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East Africa

Wolfgang's East Africa tourism report

Wolfgang H. Thome  Dec 12, 2008

No sooner had last week’s edition gone to press, did news reach me of the passing of an old friend from my Mombasa days, and someone I owed a great deal to – her work inspired me to take up writing myself. Neta Peal, a ‘fixture’ in Mombasa in post independence days and, in fact, until the time of her passing last week, was for decades the journalistic face of the coast’s tourism sector. I met her first when I came to Mombasa, and besides her regular articles in national dailies, various coastal weeklies, and later on in the ‘Coast Week,’ she used to do successful PR work for hotel and safari companies, including the one I used to work for in those days.

For ages, she used to drive an old beaten up Fiat 127, and many a company and individuals periodically contributed to have the vehicle fixed up again, as her income never was enough to cover all those extra and unbudgeted expenses, leave alone to buy a new car – she simply loved that old thing as we all loved her for her bubbly spirit and her warm, friendly personality.

At one time, while serving as a committee member for the Mombasa and Coast Tourism Association MCTA, I learned that she was doing MCTA’s PR work for free, a service she also extended to the Skal Club of Mombasa for a long time in her desire to make a difference. And what a difference she made over those years – if Neta had not been there, one surely would have had to invent her.

Together with the then MCTA chair, Lorna Hayes, she was never afraid to speak up on controversial issues, in particular matters impacting on the tourism industry, and many a politician harbored grudges against her and, as far as I recall, even threatened her when her articles put a thorn into the sore side of misleading politicians and do-nothing municipal council members.

Yet, Neta always put her perspective and her own interpretation to things, and her truthful articles all stood the test of time.

I recall one particular incident, when Neta had joined me and my wife Esther (who was expecting our first child at the time) on a charter flight from Kilimanjaro Buffalo Lodge just outside Amboseli after a Skal Club of Mombasa social weekend, for which we had offered her a seat in the small Cessna 186. Just after becoming airborne, the plane lost power – we later on learned it was too hot at the time - and the instructor pilot miraculously brought the plane down on the strip again from some 15 feet up and evaded the rocks at the end of the strip by diving into the ‘bush’ where we came to a full stop not more than a foot from a tree. As we got out of the plane to stagger back to the lodge, the late John Arkle came running along with some others, all glad to see us unhurt. Neta and I downed, in quick succession, some glasses of brandy at the bar, while the pilot inspected the plane and brought it back to the parking area, not a scratch on it either. And then, undeterred, Neta declared that the drinks had steadied her enough to start getting back home and so we did, although we split ourselves and the bags into two planes - Esther and I in the Cessna, and Neta and the bags in a Seneca, which was passing through to drop off a passenger. As the story is told, we all made it back to Mombasa safely, of course, and this was the beginning of a fast friendship which spanned decades.

It is one of the unforgettable stories I remember her for, never one to give up in the face of adversity and ever ready to meet another challenge, just as soon as she had dispatched of a previous one.

I use my column to express my sincere condolences to the family and friends of the late Neta Peal, a good soul sorely missed and a reminder just how fast time runs through our hands.

Boeing at last owned up to their mounting problems by shifting the dates for the first test flights of their new aircraft into the second quarter of 2009, which will undoubtedly delay deliveries yet further for Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines. The first test flights are now probably commencing in late May 2009, although, going by Boeing’s recent track record, this remains to be seen, until it actually happens. Both carriers have a substantial number of the ‘Dreamliners’ on order, which were supposed to replace their ageing B767 fleets while offering greater capacities for passengers and cargo, as well as better flight economics.

It is understood from sources at both airlines that they are negotiating, not only penalties for the late deliveries with Boeing, but are also exploring the interim use of other aircraft to fill the inevitable gap which the late deliveries will leave in routes and fleet-expansion plans.

Meanwhile, launch customers ANA of Japan and Jetstar of Australia reportedly expect their first deliveries as late as 2011, which might be indicative of when ‘lesser’ customers can receive their first ‘Dreamliner turned nightmare.’ General problems within the Boeing supply chain, more recent problems with ‘fasteners,’ and a nearly two-month-long strike at Boeing added to the earlier woes for the aircraft made largely of composite materials to save weight and reduce fuel burn. Watch this space for updates.

Information received from the Madhvani Group, owners of the country’s most prestigious safari lodges - Mweya (Queen Elizabeth National Park) and Paraa (Murchisons Falls National Park) - indicates that construction of the Chobi Lodge in the upper part of Murchisons Falls National Park, above the Nile falls, is a little behind schedule due to adverse weather conditions over the past few months, which impacted on construction work. Soft opening of the reconstructed fishing lodge on the river Nile may now take place some time in June or July 2009 (instead of April), after which the lodge is expected to become, once again, a magnet for fishing aficionados attending competitions or for simply enjoying the river’s first-class sport fishing.

Meanwhile, the group has also commissioned a 20 MW private power plant at their main Kakira Estate (between Jinja and the border with Kenya), fired by biomass leftover when producing sugar. Uganda’s leading sugar company is selling some 12 MW into the national grid and still covers all of their own electricity and power needs from this internal source. Notably, it was President Museveni who commissioned the power plant, and he is also anticipated to eventually open the new lodge when it is complete.

The Madhvanis’ are one of Uganda’s most prominent families of Asian origin and renowned for their generous scholarship schemes allowing Ugandan students to complete primary, secondary, and university education free of cost, once selected for their talent and skills. Unlike the Mehta sugar barons, who have discredited themselves in recent years over a scheme to erase nearly 8,000 hectares of the Mabira tropical rainforest in favor of expanding their sugarcane fields, the Madhvani Group has engaged in better environmental practices and brought outgrowers on board to fuel their expansion, an option the Mehtas rejected over cost arguments.

In a hard-hitting statement last week during an environmental forum at Hotel Equatoria in Kampala, the leader of the opposition in parliament blamed the government for environmental damages and degradation. Other opposition MP’s joined the chorus while the national association of professional environmentalists cited statistics, showing the reduction of forest cover since independence from 44 percent or over 106,000 square kilometers to now only 18.4 percent or just over 43,000 square kilometers. The full article can be found on the website of Uganda’s leading daily newspaper, The New Vision, via .

A month after commissioning the pipeline extension between Mombasa and Nairobi, the tender for the second part of the expansion project was awarded to one of the bidding companies. The main contractor is again the Chinese company, China Petroleum Pipeline Bureau, and work will commence just as soon as all documents are signed and sealed. The expansion will eventually bring relief to Uganda and the African hinterland nations, depending on fuel imports from Mombasa, as the construction of the Eldoret to Kampala pipeline will then be adding a ‘new’ supply route and substantially reducing the transportation cost of fuel in Uganda.

The tourism fraternity in Uganda seems at last to have woken up to the stark reality of the global economic crisis, which this column predicted months ago would affect the country’s traditional exports like fish and flowers but also force market changes for tourism in view of the economic woes in the main ‘producer markets’ of North America and Europe. As the crisis also extends to the tiger states in the Far and South East, including India and China, those emerging new markets, too, are now suffering from having to tighten their belts, and holidays and travel will slip down the list of priorities of potential tourists.

The Uganda Tourist Board’s marketing manager Edwin Muzahura urged the government to support tourism and believes that the missing support would further dent chances of marketing Uganda. “The private sector has been trying their best, but without government support, we are not going to move.” Yet, government has a dismal record in financially supporting the Uganda Tourist Board, and the Ministry of Tourism, Trade, and Industry has a lesser budget for the present financial year compared with the 2007/8 period. The potential financing mechanism for the tourist board through the tourism development fund levy is also hanging in the balance, as the provisions of the tourism law have not been made operational yet - more than half a year since President Museveni assented to the law. The restructuring demanded by the same law for the tourist board has also hit a snail's pace, giving little hope to the sector that things will fundamentally change in this time of need.

Mr. Leopold King, reportedly the manager of the Gorilla Forest Camp inside Bwindi National Park at Buhoma, is reported to have said in the New Vision, that Uganda would be affected in a big way because the country is overly dependant on the US and European market, which were hardest hit by the credit crunch. “Tourism is a luxury. Already there are a lot of cancellations of bookings,” he said.

King said October is usually a good month for Uganda, but this year, the number was just slightly above half of the bookings, and he expects the situation to worsen.

The latest aviation talk in town is that the only recently-started route from Entebbe to Zanzibar might soon be a thing of the past, due to low passenger numbers. The airline’s former Italian commercial director, since then, of course, relieved of his duties as reported in this column, apparently believed some of the travel agencies in town who said they ‘would fill the plane,’ but none of them actually committed money for seats other than the few lonely passengers booked for a weekend on the island, who could be convinced by them not to fly with Kenya Airways via Nairobi or with Precision Air or Air Tanzania via Dar es Salaam. Sadly, should the development become reality, it will reduce the choice for travelers from Entebbe once again. However, some culpability is attributed to the senseless Visa regime, which requires duly-registered residents across Eastern Africa to obtain expensive Visas – at US$50 per person – when traveling to any of the other East African nations for a holiday - just the same as overseas visitors. This makes ‘home made’ holidays in Eastern Africa more expensive than they should be, and this has, in the past, diverted traffic to the UAE or Southern Africa, where most of the expatriate community residents in East Africa do not require any Visa at all. It is high time that the endless talk about integrating East Africa further shows some tangible results for travelers from within the region, like dropping Visa requirements for duly-registered expatriates’ resident within the East African community.

Inspite of a reduction of petrol prices in Kenya by well over the equivalent of 350 UShs, no such move was made by the fuel companies in Uganda. The oligopoly is sticking together, citing higher transport cost, reduced loads on fuel tankers, and a weakened Uganda Shilling – yet the Kenya Shilling, too, has depreciated considerably and in comparable percentages in recent weeks. It was also revealed in public last week that too little fuel is being imported by rail, but change here requires a political decision involving both Kenyan and Ugandan governments and the rail operator, Rift Valley Railways. Meanwhile, the Ugandan public is angered and getting more and more enraged that they continue to pay near-record prices for fuel, while on the global market crude oil now trades at less than a third of their peak.

Oil company executives also continue to peddle misleading information about their ‘value chain,’ whose sole purpose seems to be to enrich the companies and shamelessly exploit the general public. Unlike in Kenya, where legislation is going to kick in on this type of profiteering, the Ugandan government has done little to compel fuel companies to pass on the lower purchase prices to the public. It has also transpired that the government-owned fuel reserves have run low and have not been replenished for some time now, preventing a strategic intervention to bring prices down. Watch this space for updates.

The Ugandan Ministry of Works and Transport has invited tender submissions for consultancy services geared towards the rehabilitation and expansion of the Kampala – Kasese railway. Regional governments have of late paid more attention to rail transport in view of deteriorating roads and the high cost of transport of goods to and from the main East African ports of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam.

Meanwhile, scaremonger reports were peddled to the local media, and happily reproduced by some of them, over the state of the main bridge across the Nile at the Jinja hydroelectric dam. The ‘reports’ were quoting unspecified sources of having stated that the bridge is ‘unsafe and about to collapse.’ Yet, under planned arrangements, a team of consultants and engineers from Japan only arrived last month in the country to carry out a full assessment of the bridge’s condition and what immediate measures would be needed to expand its lifespan, before – again with assistance from Japan – a new bridge is being constructed nearby. Government has also allocated several billion shillings in the current financial year to carry out repairs and strengthening at the bridge, belying the media fiction.

The French national telecoms company, which bought into HITS Telecom a few months ago, has given first indication that they are to launch soon in the new year. They are presently sourcing their advertising and marketing agency in Uganda, and going by the Kenyan experience where they launched two months ago with big fanfare and low tariffs, the Ugandan telecoms market is due for a shake up once again. In Kenya, post-paid customers have been offered free Internet access, and if reports are true, Ugandan subscribers can expect free or subsidized handsets, the lowest tariffs in the market, and a range of other goodies. Excellent news, of course, for visitors to Uganda who will soon have wider choices and arguably have to pay a lot less when roaming with their home networks.


The American ambassador to Kenya, during the week, addressed members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Nairobi. In his address, he raised matters related to starting air traffic between the US and Kenya and called for a speedy implementation of inspections and improvements in aviation security. What, however, raised some concerns - as flagged to this correspondent - was the envoy’s inclusion of other unrelated matters like Kenya having to drop their demand for the use of the International Standardization Mark, which has nothing to do with questions on air transport. Said one attendee in an email regarding the lunch: "Let the Americans not raise the threshold again for starting air transport between the two countries. I appreciate there are technical issues to be resolved like the Category One rating by the American FAA, but there it has to stop. The ambassador should not try to mix all the other things America has been pushing us for and not link one with the other and, for all purposes, threaten that one thing will not happen if Kenya will not concede on other areas. Is he a diplomat or a dictator of terms?" Oops.

The chief executive of Kenya Airways delivered a fitting Christmas gift to the Kenya Airports Authority when he launched a blistering attack on them for their inefficiencies and congestion at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The blame game emerged at the launch of passenger busses, which the airline had to introduce themselves to carry passengers to aircraft parked on the apron, as the airport operator was obviously unable or unwilling to provide such services to their clients (the airlines), except, of course, at a cost. The Kenya Airports Authority and KQ had run-ins before, mostly over the state of aerodrome runways like in Kisumu, to which the airline had, in the past, suspended flights over safety concerns, as well as at the Lamu aerodrome. There were also complaints over botched procurement procedures when planning for the expansion at Nairobi’s international airport, but KAA has shown little concern over such complaints by their main users or the public at large.

KAA reacted by placing adverts for tenders to expand passenger facilities at the airport, including terminal space and additional parking areas, but this will take years to be accomplished, going by present experience with the modernization and expansion of the airport.

Mr. Naikuni also confirmed that the airline would receive two new aircraft, one before the end of the year and the second before Easter 2009, but he was cautious with his remarks over the delays for the Boeing 787 deliveries, other than confirming ongoing ‘discussions.’


The sixth edition of the annual Sauti za Busara music festival in Zanzibar is now only a few weeks away, taking place between February 12-17, 2009 on the island of Zanzibar. The ‘Sounds of Wisdom’ festival will this year feature such eminent groups, performers, and artists as Samba Mapangala & Orchestre Virunga (DRC/Kenya), Natacha Atlas (Egypt/UK), Msondo Ngoma Band (Tanzania), Oudaden (Morocco), Nawal (Comoros/France), Culture Musical Club (Zanzibar), Khethi with Kibo Sounds (South Africa/Tanzania), The Moreira Project (South Africa), Comrade Fatso and Chabvondoka (Zimbabwe), Bi Kidude (Zanzibar), TY (UK), Carola Kinasha & Shada (Tanzania), Jagwa Music (Tanzania), Jang’ombe Nursery School (Zanzibar), Joh Makini (Tanzania), Elemotho (Namibia), Mamillion (South Africa), Segere Original (Tanzania), Katapila ‘Sangula’ Ngoma (Tanzania), Sansa Troupe (Uganda), Best of WaPi (Pan Africa), Mohamed Ilyas & Nyota Zameremeta (Zanzibar), Iddi Achien'g (Kenya), Rachel Magoola (Uganda), Wahapahapa Band (Tanzania), Omega Bugembe Okello (Uganda/USA), Mutinda (Kenya), Safar (Zanzibar), Kiumbizi (Pemba), Zinduka Ngoma (Zanzibar), Tarbia (Zanzibar), Zimamoto (Zanzibar), DJ Side (Zanzibar), DJ Yusuf (UK/Zanzibar), and more to be announced closer to the event.

Entrance to the event is again free of charge from 4:00 pm until sunset, whereafter passes and tickets will be required by visitors. For more information, write to or visit their website for news updates at .

Visitors to the festival are advised to book their flights and hotels as soon as possible to avoid disappointment, as the festival normally attracts ‘full house’ signs all over Zanzibar.

Earlier in the week, Rwandair gave further indications of their future plans for route and fleet developments in coming months and years. Plans were revealed that the airline is looking at new destinations like Dar es Salaam and Mwanza in Tanzania, Lusaka/Zambia, and Addis Ababa, besides considering Kinshasa in the DR Congo. The airline presently operates a leased B737-500, a CRJ 100ER, and a ‘Dash 8’ turboprop but intends to acquire additional suitable aircraft to commence flights on their planned new routes. It was also announced that Rwandair has now passed the IATA operational safety audit and has been certified as an IOSA-compliant carrier.

No news, however, could be confirmed on the status of their discussions with a strategic investor, leaving this correspondent to conclude that they are either in their final stage or have gone nowhere. Watch this space as news emerges.

Meanwhile, it was also learned that the Rwandan government has signed a contract with a British consultancy firm to develop plans for the redesigning of the international airport, which is part of a masterplan development for major infrastructural projects. The final agreed designs should become available by early 2010.

The Rwandan Private Sector Foundation, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Office for Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN) - which is now part of the Rwanda Development Board - have joined hands to commence a ‘train the trainer’ program for tourism disciplines, aimed at strengthening the human resource component in the sector and making the destination more competitive through better trained personnel. Technical assistance is given by a German-based consultancy firm associated with the Cologne Business School. Watch this space for updates.

A news flash from Addis Ababa confirmed that the country is now gradually allowing tourists to see their remaining elephant herds at the Babile Wildlife Reserve located nearly 600 KM east of the capital city. Elephant populations in the past suffered from poaching and declining ecosystems from which they could sufficiently feed and reproduce. Reportedly, some 300 elephants are presently found in and near the reserve, and the herds, plus other wildlife, of course, can be visited under packaged-tour arrangements made in Addis Ababa from licensed safari operators.

And as usual the weekly tourism news update from Livingstone/Zambia by Gill Staden, who has once again produced some great stuff. Visit the new tourism website for regular news and updates on the destination, including a guide for hotels, lodges, inns, guest houses, and, of course, information on where to go and what to do - not to be missed by any visitors to Zambia in general and Livingstone in particular.

Wolfgang's East Africa tourism report
Neta Peal - In Memorium - Photograph from Wolfgang H. Thome

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