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East Africa Tourism

Wolfgang's East Africa tourism report

Wolfgang H. Thome  Jul 24, 2009

Having broken the news on the forest fire in Rwanda and the subsequent spreading of the fiery blaze into Uganda, the UWA spokesperson Lillian Nsubuga also rushed to reassure the public that there was no cause for concern for visiting tourists, nor had the gorillas on the Ugandan side of the border transcending ecosystem suffered in any way or lost their habitat or fled across the borders, as was falsely claimed by poorly-informed scribes in some sections of the media.

She also confirmed that Rwandan helicopters had been given permission to douse the flames even on the Uganda side of the border, again discounting ill-meaning peddlers of half truths that air space violations had taken place. Rwandan sources also reaffirmed that this fire-fighting coordination had been cleared in advance through the usual diplomatic and other channels of communications.

Birdlife and forest wildlife, other than the gorillas, were, of course, moving away from the fires higher up into the mountain forests, while the fires were combatted by a joint force of the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), contingents of other security organizations, and volunteers from the adjoining communities.

UWA did point out that this was the first major forest fire since 1978 and generally considered an act of nature to cleanse the forest undergrowth.

No danger existed for tourist visitors nor to nearby tourist facilities at any time during the fire, and tracking for mountain gorillas, on both sides of the border, continued without interruption.

The Kampala Serena-hosted, French Michelin-starred chef Alex Morlot of the La Bastide de Capelongue in Provence, last week shared his long experience with the chefs and kitchen staff at Uganda’s finest hotel restaurant, The Pearl of Africa. Clients of the Serena could, for an entire week, sample the recipes and fine cuisine of Chef Alex without having to actually go to France, and reportedly several food aficionados went more than once to indulge themselves and their guests, celebrating the fine art of eating out.

In the wake of the Jakarta bombings of the Marriot and Ritz-Carlton hotels last weekend, where some sources claimed that security measures were far from desirable levels and some equipment not working properly, Uganda’s main hotels have further tightened their entry procedures, as have reportedly also hospitality businesses in Kenya and Tanzania. After speaking to a few senior contacts in the hospitality sector, selected hotels are now even considering screening the baggage of arriving guests for signs of explosives or weapons, as one of the Jakarta bombers appears to have checked into the hotel before then wreaking havoc on the facility, its staff, and other guests. This would be similar to baggage being screened at the airport in Entebbe, before travelers are permitted into the departure hall for check-in to their flight.

In Uganda, even mid-sized and mid-classed hotels have now installed walk-through metal detectors or are using hand-held scanning devices, while the city’s leading hotels have also moved towards major screening machines, through which hand bags, back packs, and briefcases have to be screened, while metal objects, mobile phones, and other electronic devices have to be subjected to a screening, too. When the top hotels, like the Sheraton or the Commonwealth Resort, host VIP guests and in particular heads of state, additional security is, of course, deployed through the Presidential Guard Brigade, which, besides perimeter security, also takes over the screening of all visitors to the hotel. However, there is an ongoing surveillance process in place, whereby security operatives in plain clothes move around the city’s leading hotels in order to constantly look out for and determine threat levels, a practice welcomed by the hospitality industry. Opposition politicians have often taken (futile) cause with this, at times claiming they are the targets of such security measures, while, in fact, the general safety and security of hotel visitors, from both abroad and within Uganda, is an aspect which must at no times be neglected and is the paramount objective of such efforts.

In regards to one of the country’s premier meeting and hospitality ventures, the Speke Resort, and its sister operation, Commonwealth Resort – incidentally due to host the upcoming Smart Partnership Dialogue for which 9 heads of state have confirmed their attendance – security commences with one screening point way ahead of the main gate, while the main gate is further secured by a hydraulic spike system, which would pierce vehicle tires should a car try to force its way into the compound. Notably, the two main resort complexes are still several hundred meters away from the main gate, adding a safe distance to any potential incident. The two resort complexes, regularly hosting state visitors, VIP’s from across the world, and high-ranking delegations, and also being the regional crew hotel for Brussels Airlines, is, according to proprietor Sudhir Ruparelia, cooperating closely with security organizations in regards to intelligence gathering, surveillance, and active patrols. This also extends into Lake Victoria to prevent a waterborne unauthorized entry into the sprawling estate. CCTV is supplemented by regular security patrols along the extensive perimeter and also across the main buildings of the resorts and meeting facilities. In honesty, Sudhir did say “one can never be certain that we are safe at all times,” but at least in this facility, all that is humanly possible is being done to ensure the safety of visitors while enjoying their stay. In closing, Sudhir particularly praised the close cooperation of his hotels with security organizations and attributed it to “good relations between all the parties concerned.” Google the two resorts for more information, or better yet, pay them a visit and stay at the shores of Lake Victoria in one of the most appealing settings found anywhere around Africa’s largest lake.

Uganda is the lead contributor of armed personnel to the African Union peace-keeping force in Somalia and, as such, has been subjected to regular threats by Islamic militants, something taken serious here. The country also is presently serving a two-year term on the UN Security Council, even while holding the rotating chair, again turning attention to the country from unwanted quarters. Hence, security, both overt and covert, has been stepped up across the entire nation, not just the capital city, to ensure that our people, our visitors, our installations, infrastructure, public meeting places – like hotels, conference venues, restaurants, and other major investments – are protected at all times.

Information has been received that the Ugandan Civil Aviation Authority has granted permission to Brussels Airlines to add a Lufthansa code share flight number to their own for the 4-times-a-week service between Brussels and Entebbe. This will, other than for some one off occasional cargo flights in the past, be the first scheduled Lufthansa flight number to Entebbe since the airline withdrew from Uganda in the heydays of notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the early 1970s.

The code-shared flight is thought to tap into an additional substantial pool of travelers loyal to Lufthansa, as well as feed connecting traffic from other Star Alliance partners into the SN flights. Announcements at the Entebbe International Airport already mention the LH flight number when announcing flight arrivals and calling passengers for check-in or boarding.

This column had already reported this development several weeks ago and formal confirmation from the two airlines has now at last been received, after an initially both coy, as well as stunned, reaction about the breaking news at the time. The more formal launch was held at the Sheraton Kampala Hotel earlier in the week, when SN country manager Pierre Declerk, flanked by SN’s country sales manager Roger Wamara and the Belgian and German Ambassadors, formally briefed the Ugandan media on these developments and the resulting opportunities for travelers on Brussels Airlines from and to Entebbe. Notably, no direct representative of Lufthansa was present at the occasion, underscoring the need for the German airline giant to restore a more visible presence in eastern Africa once again and support their alliance partners for flights to eastern Africa, Brussels Airlines, and Swiss in their sales and marketing activities. However, comments attributed by Pierre Declerk to Lufthansa in regard to the code-sharing approvals were repeated for the media houses present, saying that the processing and granting of the code share application “was amongst the very fastest ever seen,” a resounding vote of confidence for the Ugandan Civil Aviation Authority. The two ambassadors also expressed their support for the new cooperation between SN and LH with the German Ambassador H.E. Reinhard Buchholz in particular appearing pleased to see the largest German airline return to Uganda, albeit presently under a codeshare arrangement.

Meanwhile, SN has added its own flight number to the five-times-a-week service between Frankfurt and Libreville, which is operated by Lufthansa. Watch this space for updates.

The local media is certainly having another field day with the so called Kampala Hilton development by the notorious Aya brothers, when the local “gutter” press reported alleged attempts by the brothers to sell the structure of the hotel after failing to complete the process of finishing and furnishing.

While the structure is lit at night to give the impression of activity, during the day the site appears rather bare of activity, while it should by now be a beehive of workers scrambling on the inside of the hotel structure and the rooms.

The brothers predictably refuted these reports, and their chairman Mohamed Hamid is reported in Uganda’s leading newspaper, the New Vision, that he “has no intention of selling [its] hotel project at Nakaser”. The Red Pepper – notorious itself for its style of reporting and subsequent pending criminal and civil cases by Libya’s leader Col Gadaffi – had earlier alleged that the developers had failed to secure further funding for the finishing of the project, now into its 4th year. The story has also again caused prolonged laughter and other befitting comments from the more professional hospitality stakeholders asked about their opinions of the project, which in itself is a tell-all reaction.

Tony Clegg Butt, the past president of Skal International from the Nairobi Skal Chapter, has recently retired from his position as publisher, following a merger between his erstwhile brainchild, Travel News & Lifestyle and Twende, which belongs to a South African publishing group. TN, as it was referred to in short, which over the years become Kenya’s and east Africa’s premier travel magazine, was first published in a different format in the mid 90s and rose in size and content to cover not just eastern Africa but eventually the world at large. Eventually TN became a monthly reference guide for travel across the region, to the lesser-known game parks and reserves and to new lodges, camps, and beach resorts, while also annually publishing “The Quest for the Best of East Africa” winners from across the tourism, hospitality, and aviation industry, after a yearly process of nominations from the readers of the glossy magazine.

TN had for long time absorbed editorial content from this column, but after the merger, it appears that the new lot had other ideas, as they eventually even dropped the initially joint named “Twende and TN” and then even halted the free distribution of proof copies, which the regular contributors used to receive and at which stage this column also dropped them from the recipient list.

Tony will be missed, undoubtedly, by the majority of his former staff at TN but will for sure resurface sooner rather than later, him not being a creature of leisure that is. Meanwhile, full compliments for an impressive publishing career, which brought the marvels of eastern Africa to a wider audience and made travel at home more fashionable. His own column in TN, “Miscellaneous Ramblings,” regularly told the not-so-good things he came across when flying around the globe or encountering less than the expected hospitality levels at a restaurant, hotel, or resort, but he also praised those enterprises which performed well, giving them a competitive edge as the readers of TN always followed his trend setting. This columnist for sure will miss reading about his exploits and both as a friend and colleague wishes him well as he crosses to new horizons. Asante Sana Bwana Tony, it was a pleasure working with you!

As demand for air travel in Kenya appears on the upswing once again, Fly 540 has promptly started adding extra flights from their base in Nairobi to Mombasa, Malindi, and Kisumu. The first true low-cost, no-frills airline in the east African region now flies fives times a day between Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi to the coastal city of Mombasa, while they have added a third daily flight between Nairobi and Kisumu. Malindi, too, is now being served three times a day, adding at least some capacity after Kenya Airways withdrew their Embraer 170 service a few weeks ago, citing insufficient loads at the time.

The airline has, at the same time, confirmed earlier speculation that a new flight from Nairobi to Zanzibar will be launched in August, also routing via Dar es Salaam and Kilimanjaro, giving passengers a full range of the Tanzania connection. Previously, Fly 540 operated their flight to Zanzibar via Mombasa, and it was confirmed by the airline that these twice daily flights will continue to be available. This permits a combination of a holiday in both Mombasa and Zanzibar, where tourists can enjoy some of the best beaches in the world, besides very posh accommodation and excellent food.

Following a recent marketing blitz in eastern Europe, KTB’s activities have now turned towards Japan and arguably other markets in the far and south east of Asia. Japan, in spite of the current economic challenges, remains an important source market for visitors to Kenya and east Africa for that matter. Workshops, B2B meeting sessions, and sales calls are now unfolding across Japan’s major cities with the aim of popularizing Kenya as a holiday and MICE destination.

President Mwai Kibaki has, in the meantime, called upon the other East African Community member states to ease travel across the internal borders so that trade and tourism can be stimulated and the economies across eastern Africa benefit from closer economic ties. Adds this column: “Start with a common visa for foreign visitors to allow them visit all member states without having to pay for a visa at each border, and permit visa-free travel for expatriate residents in any of the EAC member states, to fully tap into that potential domestic tourist market. In addition, make travel by car across the region easy by compelling national insurance companies to issue insurance covers valid for the entire East African Community and align and standardize driver’s licences and car ownership documents for the EAC.”

Information received from Kenya speaks of a new holiday charter route to be established between Moscow and Mombasa, which would prove to be the first ever such operation bringing holiday makers directly from Russia to the sandy Indian Ocean beaches of the Kenyan coast.

In the past, the old Aeroflot used to operate flights between the then Soviet Union and Kenya, but the several waypoints and use of outdated and aged equipment eventually led to the halt of these flights. The Kenya Tourist Board and private sector recently embarked on an intense road show in Russia, Poland, and the Czech Republic with the aim of tapping into these emerging markets, and tour operators from the latter two countries are reportedly considering commencing direct charter flights for tourists. The Kenyan Minister of Tourism Hon. Najib Balala also briefed the media at his hometown of Mombasa over the last weekend that holiday charters may also resume later in the year from France, Belgium, and Holland, as demand was showing an upwards trend for coastal holidays in Kenya. Coast hoteliers this column spoke with are also hopeful that direct flights from Poland and the Czech Republic can be established soon.

The latest news from Fly 540’s Tanzanian operation now indicates that they are stationing a Beech 1900 aircraft at the Arusha municipal airport to offer convenient connections for tourists wishing to fly from there to Manyara and the Serengeti. It is understood that the flights will also route via Kilimanjaro International to pick up or drop off passengers flying to Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, or Zanzibar, or coming from there for game park visits. The development is yet another strong indicator that the regional tourism industry may be through the worst of the fallout of the global economic and financial crisis and that a firm upwards trend has once again emerged. The B1900 is a fully-pressurized aircraft, providing a substantially better flying experience compared to other twin engine aircraft often used for safari flying, while at the same time attaining faster speeds and higher cruising altitude to avoid much of the usual mid-afternoon “bumpy ride.” Well done!

A convenient new connection, three times a week, now permits business and tourist travelers to fly nonstop from Tanzania’s commercial capital to Lusaka, Zambia. The flights presently operate every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday using a B737-500. Launch airfares start at US$375 plus taxes for a return from Dar to Lusaka. The privately-owned airline also flies between Lusaka, Livingstone, and Ndola to Johannesburg, while more domestic Zambian services are operated by partner airline Proflight Zambia, connecting passenger from Lusaka to such destinations as Livingstone, Ndola, Solwezi, Mfuwe, and Chipata.

Zambezi started operations about one year ago and now operates two leased B737-500 aircraft, each offering 12 premier business-class and 99 economy-class seats in a two-class configuration. More information about the airline is available via

A recent visit to Rwanda by leading investments groups from the United Arab Emirates resulted in a mutual call for closer ties, with Rwanda emphasizing that UAE-based investments are welcome in the country. Relevant to this column was the high priority area of investments in the hospitality sector where Rwanda is aiming at doubling the number of rooms presently available in the country to further support wildlife-based and conference tourism.

In a related development, Rwanda is now also working progressively towards adopting the EAC recommendations on standards, grading, and classification of hospitality businesses to give visitors a clearer image of what to expect in terms of quality of their chosen hotel or safari lodge.

News emerged earlier in the week about plans by the government to create a wireless environment for the entire capital city of Kigali, while at the same time linking the rest of the country to a fiber-optic network. While in Rwanda recently, this correspondent already saw preparations in full swing to lay fiber-optic cables to the key centers of the country, and when the global fiber-optic links, presently two of them already landed in Mombasa, or in the case of another provider, about to be connected at the Kenyan coast, are finally switched on, Rwanda, too, will benefit from the IT revolution presently sweeping the world. No details on the cost of the services for users were immediately available though.

In a related development in neighboring Tanzania, it was learned that the fiber-optic sea bed cable has also landed in Dar es Salaam recently and was formally launched by President Kikwete on Thursday.

Similarly, in Kenya, the second fiber-optic sea bed cable company is also due to go online by Thursday, and once all the connections have been activated, Uganda, too, is expected to benefit via the national fiber-optic back bone installed by both government and private telecom companies.

The global economic and financial crisis seems to have forgotten all about Rwanda’s aviation sector, as the RCAA recorded a whopping increase of 17 percent for the year 2008, while the first few months of 2009 also continue to point upwards in terms of passengers handled, aircraft movements, and cargo processed.

Kanombe International Airport is undergoing some further work to keep it spic and span, while a completely new international airport, the second in the country, is being built to cater for further growth in traffic. Rwanda is geographically well placed to reach the entire eastern Congo and facilitate feeder traffic via Kigali into the growing number of intercontinental flights originating form there. Nearly 40 flights per week connect Rwanda with Nairobi, and Entebbe now has three connections per day, a sharp contrast compared to as recent as 2006.

When the decision of the arbitration panel, put into place by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, was published on Wednesday this week, the ruling demanded that the 2005 borders, as set by the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) between the regime in Khartoum and the SPLA-led liberation movement in the south, needed to be redrawn. It was not immediately clear what effect this will have on the size of the state and what it means in particular for the area of the rich oilfields, although the Higleg field appears to have been apportioned to the north. The ruling on the borders of the Abyei state, once fully understood and made clear, will have a significant effect on the future of the hitherto disputed territory when the Abyei population, alongside the general referendum in 2011 where the south Sudan decides on its own future, can determine if they, too, want to belong to the south. Abyei is presently under direct rule by the Sudanese presidency and widely expected to opt for belonging to the south, when the time comes to vote. Meanwhile, hawk eyes will watch the situation in coming months to ensure that no mischief is vented on the people of Abyei and that the area is not stuffed with external people not actually belonging there to change the demographics and outcome of the referendum.

A guide book to many of the hitherto undiscovered waterfalls in the Zambian wilderness was recently received by this correspondent, published in 2005 by Ilse Mwanza and Quentin Allen. The 180-page detailed guide, richly illustrated with pictures and maps, provides intrepid travelers and adventure seekers with a wealth of information about the lesser-known rivers across the country and the 150 waterfalls one can discover once going off the beaten tracks and venturing into the great African unknown. Detailed coordinates taken from GPS devices are, of course, published alongside the relevant information for each of the falls. More of them are undoubtedly still waiting to be found, and expeditions to Zambia for that purpose can be arranged by leading safari and adventure operators.

A rating system for the newly-discovered waterfalls was also applied by the authors, giving a scale from 1 to 10, the latter for the most spectacular falls to be found. In addition, the book provides ample descriptions of waterfall definitions, waterfalls types, and a glossary of waterfalls terms, undoubtedly enriching the vocabulary of intending visitors. This correspondent, widely traveled, of course, across eastern and central Africa, came to realize what a gap still exists in his African travels, not having been to Zambia proper.

Ilse Mwanza, a native of Germany, is the wife of former Zambian Central Bank Governor Dr. Jacob Mwanza and has lived since the late 1960s in Lusaka. Profound thanks go to Ilse for her kindness in sending the book by courier to Kampala, and as we say here in Uganda, “Webare Nyo Nyo Nyo.”

Interested readers can find the book under the following ISBN number: ISBN 9982-9952-0-0, distributed by Gadsden Books and printed by New Horizon Printing Press, Lusaka, Zambia.

Nelson Mandela celebrated his 91st birthday last weekend with a big show in New York where a number of global celebrities and personalities were at hand to witness the event and perform. Mandela, a true African liberation hero, found his already bigger than life stature in South Africa made all the more remarkable by his decision to serve only one term of office as President of South Africa. This is nearly unprecedented in the African political environment, where leaders often try to hang on to office well beyond their “sell by” dates. Mandela is an inspiration for the young generation of Africa wishing and aspiring to live in a peaceful and democratic environment where all races, tribes, religions, and cultures can co-exist and prosper.

A very Happy Birthday wish from this columnist, who considers “Madiba” Nelson Mandela as “The” African freedom fighter, liberator, statesman, and global personality of the 20th and 21st century.

Wolfgang's East Africa tourism report
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