FOUNDER RHINO AFRICA & OUT2AFRICA
by Andrew Mersmann
David Ryan, the founder of Africa's leading online tour operator and safari specialist, Rhino Africa (www.rhinoafrica.com), as well as its gay spinoff brand, Out2Africa (www.out2africa.com), has already made quite a name for himself in Cape Town and across the African continent. Since the company launched in 2004, it has grown in size and reputation, earning heaps of accolades for creating extraordinary tailor-made holidays in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, the Indian Ocean Islands, and East Africa. More recently, those involved in LGBT travel have taken greater notice, since Ryan and Rhino Africa won this year's Pioneer Award from the IGLTA (International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association). "Pioneer" is an apt description, as he is at the forefront of using travel and tourism as a powerful tool to uplift local communities, alleviate poverty, and protect and conserve wildlife.
With a passion for endangered species, most notably his company's eponymous rhino mascot, Ryan is a vocal activist for conservation and protection. He pushes boundaries to find new ways to turn his life's work into a paradigm-shifting force. In addition to rhinoceros protection programs, he also founded Challenge4aCause, a bicycle fundraising challenge in Namibia (home to many of the world's treacherously low numbers of endangered black rhinos), and also supports Township daycare centers and community outreach programs. His upstart Save the Rhino Parade even won best float at Cape Town Pride, again finding ways to blend passions for the LGBT community, other local communities facing challenges, and animal protection.
When I visited Cape Town early this year, David graciously hosted a small dinner at
his beautiful and impeccable guesthouse, the artsy and contemporary MannaBay (www.mannabay.com), where he gathered political and social leaders of the LGBT community to dine, dish, and debate. Even when conversations got heated, Ryan, who has been described in the press as "spunky," sat quietly at the head of the table in the wine cellar with a bemused smile that occasionally slid into a sly smirk. Listening to the rest of us bluster, he capped off good-natured quarrels and ribbing with carefully chosen bits of wisdom like a Confucian master. He effortlessly peppers his talk with facts and history that convince us he is an expert at all topics, and brings a healthy dose of respect from those who surround him. None of this is particularly reverent, however. Ryan prefers to laugh and interject levity along with his healthy dose of expertise.
After the dinner and lots of terrific South African wines, we continued the conversation long distance, as I got to know a lot more about what makes Ryan tick and his passionate pursuit of a healthier planet.
It surprised no one that young David Ryan would find his heart through travel. He has been doing it for as long as he can remember, and even before that. "I think the travel bug is definitely genetic," he says. "Having completed my first holiday at five months old, the bug was firmly entrenched at that very young age. As an accountant for a large South African corporation, I was fortunate enough to travel extensively through Southern Africa, including the Indian Ocean islands, and hence my passion for travel was broadened to include wildlife, people, and architecture. When I realized I had the opportunity to live my passion, I founded Rhino Africa in 2004."
The exchange of the financial world for the wide world was an easy trade, and the support of family and friends assured him he was taking the right steps. "My parents are born travelers—having visited 40 out of the 50 United States, including a road trip across Canada, every school holiday included a road trip somewhere in Southern Africa. Caravanning was the Ryan family preference and during the first 15 years of my life we travelled extensively. I visited Victoria Falls for the first time when I was just six months old."
Ryan continues down an adventurous memory lane, "Our holidays were often activity based, and mountain climbing in the Cederberg Mountains was always my favorite. In fact, to this day, the Cederberg Mountains are the one place I return to at least once a year. Now I don't get to spend more than a few days there, but it is still the one place I can experience the profound connection with nature that I treasure."
Transitions are an easy theme throughout Ryan's career. As he expands his worldly awareness he expands ways to bring others along to share the experience. Expanding the business to include a specifically gay-identified arm was an interesting move. "Out2Africa was a natural progression for me," he says. "Our progressive [South African] Constitution, along with all the natural beauty the country has to offer, means South Africa is a top destination for many LGBT travelers. A significant percentage of Rhino Africa's core market was LGBT, however we still found that there was a segment of the market that wanted to be associated directly to an LGBT brand. We tend to find that the type of holiday LGBT travelers are looking for defines whom they will book through. LGBT travelers looking for group or exclusively gay holidays will source gay-specific operators, while couples looking for a tailor-made holiday are less concerned about the 'gay aspect' of their vacation, but rest assured that the suppliers we recommend are gay-friendly."
South Africa, as well as other locales that Rhino and Out2Africa clients seek as destinations, define the way most visitors from North America visit, Ryan explains. "Africa, being more of a tailor-made holiday destination, attracts more gay couples or small groups that are traveling for reasons other than the gay hot spots, but rather to experience the wildlife, landscapes, and cultures. The beauty of this is that in South Africa they can do this freely and within the rights and respect of the country's Constitution. Barring Cape Town over Christmas and New Year, there is no circuit scene in Africa, and thus very few gay-specific events that would attract the [partying] gay traveler."
His experience traveling with so many groups has shown Ryan patterns that the rest of us might intuit. "Gay guests don't necessarily want to be treated any differently than their straight counterparts. Gay travelers want to be accorded the same respect and consideration." His company, when booking safaris, resorts, and other travel products, makes sure accommodations are made seamlessly. As many of us know, when this does not happen, the mood of a vacation can sour on the spot, if we are made to feel somehow questioned or scrutinized.
"We would only ever put our guests into hotels and lodges that are gay-friendly, and where our LGBT clients would feel completely comfortable. That said, when traveling to [South Africa's] neighboring countries, homosexuality is still forbidden by law, and thus some caution is required. So while the hotels and lodges are welcoming to LGBT guests, tact is still required in respect to public displays of affection. It is important to note that this is not something that is exclusive to the gay market. Overt public displays of affection are offensive to many African cultures, gay or straight, and hence it is more an issue of respect."
For many US travelers, Africa is just this side of unattainable—too far away and too expensive, or at least that's the expectation. How you position the destination as something within reach is a perpetual conundrum for travel specialists wanting to reach markets overseas. The personalized approach and deep knowledge has served the Rhino Africa companies well.