David Guthrie is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of A Tent with a View, a sustainable safari company he set up with his good friend, Masoud, in 1995.
He has spent over half his life in Tanzania, starting as a wildlife guide in Selous Game Reserve before later becoming involved in lion research in Selous and founding the endangered green turtle project in Saadani National Park.
David was, with the respected Dr Alfred Kikoti, at the forefront of anti-poaching efforts in 2012 when he set up the Tanzania Elephant Protection Society. He has since been featured in the National Geographic film, ‘Battle for the Elephants’, which focuses on the slaughter of Africa’s elephants for their tusks.
A passionate conservationist, David set up a bear collaring project whilst on ‘holiday’ in Slovakia in the mid-00s, which he runs to this day with the team on the ground and personally guides “Walking with Bears” tours whenever he can.
With over 30 years experience of working on conservation and community issues, David has firmly established himself as a true advocate for the protection of wild areas, climate change and the battle for a fair and equal world.
All a bit formal, that. So tell us something about you that not a lot of people know.
Despite all the bushman bravado, I am a statistics geek who gets far too excited about lists of numbers.
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Why did you start A Tent with a View? What problem did you seek to solve?
When I was ten, my parents put a poster of a rhino on my bedroom door with the words “I have my problems but being wrong isn’t one of them”. It was always clear that I was unemployable.
Equally, ever since childhood, I have been obsessed with animals and wild spaces. A Tent with a View put this particular rhino into his natural habitat when I started it in my twenties.
We focused on the relatively untouched south of Tanzania where few dared to operate back in the 90’s. It was a lack of competition rather than any business genius which got us established.
What would you say is the biggest motivator behind why you do what you do? And what impact does A Tent with a View aim to have?
In the beginning, I was motivated purely by the wild places and wild animals. But, inevitably, as the years have rolled by, it has become as much about the people.
We really are a big family and this drives the way we approach business. We are increasingly focused on our legacy in the places we operate and encouraging others to do likewise.
Be honest – what has been your biggest challenge since starting A Tent with a View?
Tanzania is the sort of country that is all-consuming.
Life can carry you to the top of Kilimanjaro, only to then throw you into the Ngorongoro crater.
My life in Tanzania is punctuated by numerous incredible highs and some pretty dire lows. The challenge is to retain the freedom of spirit and stay on the rollercoaster.
David with his wife Tara, daughter Lili and friends
Tell us about one marketing approach that has worked really well for you.
It may be easier said than done, but our success in recent years has come about through innovation, particularly as our bush rovers are so unique and just keep giving.
We, of course, expect to become much smarter in our marketing through our work with SEO Travel but there is no substitute for having a product which people really want and simply making sure they know about it.
We also set out to build our reputation on conservation and community. This has built good relations with NGOs which then offer support by advertising us to their associates.
Now, think back to 10 years ago, what is one piece of advice you’d give the past you?
I have been doing this for 30 years so 10 years feels like the start of the latest chapter rather than a bygone era. However, the advice would be the same.
I have always thought we should cooperate more with other operators/hoteliers and I wish I’d tried harder to make that happen.
Fast forward again. What do you think has been the most important strategy, value or approach that has helped you get to where you are today?
I’m not entirely sure from which angle to approach this question but our business was built on long-term, solid relations with tour operators. This approach needed to evolve long before we cottoned on but we are now building a stronger link to the direct market and beginning to pick off a few small, but perfectly formed, fruits.
You were one of the first to put solar power into your safari camps and focused on health and conservation through your “Putting Something Back” programme. Can you tell us more about this initiative and how this came about?
We have always focused heavily on conservation and community, and I think we can genuinely claim to be leaders in this. There have been many initiatives over many years but the “doctors on safari” programme did a lot, particularly in dentistry.
The concept is simple; connect health professionals with communities in need, help them work through the local bureaucracy and look after them at no cost in a comfortable lodge whilst they work their magic.
We are now moving into our most ambitious phase ever and have started sustainable development goal (SDG) centres in each of our hotels. All will be undertaking major community and conservation projects whilst teaching both visitors and locals about the United Nations SDGs which, we hope, will provide a path toward a fairer world.
The Tent with A View team was the first people to operate in Saadani National Park back in late 1995. What was that like? What were the challenges? And were locals receptive to this?
When we arrived in Saadani, the head ranger ran a large-scale poaching operation. The first time we saw a lion out on a game drive, the ranger we had that day wanted to shoot it because “they’re dangerous you know”.
In the end, we had to go out on patrol ourselves with the good rangers to stop the problems and to help them connect with the park’s visitors.
Saadani has come a long way but there are still plenty of challenges – just thankfully of a much less scary order.
David with guests in Saadani in 1995.
Safari tourism is really seeing a resurgence after the pandemic, fueled by luxury safari experiences with repeat visitors. What measures are there in place to ensure the protection of the areas – their wildlife and landscapes – amidst this increased interest?
Generally speaking, the new surge in safari interest is no greater than it was pre-pandemic. It just feels so busy because we had to survive almost three years with no visitors.
Ironically, a surge in tourists means better protection for wildlife because poachers are afraid of being seen. Perhaps the one real problem we have noticed is an upsurge of poorly trained new guides who can be prone to do stupid things to please their clients, such as disturbing wildlife and endangering their passengers.
We know that travel is ever-evolving, but what trends or strategies do you believe will be key in driving positive change in the coming years?
By far the most important change must be to bring the visitors closer to the communities they are visiting.
Simply supporting through well-run programmes would already be a significant step in the right direction. but understanding what life is like for the people and getting to know them a little better sound like key ingredients for a better world.
- Favourite travel destination I’ve visited: Impossible to say. There are far too many fantastic places but possibly the tiny ranger hut in Tomonova Dolina where the bears roam in Slovakia.
- Travel destination still on the bucket list: Svalbard.
- Destination that you wouldn’t return to: Never say never but seven weeks around China as a newly graduated student was an ordeal.
- Most treasured travel memory: Back in 1995: standing, with the Indian Ocean lapping around my knees, next to Masoudi, my great friend and business partner. Beaming at two end-of-line tents from Blacks, perched just above the beach, and declaring, “We’ve got our own safari lodge!”