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East Africa Tourism

Wolfgang’s East Africa report

Wolfgang H. Thome, eTN Africa  Jul 17, 2008

Residents from Kihihi, Kanungu district, a community bordering the Queen Elizabeth National Park’s Southern or "Ishasha" sector are up in arms over groups of elephant marauding in the area and feeding from their farms. Efforts to drive the elephant off with simple methods like making noise were not successful so far and community leaders have now called upon Uganda Wildlife Authority and other government organs to chase the elephant back into the park, lest all their crops are destroyed. A growing population along the national park boundaries has in recent years aggravated the problem of coexistence and animals straying out of the park are now immediately entering a farming belt, which has extended to the boundaries with little or no regard of the wild animal population "on the other side." Yet, some migratory species of animals follow their age-old paths with equally little regard to the new realities of the ‘outside world’ bringing humans and animals on collision course.

The National Forest Authority has just released new data over the relentless assault on forests across the country. The NFA in a recent release in particular pointed at the area of Kibaale and Nakasongola districts, where encroachment and illegal logging is said to be at the highest across the country. This is of particular significance to the tourism sector, as the Kibaale Forest is not only a national park but also home to 13 known species of primates, making it one of the highest primate concentrations in the world. Nakasongola district is home to Uganda’s first rhino sanctuary and a transit route to Murchisons Falls National Park and nearby reserves and protected areas. A viable tourism industry, including a privately managed lodges, has sprung up in both Kibaale and Nakasongola in recent years and like with Mabira are now faced with the stark reality that tourism and conservation are apparently not good enough reasons to protect the environment and move encroachers out of the forests and parks. The report further states that in 1988 some 26 percent of the country were still covered by intact forests which by early 2008 had reduced to only 13 percent, but with a growing threat to the integrity of the remaining forests.

The NFA also decried the trend to cut trees without replanting or by substituting mature tropical trees with ‘lesser’ species like eucalyptus, which are also alien to Uganda besides absorbing less carbon and diluting the country’s biodiversity. It is estimated that by 2012 some 400.000 hectares of forest will have been cut, including ‘industrial’ plantations of pine trees, while only 200.000 acres will have been replanted by then with a loss of variety. The Uganda government is now challenged to intervene and make provisions to encourage tree planting, even on an ‘industrial’ scale, to prevent the country from suffering the same fate as many other countries which stripped their forests away and ended up as deserts with massive impact on their populations.

News broke in Kampala last weekend that a Dutch tourist visitor to Uganda died upon her return home to the Netherlands of the Marburg virus. Details released by the Ministry of Health, the Director General of Health Dr. Sam Zaramba and a further communiqué from the United Nations World Health Organization confirmed, that the woman had repeatedly visited bat caves at Maramagambo Forest during her safari and that apparently at least one bat had fallen on her, being the likely cause of her infection. No other members of her party were so far found to show any symptoms however nor did any members of her family at home or other persons she was in contact with. Bats, and monkeys for that matter, are often suspected to carry the Marburg virus (and similar hemorrhagic fever viruses) and the tourism fraternity was cautioned to avoid taking tourists to such caves. A team from the Ministry of Health and the WHO are reportedly searching the caves in question to try and find the infected bats but have recommended suspending all visits to bat caves in the area until further notice. Embassies contacted also confirmed that there would be no hasty anti travel advisories over this case other than maintaining the usual precautions recommended at present by foreign offices and local diplomatic missions. It was also pointed out by all concerned, including the WHO, that there was “no outbreak” in the country contrary to suggestions made in regional and international media by misinformed ill-wishers. The guide who was on safari with the tourist has in the meantime also been given a clean bill of health by medical authorities as have other Ugandans who were in touch with the sadly deceased tourist.

Information received from the Madhvani Group, which also owns and operates the Mweya (Queen Elizabeth National Park) and Paraa (Murchisons Falls National Park) Safari Lodges, indicates that construction is advancing well for the reconstruction of the lodge and work is likely to be completed by April of 2009. Chobi is located in thick forest along the banks of the river Nile above the waterfalls in the Northern part of Murchisons and can easily be accessed via a reopened gate not far from the Karuma Bridge. Driving time from Kampala is estimated to be below four hours and, in particular, fishing aficionados are expected to swarm the lodge when open again to test their skills. The three lodges are part of one of Uganda’s most successful industrial conglomerates, owned by the Madhvani family, which has roots in this East African nation for well over 100 years now. The company went into the tourism business in the 1990’s, when first acquiring the Mweya Safari Lodge and then taking over the Paraa Safari Lodge, when the previous Kenya based owners could not make a success of it. Both lodges have since become corner stones for wildlife based tourism in Uganda and the reconstruction of Chobi will add yet more attractions to the tourism industry as an upmarket fishing and forest resort.

The Kampala office of Egypt Air earlier this week proudly announced that the Egyptian national airline has now formally joined Star Alliance. The airline presently flies three times a week between Entebbe and Cairo with immediate convenient onwards transfers into the network for flights to Europe and across the Middle East. Egypt Air is the second Star Alliance partner to fly into Entebbe after South African Airways, which is now flying daily between Johannesburg and Entebbe. Egypt Air expects a significant boost in passenger and cargo traffic in coming months as a result of now being an alliance partner and may in fact increase their Entebbe flights further, as they offer their European partner airlines networked connections via Cairo. It will also be of keen interest for passengers who can now earn Star Alliance mileage credits when travelling with Egypt Air, while a global network of lounges will be available for passengers’ comfort.

The African Airline Association has in a recent report released their assessment of the worst performing member countries. Predictably, the Congo DR tops the list as worst performer with a staggering one quarter of all accidents and incidents in Africa taking place in this country alone. Following not far off however are Angola and the Sudan, which has gained notoriety as a result of several air crashes during the past few months. Kenya has overtaken Nigeria in the statistics however, now occupying the fourth place in the name and shame list, while Nigeria is occupying fifth spot. As is often the case, if one has to fly in these countries it is important to know which airline to use and get sound advice from aviation associations and industry observers and analysts. It should be pointed out here that Kenya’s record was largely tainted by light aircraft incidents while flying with their scheduled airlines was largely considered to be up to international standards.

Recently released figures by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics on tourist arrivals raised prompt arguments, when the official data were put at 883,230 arrivals for the year 2007, a rise from 769,662 arrivals in the year 2006. Previous figures given however are less and questions have been asked as to the source of the data now published, in particular as details given for arrival in Entebbe seem out of line with reality and the statistics of the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority. There are also still open questions over the data published for previous years, when certain variations were not or poorly explained by the statisticians responsible to capture and process arrivals details from airports and land borders. In any case however, the general trend of rising arrivals are good for the country’s tourism and trade sectors and once the data have been reconfirmed, the final figures will appear in this column.

The country, and the region for that matter, is bracing itself to the potential of fuel prices climbing towards the psychologically important 2,800 Uganda Shillings mark. Some fuel stations are already close to it at present but as international fuel prices keep climbing, so they do in Uganda. The impact of ever higher cost of fuels is felt across the entire economy, where prices of commodities are rising noticeably, reflecting the higher transport and production cost. There is also public speculation now as to when the cost of a litre of petrol will reach the US$2 equivalent, combined with worries over how the economy in general will be able to cope with such unprecedented price levels and inflationary trends Visitors to the country are advised to check relevant websites on exchange rates and other economic indicators to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Bill Dixon of Bruce Safaris in Nairobi passed away a short while ago, leaving behind his grieving family and the many friends he made in his lifetime in Kenya, Eastern Africa and around the world, including this correspondent. Bill was one of a kind, and old hand in the safari business, Skalleague par excellence and of course father to Alan Dixon, who built his ‘Let’s Go Travel’ tourism empire over the past decades now spanning across Eastern Africa. Rest in peace my friend, until we meet again.

As the airline emerges from one of its most challenging periods during the post election violence in Kenya, new senior appointments have now taken place to bring in new blood following the exodus of top managerial staff late last year and early this year.

Mr. Alex Mbugua has taken charge as finance director, replacing Neil Canty whose contract had ended last month and was not renewed. Also new are Richard Nuttal, who replaced former commercial director Hugh Fraser and Bram Steller has also commenced his work as chief operating officer, a position newly created with the aim to root out operational challenges and pay strictest attention to quality control and on time performances. Negative media coverage on KQ from certain quarters have also been toned down of late, as it became apparent that the downtalking of KQ did not have the desired effect towards uptalking a certain aviation upstart associated with the shareholders of the media house in question.

East Africa’s premier airline is due to receive their second Embraer 170 aircraft in an all economy 72-seat configuration any time from now. The new aircraft will be used on regional routes for the off peak period flights but also serve domestic destinations, where the airline’s Boeing 737s are too large. Fuel efficiency will be the greatest bonus for KQ in view of the ever rising jet fuel cost and will further strengthen KQ’s market share and standing in the region. Once the new Embraer jet has been put into service KQ is also due to receive another three brand new Boeing 737NGs, which will make the fleet one of the youngest on the continent and add comfort for passengers and operating economics for the airline.

It was just learned that China is due to receive about 100 tons of ivory from Southern African countries, which constantly agitate and advocate for a lifting of the 1989 ban on trade in elephant products. Only recently were Chinese tourists caught in Kenya, trying to take illegally obtained ivory out of the country and then defended their action through an interpreter to have been under the impression it was “white wood’. The Eastern African inspired ‘African Elephant Coalition’ has long said that any increase in trade, regardless from where, will inevitably lead to increased poaching in Eastern Africa and then smuggling the bloodstained merchandise to countries in Southern Africa, where they are “integrated” into the trade volumes or else stored until the next batch is released to countries like China and Japan. Yet, with China’s human rights record, how would one expect even a pinch of compassion for the survival fight of the African elephant and support for conservation measures introduced at high cost by the Eastern African countries.

The Tanzanian government appears to have started talks with the German and Kenyan governments over the return of priceless skeletons and other finds, presently kept in German and Kenyan museums and institutions. Tanganyika was prior to the end of the First World War a German colony and it was reportedly in 1909 that German explorers and scientists dug up some ancient dinosaur skeletons and took them back to Germany with them for study, preservation and subsequent exhibition. In the Kenyan case talks seem to be focused on items from the digs of Olduvai, also fondly called the ‘cradle of mankind’ and Laetolia, where items were at the time taken to Kenya, also in pre-independence days.

Within days of this development the Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki also joined the throng when formally opening the renovated and enlarged National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi earlier in the week. He too called on the curator and managers of the museum to ensure that artefacts taken by ‘the colonials’ are returned to Kenya. However, as the country has so far failed to ratify the UNESCO convention dealing with these aspects, there may be legal and other logistical hurdles waiting along the way to return valuable pieces of Kenya’s heritage to her own national museum.

The largest of the East African countries has now announced their new targets for tourist visitors in coming years. The country aims at 1.2 million visitors by 2012 and an expenditure of about US$1.5 billion. Earnings for 2007 were reported to have been around US$930 million with just under 750,000 tourist visitors. It was also mentioned in parliament that overseas publicity and marketing campaigns were successful in the past and that more efforts will be made in conjunction with global TV channels to further promote visits to Tanzania in the next financial year and beyond. The figures were presented in parliament by the minister for Natural Resources and Tourism.

The opposition in parliament has meanwhile also once again raised the issue of the planned soda ash plant by Indian industrial group Tata at or near Lake Natron, which is being opposed by local, regional and international conservation groups.

Sections of the Tanzanian parliament took issue last week with their government’s handling of tourism, blaming them of inept planning and poor facilitation for the sector. However, demands voiced by one MP, that the Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA) should hold mandatory shares in resorts and lodges located inside national parks also exposed a mindset only fit for the command economies in the '60s and '70s which were failures on a global scale, as no overt or covert attempt to partly nationalize private investment would go down well with the global business community in this day and age. In fact it is often such outbursts from misguided agitators and politicians which impact on further investments in Africa as it exposes an underlying tenor to potential investors, which creates doubts over the security and safety of their businesses, once they have invested in a particular location. Only recently did this column report efforts to intimidate the owners of an upscale safari property in the Grumeti sector of the Serengeti, after the unannounced arrival of MPs was halted at the gate to protect the privacy of the clients staying at the lodge at the time. Such incidents, when properly reported, however also keep the overzealous politicians in check as they are faced with naming and shaming.

A conference for tourism ministers from Uganda, Rwanda and Congo at the lakeside Kivu Sun Hotel in Gisenyi / Rwanda has ended earlier in the week. The meeting, supported by the US government, was aimed at further improving conservation and wildlife protection in the trans boundary Virunga region, which spreads across the three nations. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, Environment and Science Ms. Claudia McMurray pledged the US government’s ongoing assistance towards maintaining biodiversity and conservation efforts for the long-term survival of the remaining mountain gorillas and other rare species. Uganda was represented at the meeting by the Minister of State for Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities Hon. Serapio Rukundo, who made it clear that wildlife policies must ultimately benefit the population of the region to alleviate poverty in particular in rural areas by sharing proceeds. ORTPN CEO Rosette Rugamba thanked the US delegation for their faithful support, while not failing to point out that seven of the prized animals were killed in the Congo last year, clearly referring to the need of the partner states to take greater efforts in the protection of the animals.
Meanwhile, ORTPN has also confirmed that they will participate in the British Bird Fair next month, where they intend to promote birdwatching as a niche tourism activity, as their diversification drive gathers greater momentum.

Wolfgang’s East Africa report
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