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East Africa Tourism

Wolfgang’s East Africa tourism report

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Wolfgang H. Thome  Mar 14, 2008

The licensing committee of the Civil Aviation Authority has just set April 10th for the next hearing of applications for air service licenses. At least 12 companies have applied for new licenses or a renewal of their existing licenses. These applications are for non-scheduled and scheduled passenger and cargo services cum aerial spraying and medical evacuation services/air ambulance operations.

Venue for the public hearing is the Imperial Royale Hotel in Kampala at 11 a.m. on the day. Members of the public as well as media representatives are welcome to attend the proceedings.

In the meantime, outgoing managing director of the UCAA, Mr. Ambrose Akandonda, has revealed the traffic figures for 2007, standing now at over 720,000 passengers, again a substantial improvement over the preceding year and largely attributed to the increase in international flights by such carriers as Brussels Airlines, KLM and South African Airlines and the going daily by Ethiopian Airlines.

Kenyan LCC Fly540 has been put on the top of the hearing schedule for the next CAA licensing meeting, giving the clearest indication yet that they intend to establish a locally incorporated Ugandan airline under the same name. This serves notice to other airlines in Uganda that competition is about to descend on them like the proverbial ‘ton of bricks’ and will undoubtedly compel several of them to either improve their service levels or face hard times. Operating cost effective modern ATRs, the Kenyan low cost carrier is expected to do financially well in Uganda, where high fares were perpetuated by the most recent upstart Air Uganda, instead of bringing fare levels down to more affordable levels as initially hoped for and making air travel available to larger sections of society.
Fly540 is also expected to establish other regional footholds, before the regulatory environment in Eastern Africa will eventually be harmonized and country specific air operations become once again subordinate to a joint East African aviation regulator.
In the meantime however Fly540 is intent to obtain a Ugandan ASL (air services license) and an AOC (air operator’s certificate) and will then base dedicated ATR aircraft at Entebbe International Airport. A similar development is anticipated for Tanzania too in due course. Lonrho Africa is the main shareholder in the Kenyan company but is also expected to be instrumental in the new companies now emerging across several, probably as many as eight Eastern, Southern and Western African countries, where Lonrho has substantial economic interests. Watch this space.

The newly build and refurbished facilities at the ‘old’ airport in Entebbe are now subject to some considerable wrangling behind the scenes over the use of the dedicated ‘domestic departure’ lounge and the entire area. Sources within Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have quietly confirmed that there is a possibility to turn this area in to a specific VVIP terminal, which however would cause the CAA further expenditure, and loss of rent and advertising revenue for the time being, if a new domestic terminal would need to be constructed. Other sources however played down the question and pointed out that at this stage no decision had been made and a panel of experts was presently still looking into the matter. Recommendations would be expected in due course and the aviation fraternity is holding their breath until then. Watch this space for further developments on this emerging saga.

The failure by government to avail sufficient funding for the just concluded ITB participation of the Uganda Tourist Board and the country’s private sector to put up a shining stand in Berlin has angered the private sector stakeholders to no end. An article in the Daily Monitor of today expressed the sentiments of participants fed up with the situation. Several efforts were made prior to the trade fair to convince government to release funds, and while top level intervention secured the stand rental cost, this was clearly not enough to perform as anticipated and expected. Said one participant in clearly a foul mood over his experience: “..this has to stop. We have embarrassed ourselves. For how long can we allow bureaucrats to mismanage these affairs? They have sabotaged our efforts to promote tourism efficiently. We will ask for those responsible to be sacked for messing with our country’s good name abroad. There was a lot of interest in East Africa and Uganda and we have been let down, the country has been let down. How can we fill all these new hotel rooms and conference facilities which were built for CHOGM last year if we do not promote them strongly?”
Find the Daily Monitor article by Joseph Olanyo through the following link:

The Kampala Aero Club and Flight Training Centre in Kajjansi has now resumed limited training flights for aspiring pilots after managing to import some AVGAS via Mwanza / Tanzania. The main suppliers for aviation fuel in Uganda, Shell and Total, have however failed to restock this crucially important fuel type, which is used in most light, single and twin engined, aircraft presently used for ‘safari flying’ and other charters across the country and into the region. Sources from within the aviation fraternity speak of a two months supply gap for AVGAS by Shell, and while fresh deliveries have apparently reached Nairobi’s Wilson Airport and other Kenyan airfields, the Entebbe depot for AVGAS is reportedly still empty. Aviation fuel company contacts confirmed that a delivery is now only expected in the second half of March, which is totally unsatisfactory for the air operators. KAFTC is the only licensed training private training facility of its kind in Uganda at present. The other training school is the publicly owned East African Aviation Academy in Soroti / Eastern Uganda. That school however is presently short of aircraft, until newly ordered training equipment is delivered, and has reportedly also been short of fuel, caused by the Kenyan crises in January and February as well as lack of sufficient funds to pay for the sharply increased prices.

No confirmation could be obtained from government sources about the main national fuel storage facility in Jinja keeping AVGAS stocks for emergencies, which could be released to air operators in times of need.

In fact press reports about the status of the national fuel reserves in Jinja, as published in the local media this week after a visit of the parliamentary session committee on energy, speak of “empty tanks” as far as government reserves were concerned and that private companies were owning the present stocks. During the visit it was also discovered, that most of the about 40 fuel companies in Uganda, especially the smaller ones’ apparently have no significant storage facilities of their own at all, depending entirely on the national reserves for supplies during crisis times. Watch this space for emerging news.

Construction at the so-called Hilton Kampala construction site has apparently resumed, after the promoters reportedly secured another loan of US$20 million from a Southern African finance company. The notorious “Aya” brothers promptly resumed their full mouthed statements, which had hitherto made them into a laughing stock amongst the hospitality fraternity with their often grotesque assurances, to have the hotel ready for last year’s Commonwealth Summit. Far from being ready the construction had been halted several times in the past for more than just financial reasons, when architects, contractors and consultancy teams pulled out of the project. Completion cost, initially estimated at US$90 million, are now said to have risen to as much as US$120 million due to sharply increased energy costs but also heavy price increases for building steel and cement, amongst other construction items.

In a related development, no one is holding any breath during March 2008, which several government officials had set for Kingdom Hotels commencing construction of their hotel project at the former Shimoni Primary School. The educational institution was hastily moved to another – at the time incomplete and todate still too small site, to allow for demolition of the premises some two years ago. In spite of the undue haste at the time Kingdom Hotels failed to make any headway so far. The company is however spending quite heavily in Kenya on a full rehabilitation of the former Lonrho Hotels properties, which they acquired a few years ago. They are also said to be interested in the Tanzanian market, but market confidence in Uganda will be measured on making progress in Kampala too. Watch this space.

Following the launch of the 4th mobile operator in the country public complaints arose over the placement of Warid Telecom masts inside heavily populated residential areas, in some cases right next to houses. Media scrutiny subsequently unearthed the reality of mast installations, most of which were not approved and sanctioned by NEMA. This led to a further public outcry for action, prompting the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to issue full page statements in the local print media, trying to defend the present situation and offering a consultative exercise to determine the safety and suitability of both masts and their electronic equipment as well as of locations chosen by the operators. Government also promised to develop and issue guidelines for mast placements in due course.

This announcement followed a swiftly arranged hearing conducted by the ICT parliamentary committee, trying to ascertain the health risks to the public by unapproved masts. All four telecoms providers in the country appear to have a substantial shortfall of approvals between the masts put up across the country and those sanctioned by NEMA. Warid alone claims to have put up some 400 masts prior to going operational but apparently less than 10 percent of those have been approved by NEMA. Existing companies too apparently have a low mast/approval ratio, although it has been confirmed that masts erected inside protected areas (national parks, game and forest reserves) have undergone the full process of NEMA’s regulations and approval processes, where agreed mitigation measures had to be implemented by the applicant companies.

The latest innovation in telecommunications was launched last week by Uganda Telecom, when it inaugurated its 3G network, the first of its kind in Uganda and Eastern Africa. Visitors to the country can at a very nominal cost acquire a local SIM card from UTL outlets or dealers, preload call credit and then are able to make video calls from suitable mobile handsets or receive television broadcasts from local stations. UTL is also offering Blackberry services for visitors from abroad using this facility in their home country. Latest entrant Warid Telecom however is still only offering conventional mobile call options, without even GPRS/EDGE or CDMA connections, leave alone the other high tech offers presently available from UTL, Celtel or MTN. Subsequently their market penetration is still low and the soon expected start of a 5th operator – HITS Telecom – is now thought to be only successful if launched immediately with a full product range instead of going piece meal like Warid. Warid has also been singled out for allegedly causing phone malfunctions through their use of a extra capacity 64 KB SIM cards, which seems to be too much for many of the commonly used phones in Uganda, overall not a good start for the newcomer. Consumers however presently have the last laugh as the cost for hand sets and for call rates have come down on a broad basis and more cuts and special offers are expected to flood the market just before HITS hits the market.

The Uganda Golf Club, located in the very heart of Kampala, where it owns and operates the city’s premier 18 hole golf course, just celebrated its centenary, having been launched in 1908. Along with the celebrations went substantial improvements to the course, the club house and the entire infrastructure. The course forms part of the ‘green lung’ of the capital city and is open for temporary membership of visiting golfers, with several hotels offering this facility to their guests, who then only have to pay, often reduced’ green fees. Caddies are readily available for ‘guest golfers’ at the club house.

The publisher of East Africa’s premier travel and leisure magazine, TN – Travel~Leisure~Life has in his monthly column ‘Miscellaneous Ramblings’ hit the nail on the head, when talking about the tourism recovery in Kenya. GO DOMESTIC! Many resorts, hotels and lodges took a while to rediscover the domestic market in this time of need (SOME IN FACT ARE STILL PONDERING) for which they normally only make special deals available during the annual off season, lasting from after Easter until the end of June (lodges) and up to middle or end July for some of the beach destinations.
With overseas traffic of tourists still down to a fraction of the pre-election usual, at least some tourism businesses have responded to the challenge and made special offers available to Kenyans and in fact East Africans. Yet, as mentioned before, East African governments – and in particular the one most in need to revive tourism = Kenya – ought to swiftly scrap Visa requirement for expatriates duly registered and living in one of the other East African countries to remove the Visa cost burden from a holiday within the region, rather than having this market segment fly off to the Gulf or Southern Africa, where NO Visa fees are due to them. Other than that, there are excellent packages on the market already between now and Easter and more so for the traditional low season. In fact, an insert in the latest TN edition from Cheli and Peacock (visit is absolutely “mouth-watering” and those in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi who are not taking advantage to following the footsteps of the rich and famous – while those are still hesitating to return to Kenya – may miss a chance which may never come back again. Travelling to Kenya now is also a way of supporting a good neighbour and helping the tourism industry recover, something we in Eastern Africa will all benefit from in coming months and years. And with Fly540 now operating from Entebbe to Nairobi and on to Lamu, Malindi, Mombasa or even the Masai Mara at low affordable fares, there should be no stopping the Ugandan expat community to show that extra bit of solidarity – and saving big time in the process.

Owing to the drop in occupancies over the past two months to an average of below 25 percent, the Nairobi Hilton has for the time being postponed the planned refurbishment and modernization. The city centre five star business hotel, which offers over 250 suites and rooms, has suffered along with the rest of Kenya’s tourism sector, as it depends greatly on conference and business visitors, as well as tourist groups, most of which deserted the country over the political violence.

It is however understood, that the hotel has used the lesser occupancies and started with some ‘soft’ work on the floors presently closed. It was pointed out that the main refurbishment and upgrading exercise will only now commence, once a clearer picture emerges on the strength and speed of Kenya’s tourism recovery.

Congo’s abominable record of wildlife conservation and protection has taken another hit when news emerged that the Kinshasa regime has failed to assert any control over the national park along the Rwanda and Uganda borders, where the prized mountain gorillas can be found. While the three wildlife management bodies of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda have signed agreements towards joint efforts to protect the animals, and the governments of Rwanda and Uganda have shown serious commitment towards this end, the Congo regime again seems intransigent about the situation at the Virunga National Park, where last year a number of the animals ended up dead. The game rangers at the time fled from marauding soldiers and Hutu militias terrorizing the area, which at the time cause wide spread population displacements. Predictably the Kinshasa mouthpieces have blamed Tutsi dominated protection forces, which were formed to prevent yet another Hutu perpetrated genocide against their ethnic group, a convenient and regular excuse for all the regime’s ills in Eastern Congo. However, with heavy UN forces present in the area and recent truce agreements between most of the militias and the regime, there should be no further excuses for again sitting on their hands.

The most notorious case of aiding and abetting wildlife extermination in Congo was found in Garamba National Park, where the Kinshasa regime tolerated – some even say openly supported – Ugandan rebel groups to pitch camp and in the process poach into extinction the remaining wild Northern White Rhino population, alongside dozens of killed elephants and other species of wildlife.

The Rwanda office for tourism and national parks once again scored highly at the just concluded ITB, when they retained the top spot for African exhibitors. Congratulations to Rosette Rugamba and her entire team for this wonderful achievement in putting Rwanda firmly back on the map of tourism destinations in Eastern Africa. Well Done!

Further progress has now been reported for the intended railway link between Kigali and the Tanzanian inland dry port of Isaka. The line, to be constructed over the next few years, will be of ‘standard’ or otherwise called ‘international’ gauge of 1.435 mtrs width, compared to the hitherto common 1 mtr gauge narrow line, which is found all over Eastern Africa. Rwanda is said to be very keen on developing this alternative supply and export route to and from Dar es Salaam port by rail, which would substantially lower the road transportation cost for fuel and other goods for the country, but also make exports through Dar es Salaam’s port cheaper. The Isaka station will become the interchange platform where containers and other goods will be transferred from the narrow gauge line coming from Dar to the standard gauge line moving into Rwanda. It could not be confirmed if a railway extension into Burundi is presently planned or indeed viable for development.

Kigali’s international airport will soon see the installation of SITA’s air traffic information system and air-ground data link ‘Digital ATIS’. The introduction of the new technology for Rwanda’s main international airport is a result of ICAO’s ongoing commitment to improve aviation safety in Africa. The new system is reportedly reducing reliance on voice transmissions and installation is expected to be complete by the end of the year.

Wolfgang’s East Africa tourism report

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