Being able to deal with risk is integral to running safari tour company, especially one based in a developing country like Tanzania. But after three decades of handling thousands of trips, Judi Wineland, co-founder and co-owner of Thomson Safaris, said that the Watertown-based outfitter has learned how to be prepared for anything, from droughts and floods to delays and cancellations. The safaris – which initially were bare-bones rugged treks across the wilderness – now include deluxe bush camps with amenities like eco-friendly solar lighting, Maasai-inspired spa treatments, and locally inspired cuisine. “Our guests today want a little more creature comforts but also an element of wilderness,” said Wineland. Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene spoke with Wineland about excursions to the Serengeti plains and beyond.
“The Ebola outbreak has not been good for the safari business – it has affected us phenomenally; some travelers have cancelled and people are delaying bookings. What they don’t understand is that West Africa, where the affected countries are, is thousands of miles away from Tanzania, and of course, the disease is not easily transmitted. But we have been in this business for a very long time and weathered many ups and downs – the Gulf War, 9/11, the stock market crash – and safari-goers always return. There will be a lot of pent-up demand, and in fact, already, we’re getting a lot more phone calls from globetrotters who want to see the famed annual migration of wildebeest, zebras and gazelles. Why are safaris always number one or two on a bucket list? Seeing these phenomenal animals in their natural environment is something you won’t see anywhere else in the world. I travel to Tanzania at least once or twice a year, to reconfirm that we are sticking to our standards and mission. From a business perspective, to maintain quality, we realized we couldn’t depend on middlemen and control all our own land, lodges, and vehicles. Our senior staff there has worked for us between 15-30 years and are like family. We care deeply about empowering our guides, mechanics, and others; for example, Maasai women sell their intricate beadwork so they could better care for their families. Before Tanzania fully opened its borders to tourism, Thomson Safaris was there. The country is changing – today there is more technology, stores, vehicles and media, and a lot of that is because of tourism. But safaris in Tanzania are in their infancy. It’s still a real wilderness place. I am now 64 and started with travel adventures when I was 31. Even after all these years, I still like to lay in my tent at night and hear the roar of a distant lion. It makes you feel insignificant and small – those worries you have back home seen unimportant.”