The last thing you’d associate with Allan Foggitt – South Africa’s “Mr Cruising” and the man who helped turn the cruise tourism industry here into a mega money-spinner – is chopping down trees. Yet, for nine years, he was a lumberjack in Canada.
It was when he came back to visit his family in South Africa, he chuckles, that he realised “I couldn’t stand the weather”. When his father, the legendary travel entrepreneur, John G Foggitt, offered him a job in the cruise side of the business, it was a no-brainer for Allan.
The family TFC Tours had grown into one of the biggest travel companies in South Africa, with Foggitt Snr’s vision opening up several new destinations and options for South Africans, including charter flights to the Seychelles and South America.
In the beginning, Foggitt admits, cruising had the image of “granny and grandpa, sitting on deckchairs, wrapped in blankets”… but South Africans quickly began to catch on to the idea of a no-responsibilities, all-organised environment where you could, if you wanted to, let your hair down.
“It’s still like that: South Africans, it doesn’t matter what colour they are, sure know how to have a good time!” he laughs.
It wasn’t all smiles back in August 1991, when Foggitt got a 2am telephone call and the voice on the other end said “she’s sinking!” The “she” was the Oceanos, a French-built, Greek-owned vessel chartered by TFC for that cruise season.
“I thought: ‘What are they on about? This is a big ship, it can’t sink! My worse-case scenario was that it would have to be towed into PE, which would be highly embarrassing…”
It quickly turned out to be a cruise tour operator’s ultimate nightmare. Not only was the ship going down in the tempestuous waters off the Wild Coast, but the crew and the Greek captain had abandoned ship and left the 200-plus passengers to their fate.
Foggitt hardly slept for the next day, answering calls from journalists from all over the world, monitoring the rescue operation mounted by the SA Air Force and Navy and a number of commercial vessels in the area. There were rescues of people from the tipping deck of the ship by air force Puma helicopters in a drama which would go down as a modern maritime miracle.
Following the sinking of the Oceanos, Foggitt and his sister, Daphne, started Starlight Cruises, which pioneered cruising in SA, growing the industry from 12 000 passengers to 87 000 in 2011 when they sold Starlight to MSC Cruises.
The business has continued to grow since and 140 000 is the target for the 2018/19 season.
One of the most popular cruises is the one up the Mozambique Channel from Durban, stopping at various places in Mozambique. Even though Foggitt has done it “20, or maybe 30 times”, he says “I still don’t get bored, because I am a people-watcher. I love sitting there with my Heineken, just looking …”
One of the interesting aspects of the cruises – still offered by MSC Cruises (Foggitt and the family sold their interests back to the Italians last year but still market the products through their Cruises SA company) – is that, once the ship pulls away from the dock in Durban, South Africans seem to forget their differences. No matter what gender, what race, or what age … they just party, says Foggitt.
The wheel of life has also swung full circle for Foggitt as he has recently embarked on a new venture which, in many ways, echoes his father’s pioneering tours to exotic destinations.
Working with Keith Gow, another local travel industry icon, Foggitt has put together a series of charter flights direct to the island archipelago of the Maldives. For the first time, South Africans will be offered a direct flight to the islands (most people go there via an airline hub, like Dubai). The direct, seven-hour flight also cuts down on the transfer time – which can be up to six hours in boats or on small aircraft in other parts of the Maldives.
Airbus A340 aircraft have been chartered from South African Airways (SAA) with crews and “full service … no packets of chips”, he smiles.
Even as someone who has seen some of the most beautiful parts of the world – and who himself owns properties in beautiful places like Zanzibar, the charm of the southern Maldivian island of Gan is that it is not crowded.
“You cannot believe how amazing the waters are when it comes to fish life. You see more off the jetty there than snorkelling elsewhere!”
He is hopeful that the charters, which run through December and January, will be popular enough to convince SAA to make the place a regular destination.
Foggitt realises he should have retired long ago, but “once travel gets into your blood, it’s there forever”.
He adds: “What better job to have than where you get to meet interesting people from all over, get to experience amazing places…”