Photo: andBeyond

Nicole Robinson, andBeyond’s chief marketing officer, has been with the luxury safari company for 24 years. Yes, twenty-four. One would almost expect a sense of jadedness by now, such is the typical profile of most who have been wearing the same shoes for over two decades.

But the enthusiasm in her voice hardly lets up throughout our hour-long chat about the 32-year-old company’s work with the communities in which their 29 properties are situated.

She said: “At andbeyond, we look at financial and impact returns. It’s not just about making a profit but also caring for the land, wildlife, and people, which is very important to us and makes it a really awesome place to work for. We don’t leave because we feel a legacy will be left in our time that is more than making somebody else very, very wealthy.”

Change that lasts

When founder Dave Varty opened Phinda Private Game Reserve in 1991 — a profitable project only 20 years later — he saw the importance of engaging surrounding communities and harnessing international capital in a low-impact, high-yield tourism business model from the onset. 

At Ngala Private Game Reserve, visitors can participate in a rhino notching activity, where animals are catalogued and monitored for conservation efforts. (Photo: andBeyond)

In 1992, he partnered with the non-profit Africa Foundation to facilitate community-led initiatives to make wildlife conservation meaningful to the locals living within or near wildlife areas. Since then, it has added non-governmental organisations such as Oceans without Borders, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Ashia Cheetah Sanctuary to its list of partners. 

It may all sound like a marketing spiel, but Robinson doesn’t evade the difficult questions.

When asked how andbeyond measures their impact on a destination pre- and post-establishment, Robinson frankly answered: “We didn’t collect any data back when we started in 1991. When we first started, Varty just wanted to bring wildlife back to an old pineapple and cattle farm, and we didn’t collect baseline data.” 

In 2015, it created a framework and a five-year plan to achieve milestones such as protecting at least three endangered land or marine species and building social service infrastructure for the communities by 2020. Along the way, it released annual progress reports from 2017 to 2019 and refined the impact measurement metrics, such as the definition of local procurement.

The Punakha River Lodge in Bhutan. (Photo: andBeyond)

“We can now give statistics on things like the number of classrooms, clinics, and bursaries given out. What we want to work towards now is finding data on the intangibles, like the quality of education and how livelihoods and the land have improved,” said Robinson.

Leaving no trace

How does one reconcile luxury tourism’s comfort-driven necessities and often ostentatious veneer with sustainability principles? Robinson said: “Sustainability is often thought to be basic, that your experience is going to be very rustic, that you need to lose things in order to be sustainable. Luxury doesn’t mean that it’s not sustainable. We believe it’s our job to find ways to ensure that our footprint of waste, water, and energy is looked after without compromising the guest experience.”

Nicole Robinson, andBeyond’s chief marketing officer. (Photo: andBeyond)

For example, andBeyond’s Sossusvlei Desert Lodge in the arid Namib desert supplies water to the main lodge pool and the private plunge pools in the 10 standalone suites through a recycling system that generates more than 100,000 litres of grey water (used water generated from sinks, showers, baths, washing machines, or dishwashers, but not wastewater from toilets) a month, which more than offsets evaporation from the pool surfaces. 

The lodge is completely off-grid. Creature comforts such as air-conditioning and the secret chiller box in each room are all powered by solar energy. These modern technologies were incorporated in a massive 2019 renovation to leave an even lighter carbon footprint 20 years after the original buildings were constructed.

She said: “The sustainability journey starts with being aware. If everybody waits for everything to be perfect, nobody does anything. In the last 30 years, we’ve constantly learned that there are better ways of doing things.” 

An aerial view of the Star Dune Suite at the Sossusvlei Desert Lodge. (Photo: andBeyond)

The company now fully manages all its lodges, except for two, to ensure that they can enforce their standards in areas ranging from employee training and safari guiding to procurement and waste management. Its new properties will consist only of greenfield sites, such as the latest Punakha River Lodge in Bhutan, which is also andBeyond’s first fully owned Asia property.

No time to waste

It is now a race against time to achieve more over a shorter period in the next 30 years. Citing statistics from David Attenborough’s 2020 documentary A Life On Our Planet, Robinson pointed out that since the 1930s, the world’s wilderness areas have decreased from 66 per cent to 35 per cent in 2020.

A game drive on the Phinda Private Game Reserve. (Photo: andBeyond)

She said: “We are investing to decrease our carbon footprint faster and how to make wild spaces relevant to the people who live next to them and work with them to preserve these places.” Developing small businesses is especially key for the latter. To encourage support for conservation, these communities have to see that the economic benefits outweigh the safety and food security risks of living in these areas.

andBeyond is also ramping up its ground partnerships to accelerate conservation efforts. “We can’t do stuff in the national parks without their approval, but we can partner with them through fundraising or get involved in what they are already doing,” said Robinson.  

Cell C Sharks conservation efforts in Phinda Private Game Reserve. The Cell C Sharks have a television series on Supersport called “SHARKS GONE WILD” which is in it’s second season.

It was a poignant milestone when andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, which had no animals when it first opened, supported African Parks in two translocations of lions and white rhinos, respectively, to Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, where these species were virtually extinct.

The latest translocation was in June 2023, when 16 southern rhinos were moved to Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Condo in collaboration with the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN). 

With pride in her voice, Robinson said: “This is a story of a place that had nothing, and now it is giving back. What is 30 years in the context of eternity? When you give nature a chance, it heals.”