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Celebrity safaris: The future of luxury travel

In September, British author Alexander McCall Smith will accompany an excursion in Botswana, through Belmond, whose Eagle Island Lodge featured in McCall Smith’s novel The Double Comfort Safari Club.

Mark Williams/Belmond

Next September, Rovos Rail's five-star Pride of Africa train will depart Victoria Falls, arriving at Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park in time for sunrise at the country's largest game reserve. Later, guests of cazenove+loyd's Southern Africa by Luxury Train journey will visit Cecil Rhodes's grave in Zimbabwe's Matopos Hills; the Great Zimbabwe ruins; Mpumalanga, South Africa; and finally Pretoria.

The price for this eight-night journey starts at $6,550 a person, excluding flights into and out of Africa. But there is added value built into the cost, beyond the cushy experience of being escorted between the Matopos Hills and Lowveld in the manner of the wealthiest colonials. For at least the first leg of the journey, the standard tour guide will be replaced by veteran journalist, BBC personality and Empire author Jeremy Paxman.

Exploring the story of Rhodes's conquest and David Livingstone's mission with a high-profile expert on British rule in Zimbabwe delivers the ultimate bragging right – not to mention the feeling of being inside a BBC documentary. It offers the kind of access that is difficult even for high rollers to come by, and equally hard – though clearly not impossible – to put a price tag on.

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And it is the direction in which luxury adventure tourism is moving, particularly in Africa. Another of cazenove+loyd's eminent guides is Michael Buerk, the veteran Africa correspondent for the BBC who helped expose the world to apartheid and whose reporting in Ethiopia inspired the musical charity Band Aid. Buerk led a successful Rovos trip around South Africa's Boer and Zulu battlefields last winter.

This year, Washington-based tour operator National Geographic Expeditions enlisted conservationist and explorer Laly Lichtenfeld to lead two tours around Kenya and Tanzania, at a cost of $12,000 a person for eight nights. The old hands behind Wild China are offering 10-day foodie tours around Beijing, Sichuan and Yunnan with the well-connected food writer Fuchsia Dunlop from $7,750 a person. And in September, British author Alexander McCall Smith will accompany a six-night safari in Botswana, through the high-end safari outfit Belmond, whose Eagle Island Lodge is featured in McCall Smith's novel The Double Comfort Safari Club.

To the cynic it sounds, at best, like a win-win for the wealthy and the industry serving them; at worst, like an exercise in cash for access. In return for sharing his expertise on Zimbabwe, Paxman gets a free vacation for himself and his partner, plus a per diem (though cazenove+loyd co-owner Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell won't say exactly how healthy that payment is) and an opportunity to tag on a spot of tiger fishing, one of the man's great passions.

Yet there are third-party beneficiaries to these souped-up celebrity safaris – often in areas desperate for tourist dollars to inject into their failing economies or wildlife programs. In Botswana, McCall Smith waives his fee; Belmond simply covers his travel costs.

With proceeds from September's safari, they'll provide the neighbouring Nxoga village with a mobile water tank to assist villagers during the dry season. In the past, they've donated housing and medical assistance.

This year, Rovos's Pride of Africa will operate on a new route through Bulawayo – important Rhodes territory, which enhances the historical heft of the trip while helping to stimulate a community undermined by Robert Mugabe's brutal regime.

"There's now a groundswell of support for Zimbabwe among people conscious of Mugabe's horrors," Wilmot-Sitwell says, "and it helps to bring back jobs to the region."

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"We charter a lot of trips with people who have good links to conservation bodies, and access to areas we normally wouldn't be able to go to," says Jarrod Kyte, product director at upmarket British tour operator Steppes Travel.

"We cottoned on early that a good leader with genuine expertise can make what would have been a good trip exceptional. A real, absolute authority with a bit of personality – and not just some intellectual – can really enthuse people, and open doors."

As an example, Kyte mentions a $4,700 tour in Russia led by Katya Galitzine, a Hermitage Museum executive in St. Petersburg who brings the group into the off-limits Hermitage storage rooms.

Next December, Steppes will take customers with $12,600 handy on an eight-day Galapagos Islands voyage on the MV Evolution with English evolutionary biologist and provocateur Richard Dawkins. And this March, the Montreal-born scientist Steven Pinker will lead a similar journey – now with a last-minute discount of $800, bringing the price down to $11,800 a person.

"Anybody can buy luxury," Kyte says. "Anyone can spend a fortune on a five-star hotel. But not everyone can sit down and have dinner with Steven Pinker and listen to his thoughts on evolution. That's where luxury is going."

And what of the notoriously prickly Dawkins? Will he be regaling the high rollers with tales from his latest Tinder date, or his collection of whale excretions?

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"Well," Kyte hems, "on his last trip, he didn't socialize to the extent that [other guides] did, but he was there on board and did all the excursions and lectured and was, for all intents and purposes, one of the clients on the trip."

He also donated his $33,000 fee to his Richard Dawkins Foundation, which promotes "scientific literacy and his secular world view."

Whether or not your world views collide, you must admit it sounds like a win-win-win.

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