THE adventurous luxury traveller from the Middle East is yet to discover the unspoilt safari and beach destinations in Southeast Africa, Stella Bettany, co-owner Azura Boutique Retreats, tells TTN in an exclusive interview.
Backed by excellent connectivity, it’s time to invite Middle East luxury travellers to African destinations such as Mozambique and Tanzania, and Azura Boutique Retreats is prepared to be the trailblazer, co-owner Stella Bettany says.
“There are so many flights – Oman Air, Qatar, Emirates, Fly Dubai – from the Gulf to Dar Es Salaam. From there, our safari property is only half an hour by private aircraft. And I wonder why no one from the Middle East is coming here for a safari. It’s less than six hours and you can come for a long weekend – come and see some lions, see some hippos,” Bettany says.
Azura now owns and operates three properties in the Indian Ocean region – Azura Benguerra Island, Mozambique, Azura Quilalea Private Island, Mozambique and Azura Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania.
Azura Selous Game Reserve is best reached from Dar Es Salaam, which is a five and a half flight from here, followed by half an hour in a private aircraft.
Azura Quilalea Private Island, which is on the North of Mozambique, can be reached from Dar Es Salaam and also from Nairobi or through Johannesburg, followed by a helicopter ride to the island. Azura Benguerra Island is best reached through Johannesburg to which Emirates alone operates multiple daily flights.
FOCUS ON MIDDLE EAST
The brand has recently appointed Gulf Reps as its official Sales and PR representatives in the Middle East. Aggressive promotion plans include working with the travel trade in the UAE, with Dubai as a hub, along with Saudi Arabia. March will also see the brand showcased at a road show in Muscat, before getting ready for the Arabian Travel Market held in Dubai in May.
“We focus on niches – those who specialise in African travel or Indian Ocean travel already. And then we’ll focus on people who we know have the budget and the price point to be able to bring us the right type of client,” says Bettany.
Talking to tour operators on Azura’s introductory trip to the Middle East, Bettany is confident that all three of their properties will find the right takers in the Middle East.
ADVENTURE MEETS LUXURY
Azura Boutique Retreats was established in 2006 by Christopher and Stella Bettany, with a focus on developing and operating high-end luxury tourism projects in Africa and the Indian Ocean, with the underlying philanthropic goal of improving the local environment and community wellbeing.
“We started out with the island properties in Mozambique. I am a passionate diver and my husband is a passionate fisherman and we gave up our banking careers... and opened our first property at Benguerra Island in 2007. In 2011, we opened Quilalea. The last one, Azura Selous Game Reserve, we opened mid last year,” she says.
Azura’s focus is on luxury, albeit strictly in keeping with the natural surroundings. “African hotels have a feeling of being more natural than smooth. They’re organic, they breathe. At the same time, they’re top-notch luxury” she says, citing the example of cyclone-hit trees being towed in from the mainland to be used as supporting beams.
Apart from connectivity, combining adventure with luxury makes Azura a strong contender for the family and honeymoon travellers the brand is targeting across nationalities.
“I know that guests from the region will come to our hotels and feel comfortable. They’re easy to get to, have the right level of luxury – I know your travellers want a high level of luxury and service and that is what we can deliver. But we have something a little different for the more adventurous,” Bettany says, painting a picture of safaris in the bush – watching baby zebras take their first steps, chancing upon lions and wild dogs – combined with moonlit dinners and walks on the beach.
“On the island, we do a lot of fresh fish and seafood, which is what people want across all cultures. Our main thing is to focus on the dining experience. We are all about experience. You will have a surprise, you will at the water’s edge one morning, candlelit dinner beach on the next...just so that you feel special,” she says.
PRICING AND PROFILE
Personalisation is key to much of the experience.
Depending on the size of the room and with a little seasonal variation, Azura’s properties start at around $1,200 to a room per night, with the price going up to $6,000 a night. Bettany explains that hotels in Africa typically include meals, unlike say those in Seychelles and Maldives, where a package only includes breakfast.
The islands are a year-round destination and each season offers its specialities. The rainy season, says Bettany, is from January to March but consists of short bursts and overnight showers. Azura Selous Game Reserve currently closes for the rainy season in April and May. At the islands, the time to humpback whales is from June to October. Turtle nesting season begins in October.
Currently, 25 per cent of Azura’s guests come from the US, 22 per cent from the UK, 14 per cent from Germany, 8 from France and 20 per cent from the neighbouring South Africa. “One risk inherent in our business is to be too reliant on any one market – the euro has just gone through a major devaluation, for instance. We are always making sure that we are operating in a diversity of spaces. That means we can always have guests.”
More guests and more properties are on the cards for the couple who is not going to rest with three properties for the boutique brand, with potential for private equity investment. Bettany says, “We certainly don’t see ourselves as a three-hotel brand. We operate in three spheres – we own hotels, we operate and manage hotels, and we develop and redevelop hotels. We would like to have eight, nine or ten properties.”
By Shalini Seth
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