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East Africa

Wolfgang's East Africa tourism report

Wolfgang H. Thome  Feb 20, 2009

The recent cabinet reshuffle in Uganda saw the often “invisible” Tourism Minister Janat Mukwaya dropped to a less-demanding position, while the portfolio of tourism, trade, and industry was taken over by Maj. Gen. Kahinda Otafiire MP, known to be a “doer” and never shy of making pending decisions. In this department, his predecessor faltered when pondering for months at end over the appointment of a new tourist board, while the ministry continues to lack a substantive permanent secretary, after Dr. Sam Nahamya retired in March 2008.

There has generally been a positive response to the change at the helm of the ministry, and the sector is undoubtedly hoping that a new lease on life is now injected in the ministry in the coming weeks and months and that the ministry will emerge from the “slumber” and budget neglect it suffered from in the recent past. Hotel owners, however, are said to be wary, as Hon. Otafiire was vocal in supporting the local service tax introduction, which hotel owners had vowed to oppose. This correspondent extends his best wishes for success to the new minister, having known him for most of his distinguished, albeit at times somewhat controversial career in government.

Well-liked State Minister for Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities Hon. Serapio Rukundo remains in the same office, assuring positive continuity for the sector while the ministry got a new State Minister for Industry, a post now held by the Hon. Rev. Simon Lokodo. The former State Minister Hon. Prof. Ephraim Kamuntu moved to the planning portfolio in the Ministry of Finance.

The National Environmental Management Authority, in short NEMA, has moved on to thin ice when one of their officials recently ordered that the Uganda Wildlife Authority relocate the three lions discovered late last year in Lake Mburo National Park. According to the western regional public awareness officer of NEMA, the “lions are free range” and “need a wider park,” seriously suggesting that the lions be relocated to Queen Elizabeth National Park. Lions were found widely and regularly in past decades, but encroachment of cattle keepers to the boundaries and deep into the park have led to most of the lions being killed. For several years, none of the big cats were seen in or near the park until some time around Christmas 2008, when three were discovered to have moved in, probably from the Akagera National Park across the border in Rwanda.

Tourists and safari operators immediately welcomed the new sightings, as it makes visits to the park more attractive, but now may have to deal with NEMA officials, who by the way have no say over wildlife – that is vested in the Uganda Wildlife Authority alone.

A smart new booklet giving updated information to tourist and business visitors alike, is now available for all airline passengers entering the Entebbe International Airport immigration hall, including the all important “arrival declaration card,” which every visitor has to fill in and which then serves as a Visa application (for those needing a Visa to enter Uganda) or for processing Ugandan citizens, East Africans, and returning residents into the country. The “Passport to Uganda” covers key tourism attractions, gives the “Do’s and Don’ts” for foreign visitors, offers airline contacts, outlines the main restaurants in Kampala and Entebbe, lists a quality shopping guide, and provides health advisories. Addresses and phone details for the major high commissions, embassies, and consulates in Kampala are also listed. A big thank you must go to Infopoint Uganda and their advertisers who made this commendable offer possible.

Long-serving CEO and managing director of the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority has confirmed to this correspondent that he had indeed retired at the end of last year and will be entering the private sector as a consultant, making use of his knowledge and experience after 18 years at the helm of the CAA since its inception in 1991. Ambrose Akandonda has been heading the authority overseeing a full rehabilitation of Entebbe International Airport, as well as its expansion in 2006/7. During his term of office many of the upcountry aerodromes and airfields were upgraded and renovated. CAA also moved into their own purpose-built head office, freeing valuable commercial space inside the airport terminal’s second floor. All the best to him in his new ventures and grateful thanks for the many formal and informal chats and interactions in the past, much of which contributed added value to this column.

Meanwhile, the Kenyan CAA is continuing its hunt for a new CEO, as no suitable applicants apparently sent in their documents for consideration or failed to meet the selection criteria. Their dilemma, however, is seen as a near blessing since the previous post holder had made a complete and utter mess out of his relations, in particular with the general aviation fraternity. The invitation for fresh applications now allows for a sound process to unfold, which will hopefully bring a seasoned and more tempered candidate into the post in the coming weeks or months.

Recent news reports indicate that the new hydro-electric dam below the Bujagali falls on the upper river Nile is well ahead of schedule. Early estimates now suggest that the first power turbine could be installed and commissioned by 2010, while the earlier construction completion will, under present circumstances, be in 2011. A recent workshop organized by financier World Bank brought the promoters and the public together to review progress on the plant, and predictably some participants continue to whine about their lost cause of stopping the project, arguably taking in to account that the country would not only suffer continuously high tariffs but also be plunged into darkness again. Instead of moving on to other worthwhile causes of environmental infringements and violations by government and the private sector, sections of the green lobby seem more interested in wasting their resources and time on flogging the proverbial dead horse.

Reports indicate that agreements are now in place for the mutual use of lounges for passengers and a full baggage check-through, while an intensified code share arrangement, covering Brussels Airlines, Lufthansa, and Swiss would be aimed to further interlink the three carriers’ connections and destinations. Swiss is presently flying into Nairobi, while Brussels Airlines flies to Nairobi, Entebbe, Kigali, and Bujumbura. The frequent-flyer programs and loyalty schemes are also aligning more closely in order to benefit travelers without discrimination. Ugandan passengers will likely benefit a lot in the coming months from these changes, which Brussels Airlines has announced across their network.

To celebrate their 40th anniversary of flying to eastern Africa, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has offered rebates on published fares of 40 percent, a timely reduction of ticket costs as Ugandans are struggling with the onslaught of the global fall out of the financial and economic crisis. Selected destinations in Europe, Canada, and the USA are available for the reduced fares, which are on the market beginning February 19 until March 12.

Libyan leader Gadaffi has of late suffered a massive onslaught in the local gutter press, when in the space of 8 days, several unfavorable headlines suggested a liaison and worse with the Queen Mother of the Tooro Kingdom in western Uganda. The newspaper in question is rather notorious for their sensational headlines and stories, many of which belong into the fiction domain and lack evidential substance, but nevertheless keep their readership amused. Libya has now instructed lawyers in Kampala to represent them, who promptly demanded, in a half page advert in the regular newspapers, that an apology must be offered, the articles must be formally withdrawn, and in addition they demanded, on behalf of their client, reparations of US$1 billion (yes, billion, not million) for defamation. The publicly-notified deadline, however, seems to have expired without the apology and retraction forthcoming, and it is now understood that the lawyers have filed suit in the Ugandan High Court. Meanwhile indications are emerging that the Uganda government may take over the prosecution of the case, which caused enormous embarrassment to the entire nation. The case is now likely to be pursued in court as both a civil case for reparations but also as a criminal case, which could see the responsible journalists and editors end up in prison. Watch this space as this saga unfolds.

Uganda’s MTN has, at short notice, ended their mutual free-roaming agreement with Vodacom of Tanzania and Safaricom of Kenya, probably at the behest of Kenya’s Safaricom who incurred substantial losses as a result of the service through interconnection fees. The three communication companies tried their hand at free roaming for their customers when Celtel, now called Zain, introduced their One Africa network, which allows Zain clients to receive calls for free across as many as 15 African countries and 7 Middle Eastern markets, while making local calls at local rates, without incurring expensive roaming add-on charges.
Zain continues to extend their One Africa network, leaving other competitors trailing in their wake with this innovative product and licking their financial wounds.

After many successful years at the helm of the East African Wildlife Society in the position as executive director, Mr. Ali Kaka has announced that he will leave EAWLS by mid March in order to join IUCN in the new position of regional director for east and southern Africa, based in Nairobi. Having worked with Ali in several capacities and on many matters of mutual interest and concern, this correspondent wishes him the very best in his new position. EAWLS is presently engaged in the search for a new executive director, and a new appointment will feature in this column, of course.

One of Kenya’s leading privately-owned airlines has shown determination to stay competitive and implement their long-term business plan in spite of the challenges thrown at them by the current market conditions. Last week saw the arrival of their third CRJ, and as we go to press, their fourth such aircraft has been confirmed to arrive by the end of February. The 50-seater regional jets will sharply improve the company’s operating economics as lesser fuel consumption, streamlined maintenance, and generally easier handling of the aircraft will save them a great deal of money, compared to their older aircraft of F28 make, which can now be progressively phased out. The Bombardier-built plane is a fast commuter jet, extremely well-suited for flying times up to two hours, and its ability for fast turnarounds on the ground combined with excellent operating parameters, make it an aircraft of choice for the east African region, where most flights are either just under an hour or below two hours at the most.
The company presently operates domestic services across Kenya from their base at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and flies daily to Juba/Southern Sudan. Other regional routes are now on the drawing board as the expanded fleet allows for route expansion and more frequencies to existing destinations.

Reports indicate that Tanzania is now charging US$100 in Visa fees for US citizen visitors, which can be paid at the airport or land border on arrival. Most other nationalities pay “only” US$50, which – considering that many tourists visit more than one east African country – tends to get rather expensive when further taking into account that many visitors bring their families.

As the international economic crisis lingers on and in many areas intensifies, this may not be the right decision at the right time to attract more tourist visitors, and demands are repeated that the east African community now finally acts and introduces a common east African tourist Visa, while admitting expatriates living legally registered in any of the EAC member states for free, just as citizens of the member states do not pay for Visas.

News has emerged that in recent weeks elephants were poached in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, with allegations of Tanzanian poachers being involved to sell the ivory to Chinese citizens. This column has, in the past on several occasions, sounded a warning when Chinese were caught red handed trying to smuggle ivory out of eastern Africa, but the latest spate of elephant killings has now brought these deplorable acts into the regional media. The Chinese Embassy in Kenya predictably denied any involvement of any of their citizens living in Kenya or Tanzania for that matter. However, in July of last year, several Chinese were arrested when trying to smuggle ivory out of the country, and earlier last year, a consignment of ivory was found before being shipped via Doha to China. Ivory is in great demand for carvings and other uses in the far east, and this greed for the product has continued to fuel illegal poaching.

For some this may be a contradiction in terms, but when Skyjet Uganda delivered a ticket, having missed their formal inaugural flight due to other commitments, I did not hesitate a moment and flew to Juba on Valentine’s Day. My wife is general manager at one of the larger hotels in Juba for the last 3+ years, making such a flying visit a welcome opportunity to meet. The bouquet of roses I hand-carried promptly raised the suspicion of the Entebbe gate security personnel, who had me scan them twice and then used the hand-held scanner on them, not sure what to make of me bringing flowers on the trip. Thankfully they let me go with them, after all what is Valentine’s without the roses?

Skyjet offers 8 “classic” first-class seats on their B737 and 92 economy class seats, and I had no quarrel taking my seat in first class under the invitation. Catering was almost lavish for the 55-minute flight from Entebbe to Juba - a hot breakfast cum fresh pastries served in front and a very generous cold breakfast including pastries in economy, the crew thankfully showing me the meals as they got on with their service. A crew of 4, plus a service trainer cum supervisor had ample time for chats with passengers before clearing the cabin for landing.

Arrival at Juba’s International Airport (operates during daylight hours only) is always a little adventure as the main apron area is rather tight, and when there is additional traffic, one has to watch out. Work on the new terminal seems to continue slowly but without signs of due haste, confining passengers, for the time being, to the old terminal. Baggage is still offloaded by hand, through an opening in the wall, and immigration only requires to see the passport and the Visa form – not stamped into the passport but on a separate document – while the passenger enters into a photocopied A4 document their name and a handful of other details. Customs is cursory, although generally all suitcases and bags must be opened, and with a friendly wave one is then admitted into the southern Sudan.

Juba’s much-lauded “best restaurant,” which is located on the river Nile not far from the main bridge, is called Da Vinci and is managed by a German national with a longish previous history in Kenya. The menu is international in its composition, and when it is not packed too tightly, as was the case on Valentine’s Day, service is normally fast, and the fare exceeds expectations of visitors. A Kenyan band was playing that night, and had there been no lights on the other side of the river, one could have thought for a moment to sit at the oceanfront in Mombasa.

With the return flight not until later in the week, I took the opportunity to explore the river by boat, both up and down stream, again from Da Vinci’s mooring where decent motor boats with life vests and experienced deck hands inspired greater confidence than taking a dug-out canoe with paddles and a derelict outboard engine. The cost can set one back substantially but if shared with a larger party it is not only affordable but quite enjoyable, traversing Juba on the river and seeing the various sights.

Road works in Juba are progressing well, as are traffic jams on the main roundabout when coming from the airport, and traffic is “on the right” like in Europe or Rwanda for that matter, unlike the rest of eastern Africa, where one drives on the left. In any case, using a reliable driver and rental car is the best option for visitors, although the cost is comparably much higher than in Kampala or Nairobi. Buildings are going up everywhere, too, including new government quarters, residential houses, hotels, and shops, and supplies into Juba are stable, albeit again much more costly due to the long supply routes. The “old” Juba Hotel, where Hemingway used to stay during his hunting trips into the southern Sudan, is being taken down right now and no longer recognizable as the landmark it used to be; I wonder if at least the guest registers and guest comment books of old have survived somewhere, as I hope it ends up in a museum to help remember the big names who visited the southern Sudan in the old days.

The return flight, again with double-digit passenger numbers after just days of starting operations, was a few minutes ahead of schedule, in spite of the President of Southern Sudan, Gen. Salva Kiir, also flying out at the same time. His security was refreshingly not suffocating, everything else although visibly thorough. A choice of two hot lunch meals is served in first on the way back to Entebbe, while economy-class passengers get a nice cold plate of sliced curried chicken and a tropical salad, which is what I opted for in the end. Full bar service is available of course, but being mid-day, I declined the offer of champagne, wines, and spirits and stuck to water and tea.

It seems that several couples we know flew to Kampala for their Valentine’s Day and found it hard to believe I came from the other direction, and to Juba of all places, but the place is slowly coming together, and life is becoming easier in terms of supplies and connections to other regional capitals.

Skyjet is the first airline to leave Entebbe for Juba at 0900 hours every day and presently returns to Entebbe at mid-day, spending an hour on the ground in Juba. The airline is, however, considering introducing daily flights between Juba and Khartoum very soon, responding to growing local demand, which will then put their afternoon return flight from Juba to Entebbe into the mid pm bracket. Flying time is about 55 minutes between the two airports, and cruising altitude is at level 270 and 280 respectively.

With Southern Sudan’s tourism policy and legal and regulatory framework now well under way towards completion, investors in the safari accommodation sector are now slowly beginning to trickle into Juba. They are researching potential places in one of the six current national parks, where they could establish safari camps or small upscale and eco-friendly lodges to provide much needed beds, when the flow of tourists begins in earnest. Several potential investors from Germany were in the Southern Sudan in recent days, exploring the parks, although no firm commitments were made at this time. Watch this space for future updates on southern Sudanese tourism developments.

Two Rwandese general staff were recently advised by their legal counsel in Brussels, that a Belgian court has ruled not to proceed with any prosecution over allegations made by a French magistrate in connection with the 1994 shooting down of the presidential plane while on the final approach into Kigali airport. The incident led to the “Rwanda Genocide” of 1994, in which over 800,000 innocent people were butchered by Hutu militias, who then ran for cover into the Congo where they have since been causing similar chaos. The warrants for Lt. Gen. Charles Kayonga and Brig. Gen. Jack Nziza were dropped by the Belgian court last week. Incidentally, the same case is presently proceeding in France, where the Rwandan Head of Protocol Mrs. Rose Kabuye is facing her accusers, a process which is also expected to lead to her full acquittal. Mrs. Kabuye was arrested while on official duty in Frankfurt, Germany and then extradited to France, a development which seriously impaired bilateral relations between Rwanda and Germany, while diplomatic relations with France were anyway already “on ice.”

Incidentally, Rose Kabuye has just been granted leave again to return home to Rwanda, as she is not considered a flight risk and is, in fact, intent to return to France for the next round of her proceedings, where she is keen to prove her total innocence of all charges laid at her doorstep.

News is slowly emerging from the International Criminal Court (ICC) that the judges may have indeed issued a formal arrest warrant for Khartoum’s regime leader Bashir. It seems that the lobbying campaign launched across Africa on his behalf, and various assorted threats made in this connection, did not yield the wanted results to hold off any action until he leaves office. Many African leaders rejected the very notion to be dragged to court while in office, now, however, a stark reality and surely a sobering prospect for several of them still hanging on to power after rigging the ballots. Yet, as one Robert Mugabe can testify, such despots often cling to power by any means, hoping to breathe their last breath in office through fraudulent elections, violence, and corruption. The formal warrant is expected to be published soon and will then also be serving notice to several others of Bashir’s ilk, that their days are numbered and holding or hanging on to office will no longer shield them from international warrants and prosecution for crimes committed while in charge. Notably, one Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former dictator in Ethiopia where he is wanted for trial for his war crimes and crimes against humanity, has been granted shelter by the very Mr. Mugabe in Harare, clearly two birds of the same feather.

Meanwhile in Kenya, their parliament, apparently in anger, rejected the government’s draft constitutional amendments to establish a special tribunal/court to deal with the perpetrators of the violence unleashed upon the Kenyan population in the first few weeks of 2008. Some 1,000 Kenyans died at the time, when political opponents took their grievances over the elections results to the streets and had their goons try to alter the outcome. Going by the recommendations made from former UN guru Kofi Annan, the alleged perpetrators would now most likely have to go to The Hague for trial, where probably court cases can, in any case, be held without the expected back-room maneuvers anticipated should such hearings take place in Kenya. Several cabinet ministers and assistant ministers are reportedly on the list of perpetrators, yet none had been asked to resign or voluntarily stepped aside to clear the way for investigations into these alarming and very disconcerting allegations. Watch this space as the mills of justice being their long grind.

Wolfgang's East Africa tourism report

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