Although it is not acknowledged in Tanzania, a mild tourism recession has been with us since 2008 for reasons beyond our control. When our neighbor, Kenya, went up in smoke due to the bungled 2007 national elections and there was mayhem resulting into loss of life and property, the first industry to feel the pinch was tourism. International flights to Kenya were temporarily suspended as travel alerts were issued by western countries advising their nationals to avoid traveling to Kenya. But we all know that when Kenya sneezes, Tanzania and Uganda catch the cold.
There were reports at that time that some holiday makers canceled their travel plans to Kenya and instead opted for Tanzania. If this is true, then it was only for a short period and not long term. This is because for the outside world, East Africa is just one and the same place. Any negative news or publicity on either Kenya or Tanzania will somehow affect the other. In this case, the tourism slump in Kenya was bound to affect this side of the business as well. In any case, some of the tourists start their visit in Kenya and extend to Tanzania and return to Kenya for the flights back home. In other words, a sizeable portion of tourism business in Kenya is inextricably intertwined with that of Tanzania and, therefore, there is no way Tanzania could have been spared from the consequences of the Kenya’s 2007-8 political turmoil especially on the tourism front.
Indeed there was a bit of sanguinity in the region when the Kenya Tourist Board and government of Kenya joined forces and sent a big delegation in mid-2008 to the London Travel Market. The idea was not to promote Kenya as a tourist destination as such, but it was, by and large, a public relations campaign to try to unwind the negative image and stigma arising from the elections fiasco.
As the sages say, misfortunes don’t come in singles. Just when everybody was looking for a rebound of tourism in East Africa, especially in 2009, the financial meltdown in late 2008 and the global economic recession thereof clearly put a damper on any hope for a quick recovery. Reports indicate that tourism in Tanzania dropped by 20 percent to 30 percent in 2009 compared to the previous year. Speaking to the Citizen Newspaper, Mr. Timothy Njaga, general manager of Gibbs Farm Lodge, one of the oldest tourist outfits in the Karatu area, said, “Many lodges were affected by the world economic downturn, which led to the decline in tourists.” In this regard, tourist hotels located in the game parks are the hardest hit, unlike those within the metropolitan centers, which are not entirely dependent on tourists. “Room occupancy is a big challenge in many lodges. I still believe it is the government which can bail us out through aggressive marketing in major tourist markets abroad,” Mr. Njaga observed.
Mr. Njaga has a point about the government’s intervention to assist the hospitality industry, which at the moment is in dire stress. Let’s us explore the options available.
First, sometime in June 2009, just before the 2009/10 government budget was presented to Parliament in Dodoma, President Kikwete unveiled a landmark economic stimulus package to help certain sectors of the economy to cope with the after shocks of the world economic recession. Prominently featuring in this package were the coffee and cotton sectors. It is a bit surprising, because going by Mr. Njaga’s lamentations, the tourism sector seems to have missed out on the president’s largesse. One would expect the financially-strapped hotels and lodges within the proximity of the National Parks and Game Reserves should have been considered as well and be given a subsidy until tourism is firmly on the mend, lest they go under. Indeed, if this is the scenario, then the Minister responsible for tourism, Madame Shamsa Mwagunga, has her job well cut out.
Second, while in the past two years or so the government through the Tanzania Tourist Board (TTB) has been doing a tremendous job insofar as promotion of Tanzania’s tourism abroad is concerned, this is the time more than before, to double the efforts in this regard. As the world gradually recovers from the recession, tourism like all sectors of the economy will rebound back. However, let us remember that holiday making as a consumer good is not a top priority. In fact, it is the lowest in the pecking order in the basket of goods for consumers. It is, therefore, very likely that for a foreseeable future, the demand for holiday making will fall far below the supply side. This being the case, there will be a very high competition worldwide to attract potential tourists with enough disposable income to spare on holiday making. In this context, Tanzania as a tourist destination will be competing with the Bahamas, Bermuda, Kenya, Namibia, Seychelles, Botswana, etcetera. To succeed, Tanzania has to invest in aggressive marketing, being cost competitive in many areas including, tourist visa facilitation, surface transportation, and airfares. In addition security must be enhanced to avoid ugly incidents, which have the effect of scaring away tourists.
This brings us to the final point. Tanzania must do what it takes to have a reputable international airline that will augment the government and TTB’s efforts to promote tourism abroad. Lack of an international airline of good repute is a major handicap for tourism marketing abroad. Kenya is likely to recover very quickly from the tourism downturn because Kenya Airways (KQ) is directly affected by passenger slump and, therefore, is busy in the markets abroad wooing tourists to come back to Kenya but this is not the case for Tanzania. We cannot depend on foreign airlines like KLM or British Airways to do this for Tanzania.
I recall with nostalgia the way the defunct Alliance Air (a joint venture airline between SAA, Tanzania, and Uganda) used to promote Tanzania single-handedly as a major tourist destination by displaying attractive and giant posters at strategic locations on the London Underground Railway Transportation system. This, plus other outdoor advertisements through General Sales Agents (GSAs) in far places like Toronto in Canada, Frankfurt in Germany, and even Australia were very effective insofar as putting Tanzania on the world tourism map is concerned. TTB can attest to this fact. I also recall with anguish that Alliance Air was involved in serious discussions with the influential CNN Traveller Magazine for a major promotional campaign on Tanzania’s tourism, but this project was nipped in the bud because the airline closed due to petty squabbling and lack of foresight on the part of Uganda and Tanzania. Ten years since the demise of Alliance Air, both Tanzania and Uganda are still struggling to have an airline of international stature to champion their tourism cause just like Kenya Airways is doing for Kenya, but “wapi?” In this regard KQ is the envy of East Africa aviation. Without a strong international airline, full realization of tourism potential in Tanzania will remain a pipedream.