Simone Bishop is the founder-owner of Alpha Embassy Travel, an extremely niche inbound operator specialising in top-end, luxury safaris and travel throughout Africa. Understandably, COVID-19’s impact was immediate and dramatic.
Never one to shy from a challenge (and with a number of extreme marathons under her belt), Simone knew that she couldn’t sit back and do nothing, especially with rural communities in South Africa, who draw their livelihoods from the tourism and safari industries, bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 lockdown.
What followed was the birth of Warrior500 – an epic 500 km journey, on foot, to raise R5 million for communities in the Greater Kruger area and to promote the region as a world-class immersive travel destination. With a few lessons along the way:
“The onset of COVID in the tourism industry was obviously overnight. End of income. But I’m very pragmatic,” says Simone “and I took a step back and I thought, ‘OK, what does the hard truth look like?’ And the hard truth was that I don’t foresee myself making a cent this year.”
The first lesson was that many of us have so much more than we actually need. For Simone, the first step was to cut costs: “And that was actually quite an empowering thing to do. I don’t need to drive the car I currently drive. And so, I’m going to sell it and get myself a smaller one that still has four wheels and a steering wheel. And I have no qualms about that. It actually feels quite empowering to at least be able to do something about changing the status quo.”
The second was the far-reaching impact of the lockdown on our tourism communities. “People think, oh, tourism, the impact on the tour operators, the hotel owners, the lodges. But the trickle down to the communities whose very existence, the meals on their table, is reliant on the help they get from the tourism industry is immense.
Asking for help
Simone received many emails from lodges begging for help for their communities. She says, “Anyone who’s in tourism was receiving those emails, and we were all made aware of the fact that it’s the communities on the scene who were suffering.”
And the third lesson? It was no longer appropriate to communicate with one’s client base in ‘any normal way’:
“I’m not one of these people who thinks it’s appropriate to send out emails to clients and say, ‘let’s plan your next holiday’, because I think it’s an assumption to believe that their lives haven’t been impacted. They might be in a devastating situation. And the last thing that they want is some operator in Johannesburg trying to sell them a safari. It just didn’t seem appropriate.”
Simone connected the dots – loss of personal income, the impact on rural communities, her own ability and position to make a difference, and the need to showcase South Africa in a COVID-appropriate way – and came up with an audacious plan to walk through the big five areas of South Africa.
And in Simone’s words: “I bet I could pull that off in the middle of lockdown.”
Pull it off she did. As the Honorary Consul General of Costa Rica in South Africa (in the absence of an Embassy, Simone occupies the position as Head of Mission), Simone was able to rally her network, make direct contact with the Minister of Tourism, and get the ball rolling. Simone is still amazed out how it all unfolded:
“I immediately thought of somebody who would be a perfect partner to do this with me, not anyone I knew particularly well, but somebody who had been involved in a race that I was involved in last year with Laureus. And he’s a youngster and he’s a free spirit. He’s passionate about the bush and wildlife and the environment. He is a guide. I picked up the phone and I said, hey, Granty, how do you feel about joining me for three weeks in the bush and other parts of South Africa to raise money for these communities? I hadn’t even finished the sentence. And he said I’m in.”
“I then went directly to the Minister of Tourism. I wrote to her. I didn’t know her till I wrote to her. And I said, listen, this is me. This is what I want to do. I would really appreciate at least just the fundamental supportive of the Ministry of Tourism, which I got. And not only that, but she also agreed to make us the Mandela Month initiative because it was the month of July. Then it was a case of contacting the lodges. They were all in lockdown, mothballed, in fact. And to say to them, please, could you open your doors for a night for us to come through, and every single one of them said yes. I mean, that is remarkable. Here we are in lockdown and they actually open their doors. We stayed at some of the most iconic lodges in the country and we also did the Panorama Route, which is magnificent. So many South Africans don’t even know how magnificent the Blyde River Canyon is! I mean, just amazing.”
Simone set off with Grant Christie, completing the 500 km route in just 21 days. Not only raising much-needed funds for existing and sustainable community projects but celebrating South Africa and showcasing it in a unique and memorable way for international and local audiences alike.
Of course, there were even bigger lessons along the way. A highlight for Simone was meeting a young man from Bushbuckridge, one of the most impoverished communities in the region, who had bought a parcel of land from the government for R2000. He started out with a couple of chickens and the chance to sell a few eggs. Today he has added to his land, has eighty-seven chickens and has a really nice little business going – he’s also planted vegetables and is able to employ and empower a few people. The next step? Approaching Eskom to run power lines to his smallholding, as electricity is key if he wants to take his business to the next level. But there is a stumbling block. Running power lines to his plot will cost R5000.
For Simone this was a revelation: “I just stopped in my tracks and thought R5000 is a game-changer for him. How many of the people that I deal with in business, and I’m afraid I have to include myself, are capable of spending that on a handbag or a pair of shoes without thinking twice about it. And yet this was a game-changer. You don’t need to think, oh, well, unless you get to the five million marks, you’re not going to make a massive change. Just R5000 is a game-changer.”
While COVID-19 has forced us all to push pause, Simone believes it is now time for a reset. “I think COVID has given the tourism industry a wonderful opportunity for a reset, bringing our communities into the fold visibly. Not only on the show, definitely not on show. But hands-on. Hands-on physically, now and in the future.”
Time to reflect
It’s also a time for reflection, insight, compassion – and commitment to change.
“Life will come back to what we’ve known it to be before. And who knows, maybe it’s going to be better. There’s no reason for it not to be better. No reason to jump to the conclusion it’s going to be worse. But during this period, there are constructive things that we can do, like spend less. We can actually go out and see how we can help others or just think of ideas around how we can help. It will help you get up in the morning, knowing that you can do something that matters.”
Warrior500 is now set to be an annual event. Run through the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and they’ “Move the World Challenge”, people around the world can continue to donate to the cause – or consider taking part in next year’s challenge. All funds raised on the Warrior500 page are split equally between eight charitable entities, of which the Laureus Sport for Good Response Fund is one. More information can be found on www.warrior500.com.
Simone has challenged all women in tourism to make a donation through the website today: “I’m really privileged to be part of #IAmTourism Women’s Month, it really means a lot to me as a businesswoman and as a woman. I would like to challenge all of my fellow women in tourism to please donate. You can put ‘anonymous’ or you can put your name – but include the hashtag #IAmTourism. That way we’ll know those donations are from women.”