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Why Africa is the new luxe tourism mecca

Africa is being colonised by upscale hotels and airlines – now is the time to go and discover it, writes John Arlidge

He might have invented an African country (Nambia) but, for once, Donald Trump got something right in his speech to heads of state from the continent at the UN General Assembly in September. ‘Africa has tremendous business potential,’ he said. ‘I have so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich. I congratulate you. They’re spending a lot of money.’

The World Bank agrees. Africa is ‘on the brink of an economic take-off, much like China was 30 years ago and India 20 years ago’, it argues. Jeffrey Sachs, one of the leading Western experts on developing economies, says the continent could become ‘the surprise winner of the coming decade’.

The good news is, you don’t have to rely on Trump or his cronies to create growth and celebrate the continent’s success. A tribe of local entrepreneurs is seizing the opportunities created by new technology and globalisation to start businesses. This group, ‘the lion kings’, are creating prosperity and optimism on a scale not seen since
the end of colonialism.

Kenya is one of the best places to go to see them at work. There are so many tech start-ups in Nairobi that the city has earned the nickname Silicon Savannah. The mobile money service, known locally as M-Pesa, which enables people to use their phones to transfer cash, was pioneered in the Kenyan capital. The local property market is so hot that Knight Frank has an office in Nairobi, staffed with locals.

Some of the most interesting new developments are in travel. Kenya Airways is one of the first carriers to use the class-leading Boeing 787 – it flies between Heathrow and Nairobi. The airline’s London home is Heathrow Terminal 4, which is, by miles, the best terminal in London, since it’s so empty. African airports can be the seventh circle of hell, but Kenya Airports Authority has opened a new terminal just for Kenya Airways. Local low-cost start-up airline FastJet offers great fares from Nairobi to Mombasa and other short-haul routes.

British Airways flies direct from London to Nairobi. Emirates, Qatar and Etihad fly there via the Gulf, up to three times a day each. Never before have there been so many seats, and such good bargains to be had, and so many new places to stay once you get there.

In Nairobi, Rohan Patel has developed the Sankara Nairobi, a £42 million, 156-room property. It is decorated with contemporary African art and has one of the best wine lists on the continent, with many African rare vintages.

‘There’s an appetite for something local that’s different and, for the first time, there’s the confidence and funding to bankroll new developments,’ he tells me over coffee in the hotel’s glass-and-steel bar. ‘Africans don’t want a theme-park African hotel, with prints of “the big five” on the wall. That’s condescending. Nor do they want a New York-style hotel. They’ve probably been to New York. They want modern, connected Africa.’

Across town at the 137-room, locally owned Tribe Hotel, Stephan Meves, the general manager, agrees. ‘The market for new, authentic-yet-modern African hotels is growing,’
he says. The backers of Tribe are expanding across Kenya. A second property in Nairobi has just opened and another on the coast is in the offing. It could become Africa’s first boutique chain (and with a name like that, it really should).

With bans on travel to parts of Kenya lifted – the UK, the US and other countries advised tourists not to go until March this year due to the threat of terror attacks by al-Shabab – it’s time to go out there and start spending some money, as Trump says his friends are. The best way is to combine the old and the new. A few nights at Sankara or Tribe in Nairobi can be offset with a few days on safari or on Lamu, an island in the Indian Ocean. Or, best of all, both.

On Lamu, Peponi, everyone’s favourite, is back in bustling business after a drop in the number of international guests following the travel bans. Book ahead if you want to snag one of the 24 rooms overlooking the gardens and the beach. Just across the channel on Manda Island – you can swim across if you are fit enough – is the Majlis, which is a little more modern, and great for those who can’t bear to be without the internet.

When it comes to safaris, one old-school property does it better than any other. Calvin and Louise Cottar established Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp in the mid-90s. The lodge, cut into a hillside less than a mile from the Masai Mara game reserve, got its name from the family who arrived in the area from America in the 1920s and pioneered the modern safari. It boasts its own 6,000-acre private conservancy, in which the wildlife is so abundant that day-and-night game drives start as soon as you leave the camp gates. You can, if you want, drive across the border into the Serengeti in Tanzania. Walks with
the local Masai are a ‘must’, and children can learn the ways of the tribe’s warriors.

The camp has 10 vast, private tents – a honeymoon option, five doubles and four family suites, all with en suite bathrooms. The biggest have living rooms with fireplaces. There are also two mess tents for eating, drinking, reading and relaxing. Take a dawn drive and then have lunch and relax by the infinity pool. Don’t forget to order a safari bath (you’ll see). The camp is high enough to be malaria-free.

A proportion of your charges goes towards supporting the Masai, safeguarding the local wildlife and vegetation by preventing over-grazing, and building schools and providing medical services in the area. The initiatives have helped to make Cottar’s one of only ten Global Ecosphere resorts.

The staff are as good as any you will find in Africa. Douglas Nagi runs the camp with just the right mix of charm and authority. Game guide Ken Kinoti has the kind of eyes that can spot a leopard half a mile away. In a bush. And the Cottar family live on site, so you really do feel that you are house guests.

Of course, TIA (This Is Africa), so a word or two of (mild) caution is still required. Kenya is re-running its disputed presidential election in October, and there is still sporadic violence in the Laikipia region. And I’d steer clear of big shopping malls, just in case. But do go, and be part of the African century.

Red Savannah offers a six-night Cottar’s safari from £3,750 per person. It includes five nights in a standard tent fully inclusive, one night at the Lazizi Premier Hotel Nairobi, return flights with British Airways, domestic flights, and private airport transfers

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