari adventure travel in Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands. It has arranged travel insurance with specialist insurance broker Campbell Irvine, underwritten by AXA Insurance. The cover includes a 24-hour worldwide emergency medical service. If a tourist does not take out the recommended insurance then Tim Best Travel requires confirmation that they have an alternative policy that provides cover as wide as the specialist cover it recommends.
Campbell Irvine managing director Anthony Kaye says there are sound reasons why safari travel should have its own relevant cover. His company’s policy concentrates heavily on the potentially hazardous nature of a safari trip. “There is a big difference between lying on a beach or sight-seeing round some European city than being in the middle of a veld somewhere in Namibia,” he says. “We cover safari in vehicle and on foot, and gorilla trekking. You are also exposed to a wide range of wonderful activities when you go on safari – such as bareback horse-riding, kayaking and hot air ballooning – and our policy has the flexibility to cover these activities. This is sometimes lacking in other travel insurance policies,” he explains. “A safari trip may also have more than one destination – cities, camps and lodges – whereas a conventional package holiday will be one or two weeks in a certain resort. Our insurance therefore takes into account flight connections whilst a tourist is on their trip.”
Kaye adds that the policy goes beyond some more conventional insurance policies, which do not cover being accompanied by someone with a rifle. Campbell Irvine sees this as standard and a necessary part of the safety process. He says travel insurance policies should also have flexibility when it comes to tourists travelling to remote areas in Africa. “The Foreign Office gives warnings on certain regions and sometimes safaris can travel into these areas en route. A lot of the Foreign Office advice is really about not going there on your own, and a travel insurance policy should have the flexibility to acknowledge that you are travelling to remote locations in a group.”
Furthermore, despite the dangers, the most frequent claims received as the result of safari holidays are in the areas of cancellation and low-value baggage. “If you are on safari, there is no good getting an insurance policy that says that if you lose a digital camera you have 24 hours to report the loss,” continues Kaye. “You may be three days from a place where you can report it. Again you need flexibility. We have a clause that says it is sufficient to get a report from the tour leader or lodge owner confirming when the incident occurred.”
Tourists should also be careful of policy wording concerning preventative medicine, especially with the threat of malaria in certain countries and the need to take anti-malarials. “There are people who cannot take them if they are pregnant and they sometimes won't be covered,” warns Kaye. “There is also the importance of having good medical teams who can work in difficult terrains and can repatriate you if necessary. It is possible that you could phone up a high-street insurer saying someone has been injured in Uganda and they ask you where exactly that is!”
"other standard travel insurance policies offer cover for safari in motor vehicles but not on foot unless an extra premium is paid; some stipulate the need for guides to be present and no firearms to be used"
Adventure travel operator Kumaka Worldwide recommends the insurance of World Nomads which is specifically designed for adventurous independent travellers. It covers medical, evacuation and luggage such as iPods and digital cameras. A company spokesman says: “We offer all the usual things you get on a standard insurance policy such as loss of personal items and loss of money. But because our activities tend to be a little more adventurous than lying beside the pool our policy gives additional cover.” This will protect a safari tourist on foot and in a vehicle but also, as with Campbell Irvine, gives cover for additional activities that safari tourists may enjoy doing, such as white-water rafting. “Our tourists are going out generally in a purpose-built vehicle and doing dangerous activities,” the spokesman added. “A high-street insurance policy will cover you for the minimum, such as curtailment and cancellation, but we can cover for the additional activities if a safari tourist wants to do them. Our underwriter has a very good idea of the holidays that we offer and the activities that are involved.” The exclusions in the policy are straightforward. “If you decide to take your life in your own hands and decide that you want to leave your tour group and venture into a game park on your own, you are not going to be covered,” the spokesman states. “Regarding claims, I can't recall any serious claim that our underwriter has received. The claims tend to be for pick-pocketed money, or loss or damage to watches and cameras.”
Kumaka is seeing an increase in the number of tourists going on their safaris: “There has definitely been a rise,” said a spokesperson. “The desire of people to do this type of trip is strong. The only time it falls off is when there are political problems.” Kumaka saw 3,000 customers go to Africa in 2007, which was up by four per cent on the previous year. This appears to follow a general trend in the number of safari tourists. South Africa National Parks tourism income surpassed the half billion rand mark to March 31 last year. Recorded guests were up from 4.5 million to 4.7 million, with the number of international visitors rising by 0.2 per cent. There was also a change in tourist behaviour, with 17 per cent more people choosing to camp overnight whilst on safari. Kenyan National Parks has seen an increase from 1.6 million visitors in 2005 to 1.9 million in 2007.
Pari Morse, of US-based independent travel insurance broker Columbine Consulting Services, adds: “Safaris are definitely becoming more popular vacations. Over the last five years, I have seen this part of my business grow from approximately 10 per cent to nearly 50 per cent.” More families, primarily with teenage children, are going on such adventures, she explains..
The risks involved in going on a safari are clear from the deaths of the Bonham Carter family. Other recent incidents include a British mother and daughter trampled to death by an elephant and the kidnapping of tourists whilst on a desert safari in Egypt. Statistics of deaths and injuries suffered by tourists on safari are difficult to find, but the Kruger National Park in South Africa recorded 13 deaths and over 40 serious medical emergencies such as fractures, head injuries and paralysis last year.
So, with the obvious risk of being near wild animals, the number of people choosing to go on safaris increasing, and a change in their safari habits developing, should the insurance industry be looking at providing more specialist cover as they do for those who choose to go skiing? The spokesperson for Direct Travel says that if hard figures prove that more people from the UK are going on safari every year then the safari part of its policy would be looked at during the company's regular product meetings: “We think that our policy is pretty safe for safari travel and there is not a lot more we can do, but as a small company we have the luxury of being able to adapt to the market and better service our customers without too much red tape. It depends on changes in the industry.”
Chris McIntyre, managing director of UK-based tour operator Expert Africa believes that insurers do not exclude a great deal for safari tourists. “There are one or two items such as the use of light aircraft when travelling between reserves, and safari on foot, which more should cover. Yes, there is more they can do, but they are not that far away,” he said. As for the risk of accidents, Kaye of Campbell Irvine believes injuries on safari are still a rare occurrence. “These are unfortunate incidents, but there are issues, especially with vehicle accidents. The roads are poor and it is not a case of the Highway Code, it's a case of the biggest vehicle has priority.”