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East Africa Tourism

Wolfgang's East Africa tourism report

Wolfgang H. Thome  Apr 16, 2009

The decisive action by US Navy personnel to rescue a captured captain from pirates was greeted with relief and applause in particular for President Obama, whose credentials in eastern Africa were strengthened by his courageous and successful decision to allow the mission. Somali pirates have become a menace for ships trying to reach the eastern African ports of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, even when navigating sea lanes further out into the ocean, as the pirates equally operate hundreds of miles out to sea.

The one off rescue, welcomed as it was, of course, masks the underlying problem that pirates still hold dozens of hostages from many ships now under their control. What is really required is a well-coordinated assault on the safe havens of the pirates to destroy their infrastructure - their so-called “mother ships” and either capture them and bring them to justice or else. Alliance forces are based in Djibouti, and the veritable assembly of international warships off the Horn of Africa should now provide the means to commence an offensive against the pirates on the sea and on land. Should that not be done very soon, the menace will undoubtedly continue to worsen and affect international shipping through the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aden, and along the lower east African shorelines, to the detriment of world trade, the affected shipping lines, the crews, and their families. In closing, imagine the scenario of a passenger cruise liner being captured by those terrorist pirates with hundreds of people on board. Will it have to come to a catastrophe first before serious military action is taken? Watch this space for updates.

The Paradise Wildlife Park in the UK has donated two female lionesses to the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre in Entebbe. The relocation is apparently a first in sending African lions back to Africa from the UK, but they will, of course, never see the African bush for real, having to settle for second best at UWEC for the rest of their lives. The gesture, however, is greatly appreciated and will be an added attraction for visitors.

Two pieces of good news emerged just before Easter for the environmental lobby, when first, a US$200,000 grant was announced by the FAO, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The money will be used to seed-fund forestry conservation activities for the next year, although more funding will be needed from government to achieve the noble objectives.

In a second and related development, parliament passed a vote to allow for a US$15 million fund allocation by the World Bank for the National Environmental Management Authority, or NEMA in short, to facilitate nationwide tree planting and reforestation to improve forest cover and mitigate environmental impacts by human activities.

April 11, 1979 saw the eventual overthrow of Uganda’s most notorious dictator, Idi Amin Dada, take place, when Tanzanian troops and Ugandan exile forces, amongst them none other than President Museveni, took Kampala and forced the remaining troops of Amin out of the capital city. Amin has, meanwhile, of course, passed on, but he remains strongly identified with Uganda, like a lingering cloud, owing to his notoriety for gruesome crimes committed against Uganda’s citizens and his support for Palestinian terrorists who held a planeload of passengers hostage at Entebbe International Airport (before a successful rescue mission by Israeli commandos). Amin’s regime was then eventually replaced with an almost equally dictatorial second term of Milton Obote, after the rigged and stolen elections of 1981. It was this event which made current President Museveni take to the bush to start a 5-year liberation war, which ended in defeat for the last of Uganda’s dictators and has since allowed for the emergence of a vibrant democracy and brought economic progress and development to the country.

Oscar winning film, “The Last King of Scotland,” was filmed on location in Uganda a few years ago and is about the cruel and despotic aspects of life under Amin. The film drew much attention to the new Uganda as an investment and tourism destination.

The consultative exercise over the planned new bridge across the river Nile in Jinja has brought about first results, when the route was changed, following submissions by affected businesses at the Njeru side of the river where the Nile Breweries are located. A planned multi-million, US-dollar expansion of the brewery was under threat when the initial route of the bridge and road works cut right through the land owned by the brewery and set aside for the expansion. A slightly different route is now being proposed to avoid this clash of interests, but already other businesses located in the vicinity are now complaining, too, that because of their lesser status compared with the brewery, their own presentations were ignored. A final decision is expected soon, and it is hoped that work can commence in the near future to add this very important alternative road link from eastern Uganda crossing the Nile.

The first ever Gulf-based, low-cost carrier, which flies between Sharjah, UAE and Nairobi on a regular basis, has announced good news. The airline won the prestigious “Best Low Cost Airline in the Middle East” designation, when the World Airline Awards 2009 were announced recently. Travelers from eastern Africa to the Gulf, and east African expatriates working in the UAE, have taken to the airline because of their affordable rates. Sharjah is only a few kilometers away from Dubai itself but offers generally more affordable accommodation and, not known to all, affordable shopping, compared to other parts of the United Arab Emirates. In spite of the difficult market conditions, Air Arabia added over 30 percent in passengers in 2008, a sign that their business concept actually works.

The Kenyan equivalent to Hawaii’s “Iron Man” will take place over the weekend of April 18-19 in Watamu on the Indian Ocean coast. The triathlon requires participants, depending on the category they entered, to run up to 20 kilometers, cycle up to 80 kilometers, and complete an ocean swim of up to 3 kilometers for the top “Ultra” category. The Olympic Triathlon and the Corporate Relay require lesser distances to complete the challenge. Registration costs 4,000 KShs, which is equivalent to about US$50. Also available are kids’ events covering very small distances and a Community Funathlon.

A contribution of 500 KShs will be made to the Kibera community sport project for each registered participant, spreading the goodies to those in most need. Thanks to Wairimu Kinuthia of KenyaBuzz for the information.

In a last ditch effort to raise much needed cash for the ballooning government expenditure, the Kenyan Ministry of Finance decided to put their shares in more than a dozen hotels and lodges up for sale. Major blocks of shares, estimated to be in between 30 to 40 percent, in such prominent hotels like the Hilton, the Intercontinental, and the Mombasa Beach, will soon be floated, and existing co-share holders are expected to have a first right of refusal for the shares, once the government officially declares their intent to sell to the respective boards.

Several smaller hotels, like the Sunset Hotel in Kisumu – located near the paternal home of US President Barrack Obama – and of several safari lodges like Voi and Ngulia in the Tsavo National Park, will also come on the market under the proposed sale. Kenya’s bloated coalition government has been eating deep into the available financial envelope, and selling the “family silver,” now seems one of few options to raise more cash in the face of the current global and financial economic crisis, which has also reached Kenya’s shores. Watch this space for updates.

An ill-considered strike call by the Kenya Hotels and Allied Workers Union was defeated by staff turning up for work, after the main rival union declared the strike not necessary. The ill-timed attempted strike action, just ahead of the Easter weekend, could have potentially disrupted the hospitality sector, which, in any case, is already struggling with the fallout of the global economic and financial crisis, a fact conveniently ignored by the union bosses. No disruptions were, in fact, reported from Kenya, where citizens, expatriates, and visitors alike enjoyed a peaceful long holiday weekend.

In a crushing High Court ruling in Nairobi, locally-incorporated airline, Delta Connection, was ordered to drop the use of the Delta name in all their stationary, tickets, advertising, and related areas of business, stating that it infringed on the rights of Delta Airlines from the United States, which is soon due to commence flights to Nairobi.
The local airline, which was established several years ago, has immediately moved to the Court of Appeals for a stay of execution, citing irreparable loss of business and a likely grounding of the airline should the High Court ruling become final. At the time of forming the airline and registering its name, this similarity was apparently not of any concern to the Registrar of Companies, but with the onset of Delta flights between the US and Kenya, the matter inevitably came to a head. An initial stay of execution of 15 days was granted, which could be extended until the appeal before the court has been heard. As all permits and licenses are presently granted under Delta Connection, the airline clearly needs time, if so ordered, to put their house in order under a different name with the regulators and other bodies, a fact Delta Airlines from the US needs to face up to now, as the next step of their legal battle unfolds.

A new 138-bedroom hotel was opened last weekend by none other then President Kikwete in Bagamoyo, a historic town north of Dar es Salaam. While at the new hotel, the President also called for swift surveys on suitable beaches both north and south of Dar es Salaam to open up new areas for tourism developments. The president also acknowledged in his speech the contributions of the tourism sector towards the Tanzanian economy, while urging Tanzanian nationals to take advantage of the facilities put up in national parks and along the Indian Ocean beaches.

The President, on an earlier occasion, also assured the nation that his government would do all in its power to avoid a repeat of widespread electricity shortages in the light of recent drought predictions, which would impact, once again, all hydro-electric plants, leaving the shortfall to be catered for by expensive thermal plants.

A new 75-bedroom safari lodge is due to open in June this year in the Serengeti National Park. The information was given by Kempinski Hotels in Dar es Salaam, who will manage the new property on behalf of the UAE-based owners. The Bilila Kempinski Lodge will likely be the last such development in the Serengeti, where environmental concerns are taken seriously over the impact of such fixed places. It is, however, according to usually well-informed sources, possible to erect tented camps in select places, as they are thought to be less damaging to the fragile ecosystem and can more easily be removed.

At the same time, controversy is ongoing in the adjoining Kenyan Masai Mara Game Reserve where an abundance of hospitality businesses are operating. Commented a Kenyan safari operator: “Maybe we have overdone it in the Mara, but when I look at those big spaces in the Serengeti, I think that they are maybe a little too restrictive about a few more lodges, but then again, when one is killing the goose laying the golden eggs with too many beds in a small reserve, that makes you think again.”

Conservationists, however, are said to be delighted by Tanapa’s decision to halt any further brick-and-mortar developments in the Serengeti and restrict new lodges to areas immediately outside the national park. Said one of them based in Nairobi to this correspondent: “I hope Kenya takes a leaf from this decision. The Masai Mara moratorium on new lodges has been ignored, and the carrying capacity for lodges and tented camps inside the greater Mara conservation area is literally exhausted. Investors should look at some of the parks and reserves without enough beds and build there, instead of overcrowding the main parks,” - sentiments shared by this column.

Citing a lack of adequate funds, the Tanzanian government has stopped all work on the ongoing classification and grading of hotels, lodges, and resorts in the country. The long-overdue exercise is also one of the agreed coordinated actions of the East African Community (EAC), which is due to unfold across the five member states. The objective, of course, is to give tourists and business visitors a level of certainty that the star rating on a hospitality business’ door indeed reflects the reality on the ground and is comparable with similar establishments anywhere in the EAC. After the work started, some 100 coastal resorts and business hotels along the Indian Ocean beaches and in Dar es Salaam were inspected, but the all important “Northern Circuit” covering the hotels and lodges from Moshi over Arusha to the national parks of Tarangire, Manyara, Ngorongoro, and Serengeti, remain untouched. This is sad news for the hospitality industry and, indeed, more sad news for east African cooperation.

A meeting in preparation for the head of state summit of the East African Community at the end of April took place in Bujumbura last week, discussing a compromise on the slow, and at times painful, march towards economic integration of the EAC. The Common Market Protocol is due to be signed by the heads of state later in the month, but substantial differences emerged once more in the positions of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi versus Tanzania over a range of issues. The four states wish to have their citizens use national identity cards to move freely across the EAC, like in the old days of the first EAC, while Tanzania continues to insist on the use of passports, however, with little compelling arguments offered. Other contentious issues are the ownership of land by citizens of one member state in another member state, again an issue raised by Tanzania, which is reluctant to permit such a blanket right. The third contentious issue remains residency of EAC citizens in any of the other states without formality, where Tanzania again put her foot down and stood in the way of an agreement.

In order to rescue the meeting, it was agreed to exclude these three sticking points from the common communiqué and will probably seek a further meeting before the upcoming Council of Ministers meeting and the subsequent summit in Arusha.

Uganda tried to formulate a compromise during an EAC meeting of ministers in Kampala, with little success, however. So far, a split looms over the three crucial issues. In fact, the all-important tourist industry in eastern Africa would be one of the losers if no solution could be found, as free travel across the region by citizens would undoubtedly encourage more travel by citizens, while a single Visa for tourist and business visitors from abroad would attract such target groups to visit more than one country - now an expensive proposition due to the extra fees and hassles involved. Watch this space for updates.

The Ugandan and Kenyan business communities have, of late, raised a series of complaints and concerns with their foreign ministries and diplomatic missions in Juba, over being harassed, mistreated, and accosted while doing business in southern Sudan. Both countries hosted large numbers of refugees from southern Sudan and were the springboard for supplies for the SPLA and her allies during the liberation war, but such hospitality seemed often forgotten, going by regular reports in the local media. One of the bullies, however, a self-styled “Colonel,” allegedly integrated into the southern Sudan Armed Forces from a former militia formation and was recently arrested when a Kenyan investor in a Juba hotel property found his own representative from Nairobi missing after being arrested by the “Colonel’s” contacts for being an alleged imposter.

The matter swiftly made its way up the ranks, however, and top officials from the government and SPLA swooped down on the fellow, picked him up, and put him on remand. Official statements from the government in Juba also reassured Kenya and Uganda of cordial and friendly relations and that the official policy is to welcome investments and business relations between the countries and the south Sudan, while condemning individuals trying to muscle into investments under false pretenses.

News has emerged from usually-reliable UN sources in Goma, that the commanders of MONUC on the ground are complaining bitterly over troop levels, promised to them months ago but never delivered. This information gains new light with ongoing news of the Hutu killer militias in eastern Congo being as active again as before the joint Rwanda, Congo, MONUC offensive against them, which was terminated by Congo before the full military objective could be achieved by Rwandese forces, who were asked to leave prematurely. This joint exercise already put the 17,000-strong MONUC forces to their hardest test yet and made all but clear that they cannot succeed without either having direct help from Rwanda or else troop numbers boosted to match the guerrillas. The Hutu militias are, in fact, reported to have issued specific hit lists, targeting alleged collaborators with the Rwandan troops, at the time, and several killings already point towards such assassinations.

The picture darkens in the northeast of the Congo, where again Congo had asked the joint Ugandan force to also leave the area and return home, while the LRA rebels, their leaders wanted by the ICC for crimes against humanity and war crimes, roam freely at will again. Congolese forces are, as usual, hesitant to engage the rebels, and the UN forces lack the manpower and equipment to root out the menace. Border areas inside Congo, from Goma towards the Central African Republic, should, therefore, be avoided by visitors, and in particular adventurers, wishing to track gorillas in the border triangle between Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo and should opt for safe tracking in Uganda and Rwanda for their own safety.

Tracking of gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda is considered safe, and security measures are in place along the common frontier with Congo, to prevent any infiltration of ill-meaning elements.

Wolfgang's East Africa tourism report
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