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East Africa

Wolfgang's East Africa tourism report

Wolfgang H. Thome  Jan 02, 2009

I wish all readers a Happy New Year 2009, health, peace, and prosperity! Many thanks for all the encouragement and the feedback to my column throughout 2008, which has kept my enthusiasm up and the news coming week after week. Expect more news and sector updates about the tourism, hospitality, and aviation industry in Eastern Africa for the upcoming year of 2009.

The Tanzanian media reported that the wife of the Arusha member of parliament, who had applied for a visa to visit her daughter in the US who was hospitalized following a car accident, was refused a Visa as she reportedly could not produce an ‘invitation letter.’ Dr. Mrema, a Kenyan citizen married in Tanzania, was compelled to travel to Nairobi to apply for a Visa there, in spite of being a resident in Tanzania and married to a member of parliament and was then denied a Visa by the US Embassy in Nairobi, while her daughter was in critical condition in a hospital in Los Angeles, unable to send the required ‘invitation letter’ - hard to produce when drifting in and out of a coma.

Mrs. Mrema subsequently only managed to speak to her daughter briefly by phone before the young woman passed away, leaving a grieving mother a continent apart instead of at her bedside. The daughter was, according to reports, pursuing post graduate studies in law in California where she suffered grave injuries when her car was hit.

During the holiday period, a break in at the Skyjet offices in Entebbe apparently led to theft of property and vandalism, throwing a bit of a spanner into the launch activities. Police are apparently holding two suspects, both seemingly junior employees of the company, but are searching for other suspects, too, who managed to escape from the scene of the crime.

In view of the holiday period the envisaged press briefings and meetings with travel agents and corporate clients were also shifted into early January.

A few weeks after introducing their two 5.5 ton uplift Fokker 27-500 cargo planes to Uganda, the airline has now published a wide range of destinations across the region for cargo delivery. Amongst the airports served are, of course, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Kilimanjaro/Arusha, Kigali, Bujumbura, and Juba, but also ‘lesser’ airports like Malakal, Rumbek, Bunia, Goma, Kisangani, and Bukavu. Other destinations can be accessed depending on runway conditions and security at the particular airfield, which in particular applies to destinations in the Eastern Congo. The airline operates ‘on demand’ as a dedicated charter service although there are plans to consider more regular flights on the routes in greater demand.

Sometime in 2009, the airline will also begin passenger operations from Entebbe but has kept a tight lid on their planned destinations, obviously not giving too much away for the competition to react too soon to their plans. Watch this space for updates.

Across Eastern Africa’s main aviation gateways, flights are now cheaper as airlines have started to seriously reduce their fuel surcharges. Several airlines have also offered travelers, for selected flights over the holiday period, substantially reduced fares to attract passengers for flights with low-booking numbers. However, regulators have not joined hands with the airlines and kept both airport taxes and landing/navigational fees at their previous levels, which is not helpful towards attracting more visitors to the region and travel from Eastern Africa abroad.

Most notably British Airways offered a return fare from Nairobi to London at US$349 on selected flights, but as usual, subject to a massive add-on caused by taxes and other regulatory dues. Virgin’s ‘special’ fare has been pegged over the same period at US$499, i.e., US$150 more per person and again subject to taxes and other regulatory fees.

Brussels Airlines has offered special fares from all their East African gateways, as has Kenya Airways and KLM. Call this a Christmas bonanza for those wanting to travel.

The Belgian flag carrier has, just before Christmas, released news of a fleet increase in 2009 with two more A330-200 aircraft, which will be added to the existing four already in service. There was also talk of an increase in African destinations in 2009 and the opening of a dedicated ‘Africa Terminal’ including a separate business class lounge, likely a requirement by other Star Alliance members to offer maximum comfort to their premium passengers when, in the future, connecting to Africa in Brussels.

The airline is also expected to revisit their European routes’ in-flight service, and it is speculated that a dedicated business class may be added again in all their short/medium-haul aircraft. This was abandoned in 2007 when SN joined hands with Virgin Europe. SN is presently flying to Entebbe four times a week but may add more frequencies when the process of joining the world’s most important airline alliance is concluded and more long-haul aircraft have been acquired.

Meanwhile, Brussels Airlines’ local sales and marketing manager Roger Wamara was appointed to serve an initial three-year term of office as a director of the Uganda Tourist Board (see separate news item). Congratulations for this well-deserved recognition of his contributions to the sector and the expertise he is bringing to Tourism Uganda.

Again, like with petrol and diesel, the cost of AVGAS is only fractionally down from its Ugandan peak, when a liter of this type of aviation fuel cost US$2.38 delivered at the Kajjansi airfield. Presently a liter still costs US$2.28, and the fuel companies are obviously not telling the truth when asked about the reasons.
JET A1, however, has dropped more substantially to US$0.78 per liter, which, however, is still considerably higher than for instance in Nairobi, Mombasa, or Dar es Salaam.

It was also learned, at the same time, that supplies at the Kajjansi airfield were literally ‘dry’ as the fuel companies have once again failed to deliver new stock in time in spite of standing orders by the airlines operating from Kajjansi, such as KAFTC, Ndege Juu, and MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship). No comments were available from the fuel companies.

It was learned just before the end of the year that KAFTC (Kampala Aero Club and Flight Training Centre) has purchased more land adjoining to their present hangar to allow for the construction of a larger facility capable of servicing their growing fleet of larger-sized aircraft. The Aero Club is, incidentally, the only company in Uganda licensed to carry out commercial flight operations, train pilots to the levels of PPL – private pilot license through to CPL – commercial pilot license, while at the same time also holding a license as a maintenance facility (MCO). KAFTC now operates a fleet of Cessna Grand Caravans, several other single- and twin-engine, light aircraft and special training aircraft. It was also learned that the company is expected to take delivery of their first helicopter in the early part of 2009. Well done Jeremy and Russell.

After years of having to do without the lion prides inside Lake Mburo National Park (they were killed by herders trying to protect their cattle illegally grazing inside the park and nearby), news broke just around Christmas that not only were footprints found at several places, but three lions were eventually seen by tourists and UWA staff. This will increase the attraction of the park, which is located some 200 KM West of Kampala en route to Mbarara and the main national parks in the South West of Uganda like Bwindi and Queen Elizabeth.
After a period of bad news about the lion population in the parks, in particular Queen Elizabeth, this is finally some good news and a befitting Christmas present for the conservation fraternity.

Hospitality businesses across the East African Community will now need to undergo a fresh round of gradings and classifications before an EAC-sanctioned scheme will then award the much-coveted star rating, which defines hotel and restaurant standards and can make or break a business in a strongly-contested market across the region.

It was pointed out by one of the directors at the EAC Secretariat in Arusha, Dr. Weggoro, that self-styled and self-awarded star ratings would no longer be recognized, removing a long-standing thorn in the side of advocates for honesty and truth.

Unscrupulous operators in the region had, in the past, often awarded themselves star ratings with no affinity to reality, leaving guests wondering who was responsible for the mischievous and misleading presentations by marketers and owners.

The national tourist boards will be best situated to clarify to would-be visitors what the true category or status of a hotel, resort, or lodge is while all other hospitality businesses not then contained in tourist board directories may have to be treated with caution.

The ongoing shortage of petrol and diesel across much of Eastern Africa also saw bus fares to upcountry destinations literally double over the holiday period, as the bus companies ruthlessly exploited travelers’ needs to get to their rural homes for Christmas and New Year. Fuel prices in Uganda also crept higher once again. In spite of crude oil prices tumbling in recent weeks, the main fuel companies have kept prices continuously high in Uganda, not passing on any savings under the pretext of higher cost elsewhere in the value chain, a claim much disputed by business associations, economists, columnists, and the public at large. While in Kenya, a new law has become effective in the New Year to stop profiteering of this nature. Much of the rest of Eastern Africa is held at ransom by the big fuel companies and their dealer network as the liberalized market conditions there prevent governments from active intervention and limiting prices. Ugandans, too, have been demanding similar action to protect them from such blatant exploitation.

In a related development, the permanent secretary in the Kenyan Ministry of Energy had blamed the situation on the consumers for ‘panic buying’ – his conclusion after meeting with the oil companies, the pipeline company, the refinery bosses, and Kenya Revenue Authority personnel.

Tourism Uganda, aka Uganda Tourist Board, finally has a new board of directors after months of pondering and an agonizing wait. The former board chairman, tourism and business personality, Roni Madhvani, had resigned when no funding was forthcoming from the home ministry and many other promises were left unfulfilled, which left UTB in a lurch of sorts but also made a loud statement of how governmental support for UTB was viewed and perceived by the sector and society at large.

The minister responsible for tourism, in a low-key function at the Metropole Kampala Hotel she attended in person, launched the new board, which now also includes one representative each from the Civil Aviation Authority and the Uganda Wildlife Authority. Notably of sector substance on the board, with real private sector experience in the tourism industry, is Mr. Roger Wamara, the long-serving sales and marketing manager of Brussels Airlines. Mr. Wamara is well respected in tourism and society circles as a past chairman of the board of airline representatives in Uganda and a past chairman of the Rotary Club of Kampala North. Roger is also a long-standing member of the Skal Kampala Chapter.

It was learned just before Christmas, that the Uganda Chapter of the Africa Travel Association, the world’s premier body to promote travel to the African continent, is in suspense as the private-sector members have reportedly failed to keep their dues payments up to date. Probably in view of the holiday season, no authoritative comments could be obtained from former members or former office bearers as to the reasons for this sad state of affairs or any possible plans to revive the chapter and make a befitting contribution to ATA’s efforts to promote the country. This is even more embarrassing as the Ugandan tourism minister is apparently a member of the ATA board during its current term of office.

The problem, however, is not entirely new as Uganda’s membership to the UN World Tourism Organization is also suspended owing to years of non-payment of annual dues by the Ministry of Tourism Trade and Industry, denying the country many opportunities otherwise granted to paid-up UNWTO members in regard of human resource development and marketing support opportunities. This fact has often been lamented, but little if anything has been done by government to make amends and restore Uganda’s memberships.

The Ayas group issued a Christmas statement to the Ugandan public assuring them that their hotel project would be complete by September 2009. In view of past deadlines and promises, it is ‘wait and see’ for industry observers and the public at large. Meanwhile, the project seems struck further with bad luck when the local media reported an accident on site after a material and personnel lift collapsed. Some workers died on the spot, while others passed away in a hospital, leaving many more injured. Investigations by the police and the Kampala City Council are now said to be underway to establish the exact cause of the accident and establish culpability and liability for the affected workers. The staff member operating the lift was also reported to have been arrested for ‘overloading,’ while another injured worker was quoted in the local media to have received 10,000 Uganda Shillings (which at present exchange rates is less than US$6), a towel, a blanket, and a pair of bed sheets.

In a similar case some years ago, a collapsed building at a site along Entebbe road, where a hotel was due to be built ahead of the Commonwealth Summit, led to the demise of many workers there, too, and caused construction to be suspended while an investigation was carried out. That hotel, in the end, never was ready for the summit and continues to resemble a sorry building site, bare of visible activity to complete many of the partly-erected buildings, while only a small section seems operational. A case over that property is pending between Barclays Bank of Uganda and the developers about unpaid loans.

Calls are getting louder again, this time by a large number of members of parliament, that government should repossess the land given out literally free to a Saudi Arabian prince and business tycoon who had promised to build a hotel in time for the Commonwealth Summit. This, of course, never happened, leaving advocates for the ‘deal’ with egg all over their faces. Officials involved with the saga have, at periodical intervals, tried to defend the company and set one new date after the other for start of the construction, but as regularly reported in this column nothing really ever happened at the site other than erecting a fence and then using it for exhibitions and other purposes.

The public at large is already disgruntled over the hasty demolition of a leading primary school and teachers training college, which was located at the site and is now awaiting results from this latest initiative to reign in a defaulting ‘investor’ and either get him started with the construction work or else return the land to Uganda for other developments. The school and training college are, however, gone to the detriment of the former pupils, teachers, and staff.

This article about a ministerial directive to the National Forest Authority was picked up from Uganda’s leading daily newspaper, The New Vision, just before Christmas and is available at the web via:
In view of the holiday period, no comments could be obtained from the National Forest Authority or from the ministry for additional background information to shed more light on the story or how this scenario developed at all. The article that appeared on December 21 is titled ‘Adrift suspended from Kalagala’ and reads:

The environment minister, Maria Mutagamba, has directed the National Forestry Authority (NFA) to suspend all Adrift activities in Kalagala until further notice, writes David Muwanga.

The directive follows a stakeholders meeting who included NFA, Cultural Heritage Exchange Centre (CHEC), and Adrift on November 28.

“It was agreed that all stakeholders suspend activities at Kalagala Cultural Site until the necessary considerations are taken for the benefit of all,” the minister said in a letter dated December 8.

CHEC’S director Darius Kabona earlier said NFA had allocated land to Adrift to construct a hotel despite President Museveni’s directive to stop the leasing and selling of forests. “NFA has defied the President’s ban of July 2008.” NFA’s publicist Moses Watasa said Adrift was licensed in 2006.

News broke before Christmas that the UN Special Envoy for the failed peace negotiations, former Mozambique President Joachim Chissano, endorsed the military action against the rebels in the Congolese jungle. It was, in fact, reported in the local and regional media that he was urging the UN Security Council, of which Uganda is now a non-permanent member for two years effective January 1, to formally sanction the action taken by the UPDF, the SPLA, and Congolese army units based in the area. Mr. Chissano was quoted as saying that he saw the ‘merit of the action.’ Having been a victim of the rebels’ delaying tactics several times when he was stood up for meetings, his feelings can be well understood and are mirrored by almost everybody this correspondent spoke with in Juba and Kampala.

The rebels, meanwhile, have again resorted to taking innocent villagers hostage, abducting young boys and girls and killing dozens indiscriminately as they are on the run, which includes a single massacre of at least 45 people worshipping at a Catholic church not too distant from the border with the Central African Republic, towards which the terrorists seem to try and escape to.

Military operations have been continuing over the holidays, but information officially released in Kampala and Juba has been sparse and patchy. Across Uganda and the Southern Sudan, support for the offensive continues to be overwhelming with everybody waiting for news that the objectives of the pursuit have been achieved.

In light of the atrocities committed by the rebels, their local and international propagandists, as well as ‘peace advocates,’ have gone notably silent, clearly embarrassed by the events, now that the terror goons have shown their true faces once again.

The Kenyan Forest Service has now identified up to 200 sites which could be developed into eco-tourism sites for the diversification of tourism products in the country.

Protection of forests across Eastern Africa is a great challenge as the onslaught of developers, charcoal burners, and timber companies has been relentless in recent decades. Any effort therefore to extend further protection to forest systems through environmentally-friendly tourism developments will, therefore, be welcome, but in general, governments in the region have to do much more in order to restore sections of forests which have been degraded and need replanting with indigenous trees.

Reportedly, interest in the 13 sites initially earmarked for immediate development was very substantial from possible investors, although 12 of those sites are located inside the Mount Kenya National Park and the surrounding conservation zone.

The Oman Air office in East Africa has informed travel agents and the general public that the airline will commence non-stop services on January 15 from Muscat to London Heathrow, the only such flight between the UK and Oman. Passengers from the airline’s East African destinations now have another choice in how to travel to the UK.

The Tanzanian Civil Aviation Authority has approved applications by nearly 20 new players in the aviation industry, the majority of them for domestic charter operations. This seems to belie the present trend in the tourist industry, where cause of concern exists due to the global financial and economic crisis, as new entrants into the local air charter business seem to have suddenly multiplied after some time of stagnation. The decisions were taken and communicated to applicants by the board’s licensing committee only recently, following the public hearing at the end of October.

The country is home to nearly 100 national parks, marine parks, game reserves, wildlife reserves, and controlled wildlife areas, underscoring the massive commitment made by Tanzania towards wildlife conservation and retention of biodiversity, making it attractive for wildlife and nature-based tourism activities.
As most parks and reserves are found in more remote areas and considering the constraints on road transportation, safaris by air are an ever more popular option for visitors from abroad intent on travelling without loss of time to the parks and spending their holiday with game drives rather than traversing the entire country by road just to reach their next destination.

Precision Air, Tanzania’s ‘most-respected company’ according to a recent EAC-wide poll of chief executive officers, will add another Boeing 737 to the fleet early in the new year to be able to continue with its expansion plans. The airline’s chairman of the board of directors also bagged an individual award late in the past year when he received the AFRAA (African Airlines Association) award for exemplary leadership in the aviation sector, a further affirmation that being voted most-respected company in Tanzania was no fluke.

Meanwhile, the Tanzania Revenue Authority has declared Precision Air the second largest tax payer in the country, again a remarkable achievement but certain to attract more tax consultants to assist the airline from losing this particular distinction.

More woes have befallen Tanzania's national airline just before Christmas, when news broke on Thursday, December 19 that IATA had suspended the membership of ATCL until further notice, while the carrier was battling a narrow timeline to submit relevant documentation to the country's aviation regulators in order to get their operating permits restored. The Tanzania Civil Aviation Authority had, the previous week, pulled the AOC from the airline over differences in documents filed by the airline but apparently not in compliance with the latest international aviation regulations.

The suspension by IATA of ATCL is a heavy blow as it prevents numerous interactions with other airlines, such as the acceptance of tickets and transactions via the IATA clearing house or participating in the BSP scheme through which travel agents and airlines/IATA are linked.

Meanwhile, the Tanzanian government, blamed by insiders within ATCL for their financially near broke status over failure to remit the monthly subsidies and clearing long outstanding loans and debts to which government had committed when the separation agreement was signed with SAA two years ago, has also acted when the Prime Minister met with the ATCL CEO and the board of directors to discuss the future of the airline.

Air Tanzania also pointed out that following their suspension by the TCAA, there was no other option for IATA but to suspend their membership, although reinstatement to full services would be equally swift, once the regulators had cleared the airline to resume operations, after accepting revised documents. It was again mentioned that the airline’s airworthiness of their aircraft was not under question. However, this is surely a headache the airline could have done without, considering the challenges it had meet in the days prior to Christmas.

At the same time, a government minister waded into the debate blaming ‘lazy elements’ for the situation, knowing little that his remark would be attributed to the government department writing the monthly subsidy check to the airline, which government committed to when separating Air Tanzania from SAA at the time. It was also generally felt that government has only itself to blame over the situation by not heeding the warning signs and pleas by the ATCL management to step up and pay the long-outstanding dues, and that any attempt now to seek ‘other culprits’ is one of washing hands after the fact.

At the time of going to press with this column, the airline had not yet returned to operational status and efforts to get an update proved impossible. Watch this space in coming editions.

The Deputy CEO of the Rwanda Development Board and former head of ORTPN – Rwanda Office for Tourism and National Parks before it was merged into the RDB – Mrs. Rosette Rugamba, has now confirmed that starting in 2009, Rwanda will apply the East African Community guidelines for grading and classification of their hospitality businesses. This action is aimed to ensure a common standard across the EAC for the quality control of the sector.

Hotels, lodges, resorts, inns, motels, and even restaurants will undergo a process of evaluation before they are eventually awarded a star rating, which will be similar to international practice. Tourist guides can then give travelers a more accurate picture about the standards of a certain establishment.

Just before the Christmas holidays, the International Tribunal on Rwanda convicted several key suspects in the holocaust by Hutu killer militias, including one of the main masterminds of the crimes. Theoneste Bagosora was convicted as a ringleader and instigator of the unspeakable horrors inflicted upon the Tutsi and moderate Hutu populations of Rwanda in 1994 and will now, with several others, serve a life sentence, while nearly a million Rwandese lie in their graves as a stark reminder of how the world, and in particular the UN, in early 1994, failed them.

Other key suspects are still said to be on the run although several have of late been discovered and arrested, awaiting their own trials.

The charges brought by a magistrate in France against Rwanda’s Head of Protocol Rose Kabuye, were further dented when Mrs. Kabuye, already released from remand to move freely in France, was permitted to fly to Rwanda for the Christmas and New Year holidays by another member of the French judiciary, who modified her bail conditions yet further.

The unusual move demonstrates how other magistrates and judges within the judicial system in France view the charges brought against her, and it is generally expected that at the first formal hearing, these will be dropped now that the only witness has withdrawn his statement and admitted to having misled the investigation before. Welcome home Rose.

Meanwhile, Germany has re-arrested a real genocide suspect whom they had previously released for ‘lack of evidence.’ Discussions appear ongoing between Rwanda and Germany over the extradition of the suspect, who could, however, also be handed over to the UN tribunal in Arusha for trial. Watch this space for updates.

Wolfgang's East Africa tourism report
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