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East Africa Tourism

Wolfgang's East Africa tourism report

Wolfgang H. Thome  May 01, 2009

Apparently stung by sustained public criticism expressed in the local media and acid comments made during call-in radio programs, Kingdom Kampala has resorted to taking out a full-page statement in the local newspapers, trying to counter the range of allegations made against them in the recent past.

The rambling statement signed by management – not giving any specific name, title, or designation – clearly resents the comments attributed to the immediate former State Minister for Investment and current Ambassador to the UAE, Hon. Prof. Semakula-Kiwanuka, and seems to blame him for initially recommending a partner company ultimately not chosen and then reacting to the new partners, as was reported in last week’s column. Kingdom also labors on that they have to justify their genuine investment after part of the new set up was called bogus. In closing, the statement offers unsolicited advice to Uganda’s new Ambassador in the UAE to find allies and, together with the Ministry of Finance and other relevant government officials, to visit their offices located in the Jebel Ali Free Zone, Dubai. Meanwhile, the Ugandan government is reported to have formally rejected the new Shimoni partnership following an investigation by the Embassy in Abu Dhabi, UAE over the status of the proposed new partners brought into the fray by Kingdom Hotels. It was also learned at the time, that government – apparently ignoring legal threats by Kingdom’s local lawyers – has repossessed the land and will not engage with a new investment group to put up a new development on the site. That new group, as per information given to the media by Ambassador Prof. Semakula-Kiwanuka, has already posted a performance bond, likely to shut out the Kingdom partnership, although a legal case may well unfold now in the Ugandan courts. The dismissive and contemptuous statements subsequently made by a Kingdom partnerships spokesperson against Uganda’s Ambassador was also received with incredulity and anger and may well backfire on them, as public tirades against government and key officials have rarely achieved the intended purpose. In sections of the media, a power struggle of sorts between different political godfathers was also suggested over the decision that ultimately will develop the 15-acre piece of land, making the story ever more interesting. Stay tuned to this column for updated news, week after week.

With the new Oasis shopping mall at the lower end of what used to be at one time the Centenary Park, finally launched early this week – the big event was delayed by ongoing access road works – a new shopping experience has descended on Kampaleans. Nakumatt, Kenya’s giant supermarket chain opened their Oasis mega store in the new premises, and large banners on top of the building are promising their shoppers opening hours around the clock, plus a customer loyalty scheme, which will earn them credit points for every shilling spent. This will be a welcome development for many, including this correspondent, as getting up early will allow one to beat the traffic, go to the city, complete the shopping all in one location, and be back home when others only begin to stir in their beds. Even travelers going for the early flights between 3 and 5 am from Entebbe can still pass at an open mall mega store and buy something they had forgotten and still make their departure time, a proposition which will undoubtedly be well received.

On the downside, during the first visit to the new mall, it was discovered that extensive building work is still going on everywhere, making the official opening probably rather premature. The escalators still run rather rough, with several of them at the time of the visit, already under repair or adjustment, as one manager put it, while many shops still sported newspapers taped to the windows, i.e., not yet being in operation. The customer loyalty card of Nakumatt, advertised on site as “available instantly today,” also did not materialize, and a waiting period of 8 days was suggested.

The booking office for Mweya Safari Lodge in Queen Elizabeth National Park, for Paraa Safari Lodge in Murchison’s Falls National Park, and for Chobi Safari Lodge, due for completion later in the year, has moved last weekend to their own corporate premises in the industrial area, where other Madvhani companies also operate from. Phone and fax contacts remain unchanged and have, of course, already been transferred to the new location. Contact them for further information on bookings and tariffs via or visit their websites featuring their lodges: or .

Some 90+ members and guests attended the monthly Skal meeting at the Metropole Hotel in Kampala’s fancied Kololo suburb mid week, where – at least for the evening – they left behind all talk of the economic crisis and swine flu and rather settled for an evening of good fun amongst good company. The hotel’s management, led by outgoing general manager cum SKAL Club president Rahul Sood and the sponsors, WARID Telecom, went out of their way to create a great evening with food, wine, and gifts – all sponsored for the night while commemorating the 75th anniversary of SKAL’s original founding in Paris, France. The available raffle prices caught everyone’s attention, comprised of connected mobile phones, WARID gift packs, dinners at some of Kampala’s finest restaurants, and a return ticket to Nairobi, donated by Fly 540, who were represented by their regional sales and marketing manager Jackie Arkle-Okutoyi. Jackie was in Kampala on airline business and attended the function with their Ugandan management team.

A commemorative cake was also cut on the occasion of SKAL International’s 75th anniversary, by none other than this correspondent in his capacity as founder president of Skal Kampala, and ably assisted by several of the club’s past presidents in attendance during the evening.

This first Skal function of the current club year gives great promise for the next meetings and get-togethers until the end of the year, as both membership recruitment and surveying for a Young Skal club were also carried out during the evening. SKAL to ALL.

Skal Kampala President Rahul Sood, by the time of going to press the immediate former general manager of the Metropole Hotel in Kampala, will be joining the Imperial Group of Hotels as area general manager in Entebbe, where he will oversee both the Imperial Resort Beach and the Botanical Beach Hotel. Additional rooms are presently under construction at the Botanical Beach Hotel, which is also undergoing an upgrade.
The Skal fellowship meeting was also the last for Serena’s Daniel Kangu, deputy general manager at the Kampala Serena Hotel, who will be moving back to Kenya to join the Nairobi Serena Hotel in the same position. Sad to see this gifted young individual leave; this column wishes him all the best in his future career.

One of the more recent additions to the Kampala hotel scene, opened in October 2007 just ahead of the Commonwealth Summit, was sold by owner Karim Somani to the owners of the Golf Course Hotel and the Garden City Mall, and with the transaction effective on May 1, the time is right to break the news. No replacement as general manager was announced as yet, and it is understood that the hotel is still seeking a new man or woman to replace Rahul Sood, who left his position to join another hotel group in the country. The Metropole Hotel, under Rahul’s management, clocked an incredible 88 percent occupancy for the last year, which includes a 60 percent repeat guest situation, a challenge for the new owners to copy in the future. Many guests and patrons of the hotel will be sad to see Rahul move on and will be keenly watching how the new owners will perform in coming months.

This column has been known to advocate for years now towards the introduction of a single visa for visitors from abroad to the region, to stimulate more traffic and attract more tourist and business travelers to east Africa. Added to this, is the outstanding issue of not charging visa fees to expatriates duly registered in one of the east African member states and allowing unrestricted travel across the region to them and their families, many of whom are now spending their holiday time in places where no visa is required by them.

Airlines in the region have now caught on to this demand, seeking to fill their planes with more passengers, and notably the Uganda country manager of Brussels Airlines Mr. Pierre Declerk is quoted in the media of having, in fact, challenged the scribes to join the cause and demand action from the responsible ministers through their newspapers. Other airline sources, while also supporting the idea, have, however, not gone on public record yet, a situation which ought to change if they want to succeed in having a single visa become a fast reality.

In an ill-considered broad side, the former Minister for Tourism, now deployed in the Prime Minister’s Office for general duties, has admitted that she and her colleagues are not up to the job, demanding capacity building and training to bridge existing skills gaps.

The Prime Minister sensibly declined to comment on the reported gaffe by the Minister, but the outburst still made national headlines and attracted a wide range of comments in radio call-in shows and elsewhere on the streets.

Hon. Janat Mukwaya’s departure from the Tourism Ministry was greeted with widespread relief at the time of her leaving the ministry, and according to several sources this column spoke to at the time, heard sentiments like “this should have come much earlier” but “was not a day too soon” and opinions shared by this column without reservations and qualifications.

Destinations in the UK and Brussels, of course, are now available for a limited period of time for a mere US$535 return, and sales are reportedly booming, filling the available seats beyond the airline’s wildest expectations. However, it must be pointed out that regulatory charges add easily a couple of hundred dollars on top of this, making airport operators and regulators the odd man out in the equation, as – unlike the airlines – they seem to stick to their extraordinary fee structures irrespective of the economic situation’s demands for lower fees. Excellent fares to North America are also available until the start of the summer high season in June.

The Sheraton Kampala Hotel has recently presented a new wine selection, all from a fine vineyard in South Africa. The hotel’s F&B team, led by Eric Wendel, director of F&B), and James Rattos, F&B manager, had prepared for this event for a while as they were searching for suitable new wines to offer to the Sheraton’s demanding clientele. A range of 6 red and white wines from the Horse Mountain Estate will now feature in all the hotel’s restaurants, bars, and catering outlets. Visitors to the Sheraton Kampala can sample the new wines with immediate effect.

Comments made by one of the State Ministers in the Ministry of Tourism, Trade, and Industry about the options of privatizing game reserves, opting for a public/private sector partnership or having the private sector opening up new reserves promptly, received a mixed reaction. Concerns were raised on the regulatory set up and oversight, but going by previous experience, the proposition should be taken seriously in order to add new attractions to the tourism sector.

The Rhino Sanctuary on Ziwa Ranch, en route from Kampala to the Murchisons Falls National Park, has developed in recent years from strength to strength, is home to 6 rhinos and a range of other game and many bird species, and has added accommodation over the last 12 to 18 months to permit visitors to stay overnight and enjoy their visit longer. This experiment was the first ever in Uganda, when the Rhino Fund Uganda was given a license a couple of years ago to operate under UWA’s wildlife use rights rules. With land-use rights secured for the long term and funding raised, the sanctuary was then created and equipped at an estimated cost of over US$1 million, while this correspondent was chairperson of the RFU and has since become a success story of sorts. Other such efforts are now also underway in other parts of Uganda, and it is hoped that new ventures will become equally well established.

Having failed to make any impact in Uganda, where the name is now firmly linked with scandal in Kenya, too, the company has come under the spotlight. Rumors linked to the massive losses Prince Al Waleed sustained with his stock holdings in recent months, have suggested that Kingdom Hotels may in fact sell their Kenyan and Tanzanian properties, after spending mega bucks in first acquiring and then rehabilitating the Kenyan hotels and resorts over the past years. The hotel group is also linked to hotel holdings in London and Singapore, where similar rumors have emerged over the past days to the disdain of the Sheikh and his paid mouthpieces, one of whom in Kenya predictably denied the rumors circulating there.

A three-day, cross-country, mountain-bike race is set for mid June in the Laikipia district in central Kenya. The participation will cost cycling enthusiasts a US$200 registration fee, or 15,000 Kenya Shillings, for local and regional participants. Simple ad-hoc, tented accommodation will be provided in the grounds of the Ol Gaboli Community Lodge, inclusive of meals, which start with a get-together dinner on the eve of the race. Upgrades to the bandas or other lodge accommodation are possible at a fee, but limited space is available, so first come, first served.

Several entry categories are on offer, and racers will, of course, be provided with water stations along the route, as well as lunch in the field on race days. Distances to be covered daily vary between 50 and 75 kilometers. Transport from the Nanyuki airstrip to the venue with shuttle busses is available with prior notice. For more information, contact the organizers via: or write to .

The Ol Pejeta Game Reserve last week formally invited proposals for the establishment of a 26-bed permanent tented camp, demanding from prospective investors a high-quality facility. The 90,000-acre conservancy is located in the Laikipia area of central Kenya and was previously a ranch owned by notorious arms dealer and business broker, Adnan Kashoggi, before it was foreclosed over debts owed to Lonrho East Africa at the time. On the sprawling property are already two permanent accommodation units, the Ol Pejeta House, and Sweetwaters Safari Camp, but in view of the expected rise in demand in coming years and the unique location between the Aberdare Mountains (and national park) and Mt. Kenya, the board of the conservancy has decided to act now and seek new investments.

Porini Camps, in conjunction with Gamewatcher Safaris, also operate a small classic tented facility on the conservancy called the Porini Rhino Camp, as do apparently two other operators, while the new camp location now advertised will be a permanent development. Look out for news of the winning bidder as and when the decision will be made.

The Kenya Wildlife Services has finally decided to withdraw their support to a scheme devised by the so-called Cheetah Foundation at the boundary of the Masai Mara Game Reserve. The controversial sanctuary project, according to the latest information received, appears to have aimed at returning young cheetahs, raised in captivity, back into the wild, whereas all previous such attempts failed elsewhere according to the KTF environmental committee chairman Allan Earnshaw. NEMA in Nairobi had initially given a provisional license to the project in mid 2008, but with the KWS support now withdrawn, following further investigations and information received from the conservation and tourism fraternity, it seems more and more unlikely that it can go ahead.
Other issues raised in connection with the project are an apparent bypass around the moratorium against more accommodation units in the area, which leaves NEMA with egg all over their faces, prompting them to suggest foul play on the side of KWS, a rather transparent attempt to whitewash themselves over this and other recent controversies for which NEMA Kenya was dragged into the court of public opinion by the media.

Repairs on the railway line leading from Nairobi towards the Rift Valley and on to the Ugandan border were carried out in a Nairobi suburb earlier in the week, after security forces provided a safe working environment for the railway staff. Prior to this some, agitated mobs, thought to be the same lot which uprooted the railway line several times last year for political purposes in support of one candidate, had threatened the workers and reportedly chased them away. Traffic in both directions has now resumed catering for imports and exports via the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa.

In a further innovative measure aimed at making up-to-date flight information available to their passengers, KQ has now introduced feedback to mobile phones by text about available flights, departure, and arrival times. Inquiries can be sent from any mobile, including those of visitors on roaming, to the service center number “7767” and a response will arrive back momentarily.

Although individuals have in the past traveled to South Africa to sniff around at the region’s most important tourism trade fair, the Kenya Tourist Board and companies were hitherto not permitted to officially attend with a stand, as Indaba was restricted to member states of SADC, the Southern African Development Community. However, at the forthcoming Indaba in Durban, Kenya will, for the first time, attend as an exhibitor. Increasing trade and tourism links between the two countries, which include several daily flights by both Kenya Airways and South African Airways between Nairobi and Johannesburg, however, changed the situation in favor of Kenya, and, hopefully, buyers can be attracted at the fair to visit Kenya and the rest of the east African region.
Kenya Airways and the Kenya Tourist Board recently made an extra effort when hosting nearly 200 travel journalists, travel writers, and agents from nearly 20 African countries, in order to widen their market reach across the continent.

South Africa has been under pressure to lift such non-tariff barriers, which have been and are impeding free trade and the promotion of tourism under the pretext of only permitting SADC members access to certain events, and ahead of the FIFA world cup next year in South Africa, further relaxation of such protective measures are expected.

Following are two aviation items from Harro Trumpeneau’s regular Aero Club of Kenya newsletter, which will be of interest to the readers of this column as it demonstrates private sector initiative where the regulators have failed to provide services and answers.

The airfields data base initiated by the Aero Club of East Africa is taking shape on the club's web site . It is effectively a computerized airfields manual, showing mainly Kenyan airfields, including details like coordinates, runway headings and lengths/widths, operator details, and any cautions, as well as photographs. So far some three hundred Kenyan airfields and airports are available online. The service is free.
All pilots are requested to assist in particular with aerial photos of the airfields. Please forward any pictures of the runways and also ground shots to Alexander Galley who is actively assembling the latest airfield data for the manual on behalf of the Aero Club. His email address is: .

The Aero Club wishes to acknowledge the kind assistance by Capt. Tad Watts of
Boskovic Air Charters in providing details of many airstrips in Kenya. The hard work of site moderator Daniel Szlapak, and of Alexander Galley, is also greatly appreciated by the Club.

One of the greatest problems with aviation in Kenya is the lack of accurate meteorological data and weather forecasting. The Met Department only provides rudimentary information and TAFs, and METARS are only available for HKJK (Jomo Kenyatta International Airports) and HKMO (Moi International Airport. There are some web sites, mostly based in Europe and the USA, which publish medium-range forecasts and also satellite photographs (see "Links" page on the Aero Club web site ), and recently the "Metmonkey" site began to publish African and Kenyan weather information.

A new system, being contemplated by the Aero Club Committee, is a network of webcams placed strategically on cell phone towers throughout Kenya. The photographs taken by the webcams would be updated every two minutes, and users could click on a "Webcam Weather Site" for Kenya to look at the latest weather picture in the general area to which they are flying. A good live example can be found by checking the Rift Valley Academy webcam at Kijabe that shows fresh photos of the Longonot - Rift Valley area every two minutes. Check .

The photo gives the pilot (with computer access) a pretty good idea what the weather is in the Rift Valley. The concept is to place such webcams in places that are notoriously giving headaches to VFR pilots, such as the Aberdare Corridor, Nairobi's Ngong Hills, the Mau Escarpment, etc. Costsand modalities have to be discussed first, and you will be kept updated on progress on this project.

Tanzania’s premier and biggest private airline, Precision Air, has just taken delivery of another brand new ATR 72-500 as part of a large order placed last year with the French manufacturers. Two of the seven aircraft on order had been delivered previously already. The new aircraft, once put into service, is expected to boost capacity on both domestic and regional routes, where Precision Air is now the predominant Tanzanian airline. The carrier is co-owned by Kenya Airways, of course the premier international airline in the east African region, which invested heavily in past years in the Tanzanian carrier and owns the maximum legally permitted 49 percent of the company shares under Tanzanian law.

Mrs. Lisa Lind, one of the owners of this recent addition to the beach circuit in Tanzania, has been in Kampala during the week, busy promoting holiday packages to this exclusive and secluded beach camp. Located near the Pangani River along the sandy Indian Ocean beaches, the small and exclusive resort offers a Swahili house with 4 bedrooms, ideally suited for families, besides which clients can choose between one of five beach bungalows and 7 spacious self-contained tents. A swimming pool cum bar and lounge and, of course, an airy restaurant, round up the facilities available.

Resort guests have the free use of mountain bikes and kayaks and activities, such as trips up the Pangani River by a traditional dhow, which are on offer in the area and are organized by the owners. Scuba diving and, to a lesser extent, deep-sea fishing, are also available from the resort.

The beach resort can be reached by road from Dar es Salaam, by boat from Zanzibar, and by air from Arusha with Regional Air to Pangani or from Dar via Tanga by Coastal Aviation. Visit their website for more information at .

Several explosions rocked the commercial capital of Tanzania yesterday, when an army base ammunition dump at the outskirts of the city reportedly exploded, causing panic amongst the Dar populations. Large clouds of smoke were seen rising over that part of the city. Wide-spread damage in the immediate vicinity and some more distant areas was reported in the local media, as well as an unspecified number of casualties, filling available hospital beds to the brim. Fleeing residents caused traffic jams, and in the ensuing panic, people were reportedly also trampled and injured. Dar es Salaam’s American Embassy, together with the US Embassy in Nairobi, were bombed by a coordinated and timed Al Qaida attack in 1998, and this unfortunate accident brought back those memories with a vengeance.

True to their ever-innovative colors, Rwanda has become the host of the Tandem Rally, where mountain bikers use tandems, or two-seaters, to compete in Rwanda’s mountainous terrain thought ideal for the sport. None other than the Deputy CEO of the Rwanda Development Board and head of ORTPN, Mrs. Rosette Ruganda, made the announcement last weekend in Kigali, when she revealed details of the event. The sporting extravaganza is underwritten by European events company Absolute Blue, which will be promoting the race overseas. Hundreds of competitors and spectators are expected to come to Rwanda next year specifically to participate and watch the race, which will spread over several days between January 30 and February 7, 2010. The race will start and end in Kigali and traverse extensively across the country, allowing everyone involved, be it competitor or spectator, to sample the beauty of Rwanda’s landscapes.

Rwanda is thought to have been selected owing partly to her three consecutive Best African Exhibitor awards collected at the ITB in Berlin, which has attracted huge media coverage and raised interest levels from other sectors, like sports, to engage with the “land of a thousand hills.” However, strong governmental political and budgetary support for tourism promotion and the ability by key staff of ORTPN to identify new opportunities and translate them into concrete action in the market place, are the main factors for Rwanda’s ongoing success story, which makes it the envy of many others in the region.

As reported last week, a hotel was partly torn down on instructions of the local mayor, who in the face of rather negative publicity and pressure on her, decided to blame the event on technical issues, while denying that any personal disagreements or dislike between her and the owner’s wife played any role in making the decision. She dragged the district director of lands into the news conference to sing to her tune, which the man willingly did last weekend. Citing issues related to sewerage, both of them maintained that the hotel extension needed to be destroyed, in addition mentioning obscure security reasons and protecting citizens. Other sources from Kigali reported that a spokesperson for the Rwanda Development Board and the head of ORTPN both expressed their concern and regret over the unfortunate demolition of parts of the hotel, acknowledging that Rwanda needs more hotel rooms, and investment in the country continues to be welcome. One source in particular referred to other known cases where not all permits had been secured in time for building extensions and more facilities, and blamed the vengeful mayoress of being selective in her application of the demolition order, giving credence to the allegations made earlier last week that a personal feud was the underlying factor for the event.

In a further development, the event also attracted an intense debate within Rwanda over the way the mad cap mayoress acted, not allowing valuables to be removed from the site before the demolishing began, and what the implications will be for other investors who come to learn about this sad story.

Following discussions within the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) and the Government of Central Equatoria State, also located in Juba, the capital city development master plan was halted for the time being, to allow for wider consultations within the various layers of government and civic society in Southern Sudan about the location and subsequent development of a well-structured capital city. Immediately after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in early 2005, the town of Rumbek was floated as a new capital for the Southern Sudan, but when Gen. Garang died in a helicopter crash in mid 2005, the idea was put on the back burner, and Juba was initially chosen for its existing infrastructure and easy access from neighboring countries as the seat of the Southern Government. The interim constitution of 2005 also suggests that Juba should be the capital city for both GoSS and the state government. However, issues have since then arisen between the state and central governments, which need to be resolved first before making major financial commitments towards a master-plan development of Juba in coming years.

South Africa has delivered a serious blow to the leader of the Khartoum regime, when making it known publicly that Bashir would not be welcome for the inauguration of president elect Jacob Zuma on May 9. Sections of the media went as far as suggesting that Bashir could, in fact, be arrested on arrival, should he dare to come and visit for the occasion. Unlike some others, South Africa has drawn a line in the sand and put distance between their democratic credentials and the Sudanese pariah leader. Concludes this column that notice has been served to Bashir that not all African countries will tolerate his shenanigans, and a number of African countries are ready to execute the ICC arrest warrant should the opportunity arise.

This indigenous bank, up to now headquartered in Khartoum, has last week moved to Juba where the new head office will be located. The move was applauded by the southern political leadership as a promise fulfilled. Ivory was formed by private interests several years ago to cater to the southern population living in Khartoum at the time and has made a change in banking services when opening a number of branches across the southern Sudan.

Meanwhile, also in Southern Sudan, the Nile Commercial Bank, Ltd. New Sudan is reported to have run out of cash and told customers to wait for withdrawals, as the financial crunch accelerates. Sources in Juba are blaming the regime in Khartoum for not releasing sufficient funds from the oil revenue share agreement, with the objective to destabilize the southern government, leaving the population and businesses there to struggle with the adverse conditions.

Wolfgang's East Africa tourism report
Photo by Nathan Bailey

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