Rune Engstrøm started travelling around Europe as a teenager, often with Interrail and no specific goal in mind. In 1988, he travelled to Kenya for the first time and fell in love with Africa. Since then, he has come back numerous times before he started working full time selling Africa. He loves working with and meeting new people, and admits that the travel industry is where he feels most at home.
How did you fall in love with travelling or start working within the industry as a career?
Twenty years ago, a friend of mine was running a company called GozoReiser here in Norway. He was selling tours to Malta, and the business was growing. He asked me to help him for a couple of months, and those months turned into years. Malta is too cold in wintertime (October-March), so we were looking for a winter destination. Since I already had a lot of contacts in Africa, we looked at Africa. I decided to go to Indaba in 2006. For many years I sold trips to Africa, but only upon request from our agents here in Norway.
Seven years ago, I decided to do Africa full time. I looked at the market here in Norway and realized there was a huge possibility. I have always believed that serious travel agents add value for their customers. I therefore decided to work 100% B2B, tailor making tours for their clients, including FITs, leisure groups and MICE groups.
What kind of traveler are you?
I am very flexible and sleep anywhere. As long as I have a bed, a shower and internet I am satisfied. The only thing I cannot live without is coffee first thing in the morning! I have been travelling to Africa 6 to 7 times a year since 2014. I feel at home both in a basic B&B and in luxury hotels. I love exploring new areas, and the easiest way is to rent a car and move around. I pick one area before I travel and explore it. Nothing beats meeting people face to face. This way I have met hundreds of people and today I will say many of them are my good friends.
Tell us about one of your most memorable trips/travel moments. Where and why?
There are so many and impossible to choose! If I must pick one, I will say my first visit to Kenya. I had met a Kenyan woman who was studying in Oslo. I went with her to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Nairobi, and later go for a safari. We later got married and had a son, who is 30 years old now. We later got divorced, but my love for Africa is never ending.
It was strange to come from a dark and cold Norway to warm, friendly and beautiful Kenya. So many people everywhere, so much laughter and smiles. On this trip I got bitten by the Africa bug, and the only cure is to visit again and again.
What lessons have you learnt from your experience during COVID – both personally and in your business?
I have learned that the travel industry is full of people with a deep passion for what they do. I have kept in touch with both agents and suppliers since the beginning. Hard-working, dedicated people who work day and night to help their clients and to keep their business alive. So many people have lost their jobs, but most just do not want to give up. By keeping in touch now, it will be easier to get started again when we get out of the tunnel.
How confident are you that the travel and tourism industry in Africa (especially South Africa) will survive & prosper over the next 2-3 years?
100% confident when talking about outbound tourism from Scandinavia to Eastern and Southern Africa. Since I talk with agents and friends daily, I believe I know what is going on. It is difficult to give a specific date of when the recovery will start, but it will. People here are sick and tired of being locked up in their own country, and the travel bug is making people restless. From what I hear up here things are incredibly positive for Africa.
The cruise industry is in trouble and will not be the first to open. Another major destination for us is the US, and the signs there are not good. Australia might be closed for another year. Everyone I talk with up here is positive when it comes to Africa.
Out of the Nordic countries, the number one long haul destination for leisure out of here has been Thailand for the last 15-20 years. From Oslo alone we have had 2 direct flights to Bangkok every day. Close to 1 million people a year travel to Thailand from Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland (plus a few from Iceland). There are a lot of charters in the school holidays. From what I hear, Thailand wants to reduce the number of tourists. Millions of people come to party. The Thai government wants to reduce the low-end tourism market to reduce numbers and increase quality and spending. If this happens, the possibilities for Africa are huge. Today we can travel to Thailand in 11-12 hours on direct flights. To Southern Africa, it is a minimum 15 hours, with a stop to change flights in one of the hubs. Suddenly, it will take at least the same time to reach Thailand as to reach Cape Town which is the longest flight.
What do we need to do to make sure that happens?
Keep telling good stories and highlight positive things! Many people up here are only hearing negative news in the media when it comes to Africa. Hunger, wars, corruption, crime and so on. I have travelled for more than 30 years in Africa and have never experienced any serious problems. It is important to give people facts without scaring them.
If you look at South Africa, every statistic says it is one of the most violent and crime-infected countries in the world. I always tell people that the numbers are correct, but ask where does this happen? Mostly in poor areas where tourists have no business going alone. If you live in Oslo, Copenhagen, London or wherever, you look after your phone and wallet. You do not loiter around in areas you do not know at night. As long as people use common sense, and listen to advice, the risk is minimal.
A major hurdle for people who would like to visit Africa, is travel insurance, or the lack of it. Most insurance companies will not cover anything COVID-related. This problem has been solved by several airlines. Both Ethiopian Airlines and Emirates offer full insurance to their passengers. The other major hurdle now is the mandatory quarantine upon return in European countries. Not much we can do about this.
Let’s keep spreading good news on any channel available. Stick to facts, and positive thoughts. No matter how hard we struggle, how many problems we have and so on, there is no point in telling clients about it. Nobody will buy a tour out of sympathy. It will be more of a risk to lose potential business if you show the world your problems. Why should any client risk their saved money if you are not confident you will survive and succeed?
Based on the five senses and thinking about travelling what do you…
Like to see: A beautiful landscape outside my window in the morning.
Like to taste: The first, second and third cup of coffee in the morning.
Like to feel: The peace surrounding you when relaxing outside your tent or room in the afternoon after a long day. Relaxing with a good novel before going for dinner.
Like to hear: The laughter, music and songs you find everywhere in Africa.
Like to smell: The smell of Africa just after the rain.
Suggestions on resources for other travel and tourism stakeholders. Any websites, publications, podcasts, thought leaders you can recommend or newsletters we should sign up to?
I read as much as possible from different sources. The problem is that internet is flooded with negativity and conspiracy theories. Keep updated on everything going on in the destination you work with – and competing destinations. Try to avoid getting involved in political or religious discussions. If you want to find something to argue about, you find it there. Stay positive. We are selling dreams to people, and we must respect their personal views. Stay positive.
Lastly, what do you love about Africa Travel Week (WTM Africa) and do you think live trade shows will still be important going forward (why)?
I cannot wait to come back. There is no way online webinars etc. can replace the personal touch of events like WTM Africa. Every time I visit, I come home with new ideas. It is so much easier to work with people you have met personally. There is no way reading about or seeing an online presentation can replace what you learn by putting your foot on the ground. Before and after each WTM, I rent a car, or fly to one area to explore it properly. Clients and agents trust you much more when you can say that you have visited the place, you know whoever runs the establishment and so on.
I am 100% convinced that Africa as a destination, and WTM Africa as a trade platform, will come back stronger than ever.