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East Africa Tourism

Wolfgang's East Africa tourism report

Wolfgang H. Thome  May 15, 2009

The last population of freely-roaming northern white rhinos was wiped out not too long ago, when the arrogance cum incompetence of the Kinshasa regime’s minister in charge, brought a relocation to a safe area in Kenya to a halt, all but condemning the rarest of rhino species to extinction in their last wilderness. Their habitat at the Garamba National Park was at the time, and still continues to be, a hiding ground for rebels and terror groups, which Kinshasa tolerated there for a long time, before half-heartedly joining a combined military exercise with the southern Sudan, Uganda and – another reluctant party – the UN’s MONUC forces. While in Garamba, the rebels poached elephant and other game to sell the trophies and fill their pockets with cash, and the dozen or so northern white rhinos also fell victim to their disregard for both human and animal lives.

Kenya is now being considered to receive a population of the northern white from the Czech Republic, where several are said to be kept in zoos, with the hope of starting a breeding program, which could eventually lead to more viable numbers than just those remaining 6 or 7 presently still in Europe. Watch this space for further news on progress of this project.

The much-awaited upgrade and repair of the link road between Katunguru and Ishasha in the Queen Elizabeth National Park has brought sighs of relief to safari operators and private visitors wishing to explore the southern sector of the park. Previously difficult to negotiate due to large sections of the treacherous black cotton soil, the road posed many problems for visitors, and after rains, it often became impassable for days, at times even weeks, when a lorry would be stuck deep in the mud. The road is – besides leading through the park – also designated as a public road towards the border post of Ishasha between Uganda and Congo, and cargo traffic has been using the road for a long time, often destroying repaired sections within a short period of time again due to heavy loads and bad driving skills.

A new route is presently being built towards the Ishasha border point, linking from Ntungamo – along the Mbarara to Kabale highway – via Rukungiri to Kihihi and the frontier, a project which has already allowed faster access for visits to the Buhoma area of Bwindi National Park. When this road is complete, heavy goods traffic is expected to be banned from the Katunguru to Ishasha section, leaving it then free for tourist traffic, saloon cars, and light-goods vehicles and preserving the repair efforts for longer periods of time.

This correspondent recently visited the area and was delighted to travel the entire stretch of the road, taking less than two hours, including several photo stops and without breaking the speed limit, which applies inside the national park. Not far from the Ishasha area of Queen Elizabeth National Park, where the famous tree climbing lions can be found, is also the Savannah resort, just outside the park boundaries en route to Kihihi, and their private airfield is now a destination for Eagle Air, which serves the field several times a week with their LET 410 aircraft from Entebbe. Visitors, needless to say, can stay at Savannah (and use their hire vehicles to access the nearby parks of Queen Elizabeth and Bwindi) or else stay at the tented safari camp of Wild Frontiers right inside the Ishasha park area.

The Ishasha sector of the Queen Elizabeth National Park is home to a range of wildlife, including chimpanzees, and has according to this correspondent’s own records dating back to the early 90s, at least a population of 260 bird species within the confined area accessible by safari vehicle and permitted walking areas. Good show and good value – come visit this little treasure cove.

The long-awaited move of the UWA park headquarters, workshops, and housing units is now imminent and will see a sizeable population shift from the heart of the park to an area near Katunguru where the main road from Mbarara to Kasese (and beyond) crosses the Kazinga Channel. While technically still on park land, as is incidentally the entire village of Katunguru, the new park headquarters are near the main road and generally considered of lesser impact to the park environment than its present location on the Mweya peninsula. There, a clash of sorts has developed over the years between the upgraded Mweya Safari Lodge, which presents itself as a fine example of architecture to arriving visitors, only to be neighbored by a rundown park headquarter area, which has become not only unsightly but an outright eyesore.

Conventional wisdom would dictate that many of the now ramshackle buildings be scrapped and the area restored for wildlife, which in any case freely moves across the area, as sightings of hippos, mongoose, warthogs, kobs, and even elephant prove. Watch this space for updates as we try to establish the intent of the Uganda Wildlife Authority in regard of the old buildings and subsequent restoration of this part of the park. No comment was available from UWA by the time of going to press this week, incidentally also confirmed by other parties interested in this development for various reasons who were equally kept guessing.

Some 14 months down the road since the last meeting in 2008, unlike in Kenya where the KCAA holds quarterly licensing hearings, the Uganda CAA finally has, after giving the statutory public notice of the planned hearing in mid-April, held the long-awaited meeting. Out of the 11 applications scheduled for the public hearing, some 6 were for renewals of air service licences and only 5 appear to have been fresh applications to be considered by the board. The applications covered such diversity as cargo operations with a DC10 to air charter operations with small single engine aircraft. No immediate news was available from CAA sources about the outcome, but decisions are due to be communicated to successful applicants within days.

Notably, Skyjet, having been given a one year ASL after the 2008 meeting, also appeared before the licensing committee to get a renewal but had to answer serious questions from the panel over their recent halt of operations and restructuring, which was reported in length in this column. Their representatives did, however, make an effort to respond to the questions and assured the panel and the public that operations were due to start soon again, now that the troublesome previous shareholder cum director has left the airline.

Supported by engineering personnel from the US armed forces and in conjunction with engineers of the UPDF and the ministry of works and transport, a new bridge was built in recent weeks linking the districts of Gulu with the neighboring districts of Pader and Lira, allowing for an important road link to reopen again. The construction was made possible with funds from the US government to the tune of nearly US$400000, and the hands-on cooperation has impressed not just the local population but Ugandans at large. Asante Sana – thanks a lot.

The ongoing slow devaluation of the Ugandan Shilling has now reached the mid 2,200 range versus one US dollar while a Euro now gets nearly 3,000 UShs when selling to a bank or forex bureau. The devaluation has now reached the 30 percent margin since the onset of the global economic and financial crisis, but while the Ugandan Shilling continues to suffer, as does the Tanzanian Shilling, the Kenya Shilling has made up ground again, trading in the high 76 range from a low point of below the crucial 80 mark. Visitors can hence expect to pay a little less of their hard currency for their locally-procured items like carvings, curios, fabrics, and even local food, although the devaluation is expected to hit home as all imported items, including fuel, have to be paid in US dollars, which are now much dearer to purchase.

Meanwhile, local media in Uganda continue to bemoan the downturn of tourism arrivals and the potential fallout for the sector, without, however, offering solutions and counter measures, unlike in other east African countries like Rwanda and Kenya, both of which proactively tackled the current market conditions and have poured resources into extra marketing efforts. Quo Vadis Team Uganda? Watch this space for updates.

Having been summoned to parliament to appear before the committee on commissions, statutory authorities, and state enterprises, Mr. Sudhir Ruparelia, owner of some of the country’s top-rated hotels, found himself questioned over the pending demanded audit of the Commonwealth Resort in Munyonyo, in which government continues to hold a 25 percent stake. Rules are not clear at which governmental shareholding level an official auditor general’s audit (public sector audit body for government’s activities and holdings) can be demanded or in fact take place, but there are reliable sources claiming it takes a majority share of at least 51 percent to invoke this provision and that a mere 25 percent is not sufficient. Parliamentarians have for a while been pushing for this audit while some of their other colleagues demanded that government sell the 25 percent share, apparently unable to reconcile the two divergent positions.

In a surprise move, Mr. Sudhir Ruparelia, obviously fed up to his teeth, has now told the committee that he would be happy to offer government his 75 percent shares in the joint venture for purchase, so that they can at last have their audit. He is reported to have said, “I am now offering my shares so that government owns the hotel entirely. This way you can have all the auditors that you want.”

There is talk of the honorable members of parliament wanting to eat the proverbial cake and yet still have it. The hotel group owns the Tourist Hotel in downtown Kampala, the Speke Hotel in the business district, the Kabira Country Club, Speke Apartments, and, of course, the Speke Resort and Conference Centre in Munyonyo, a sister property to the Commonwealth Resort on the same large piece of land along the Lake Victoria shores. In addition, dozens of residential and business properties, the Crane Bank and the Goldstar Insurance, plus Radio Sanyu – a leading FM station and one of the leading flower farms – are also part of the business empire built over the past 20+ years.

Following two major accidents within days, Gateway Bus Services had their license pulled by government to allow for a full investigation into the road worthiness of their busses and qualification of their drivers. The action follows a series of deadly accidents on Ugandan roads, which caused an outcry from the public and renewed demands that the so called speed governor’ regulations be strictly enforced. These devices limit speeds of busses and trucks to 80 KM an hour, whereas now the vehicles are often found speeding and overtaking at breakneck speeds, blamed for most of the accidents on the roads and responsible for a massive traffic death toll beyond proportions.

The north eastern township of Moroto, located enroute from Mbale and Soroti towards the Kidepo Valley National Park, has now opened a dedicated museum honoring the Karimojong culture. Funds for the venture were given by the French Embassy in the form of a grant, supporting the showcasing of local culture and tradition, something both foreign visitors, as well as locals, can now witness in the new facility.

This sporting event, which also includes a half marathon, will take place in east Africa’s adventure capital of Jinja and is aimed to raise funds for conservation measures towards the endangered mountain gorillas. The event is organized by Nile River Explorers, Jinja’s leading adventure company, and supported by Uganda’s leading daily, the New Vision, Nile Breweries, Rwenzori Mineral Water, and a number of other corporate sponsors. Well done!

Usually reliable sources from within and close to the airline have given the strongest indication yet that the airline, plagued by ongoing losses, may consider reverting to their initial strategy and using the more fuel-efficient Bombardier CRJ, as opposed to their present MD87 aircraft. For some obscure reasons, just a few months prior to their operations start, the airline, at the time, ditched the CRJs in spite of paid-up deposits, and when their own MD 87 were not ready, eventually started up with great grandfather first generation DC9s, exposing them, at the time, to a range of not so favorable comments from the aviation fraternity, travel agents, and passengers.

It was also learned that the airline has halted their twice weekly Zanzibar extension due to low traffic volumes, following the halt of their Khartoum extension from Juba, in conjunction with Marsland Aviation of Sudan, which was also stopped last month. Aircraft utilization now consists of a daily flight to Juba, giving just over 2 block hours, one flight to Nairobi, again just about 2+ block hours, and four flights a week from Entebbe to Dar es Salaam, leaving the two MDs more on the ground than they spend in the air.

Air Uganda only recently let go their second CEO in as many years, a saga which is bound to continue attracting the attention of this column.

Following the poll results published by the association after a get-together at the Kampala Museum two weeks ago, which as reported in this column last week raised the heat of discussion in the sector, the chairperson of USAGA tried to make amends of sorts in a further mail broadcast. Information received from those companies feeling injured and misrepresented, however, also indicates that they felt the absence of such words like “sorry” or “sincere apologies” made the mail less than valuable to their purposes and was subsequently called “hollow” and “without value for those smeared.” While the good intent of the USAGA chairman himself is not called in doubt, the controversy is nevertheless a sharp reminder of what not to do and say in public email broadcasts.

Information released by the local Emirates office in Kampala confirms that the airline has again swept the board and scooped awards in the annual Business Traveler Middle East awards, being named best airline, best regional airline, and best first class. Their frequent flyer program, Skywards, also won top honors. Emirates flies daily from Dubai via Addis Ababa to Entebbe and back, offering Ugandan travelers the opportunity to sample their award winning services every day.

Meanwhile, another airline source confirmed a 6.5 percent rise in passengers in April, a remarkable achievement in view of the present global economic situation.

KQ has once again dug deep into their pockets to become the lead sponsor for this fourth edition of what has become a magnet for rally enthusiasts. Previous rallies have also visited Uganda and Tanzania, but no details on the route have been obtained yet, other than the starting point being Mombasa, Kenya’s second city on the Indian Ocean shores.

The East African Safari Rally started initially as the “Coronation Rally” and was for a very long time a World Championship event, held annually in Kenya over Easter, when volunteers would take time off to help in the organization and support their teams. However, motor sports authorities were unhappy with the different dates every year, as Easter is, of course, a variable holiday, which affected their racing calendar. Eventually, the Kenya Safari Rally was dropped from the World Championship but retained their standing for the African title.

While there is now a prospect of Kenya returning to the world scene (discussions appear to be well underway), the classic safari rally is still the thing to do as it continues to cover not only the full distance but also features the classic safari cars and their drivers of yesteryear. Well done indeed.

Alongside attending this year’s Arabian Travel Market in Dubai, the east African country is also going to open a tourist information office to promote travel to Kenya. Kenya’s tourism minister attended the trade fair and officially opened the KTB offices. Kenya Airways and Emirates fly daily from Nairobi to Dubai and vice versa while Air Arabia flies several times a week from Sharjah to Nairobi. Other Middle Eastern airlines like Qatar Airways and Oman Airways also ply the Nairobi route, offering enough seats between the two destinations.

The Kenya Tourist Board was unveiled last week as the majority choice of the tourism fraternity who participated in voting for the best lodges, resorts, hotels, tour and safari operations, and tourist boards. KTB came in tops of all in Africa and was duly awarded the “best marketing organization” prize during the awards ceremony in Durban, South Africa last weekend. Congratulations to chairman Jake Grieves Cook and all the staff at KTB for their determined effort in not just putting the ship back on level keel – see additional column item – but, in fact, moving KTB forward to meet the challenges of the economic and financial global crisis head on and winning the favor of their peers. Well done, indeed, and to add one more, Kenya is now set to use the global popularity of her athletes to promote the country, sources at the tourist board have confirmed to this column. The famous Kenyan distance runners have, in the past, swept the board in such disciplines as steeple chase, marathons, the 800-, 1500-, 5000- and 10000-meter competitions, only rivaled by their Ethiopian colleagues and a few others who occasionally break into their domain.

In contrast, the Uganda Tourist Board continues to lack funding to fulfill their objectives and carry out their functions, while at the same time falling victim to a lack of cohesion and togetherness with key industry players, several of whom continue in their private feuds with UTB/Tourism Uganda and their CEO, instead of working harmoniously together to weather the economic storms sweeping the tourism world. It is also understood that the funding mechanism, through a tourism fund development levy, is a long way off to becoming operational, as arguments persist regarding who should collect the funds and administer them. There is fear that if these collected funds would first be received into the general government coffers via the general fund, that only a fraction would find its way to the intended beneficiaries, defeating the purpose of the levy. Watch this space for updates.

Journalists hung their heads in disbelief when, last year, President Kibaki assented to a draconian media law, which made government and police almighty indeed and had scribes in fear of court and long sentences when doing their day-to-day work. Simply reporting issues and incurring the wrath of a politician could have resulted in potentially substantial custodial sentences, and the wave of dissent and vocal advocacy against the law was, therefore, only to be expected. Now, however, parliament in Nairobi has done the right thing for once and put forward a range of amendments aimed to take the bull terrier teeth out of the law and permit journalists to do their work again without living in constant fear of prosecution.

The Czech Republic has graciously donated three of their black rhinos, kept there in a zoo, to be repatriated to Africa as part of the “back to Africa” project. The three rhinos will be sent to the Mkomazi Game Reserve as part of restocking and breeding program and can expect to be given VIP protection around the clock, of course. The three animals are already receiving training towards their long flight to Kilimanjaro International Airport near Arusha, where a team TANAPA staff, vets, and donor representatives will receive them, before embarking on the road transport to the game reserve.

The black rhino species has been poached nearly out of existence in Tanzania, and estimates from reliable sources speak of anywhere between 30 to 50 animals left in the entire country. It is expected that many of those will now be relocated to a safe location to start a rhino breeding program, similar to the successful project in Kenya in the 70s and 80s, which indeed assured the survival of the black rhino in Kenya and has restored viable numbers to conservancies, private and public game reserves, and national parks.
This correspondent, having been closely involved in bringing rhinos back to Uganda, applauds and commends this initiative and hopes for more such projects, including returning the black rhino species to Uganda.

The Serengeti district council last week apparently approved a joint community initiative to create a wildlife reserve covering some 5,000 hectares near or even adjoining the national park for the purpose of wildlife ranching, photographic safaris, and creating a breeding project for the black rhino, now under serious threat in the country. The council is to benefit from annual royalties and ground rents, and it is of particular interest that it is a locally-rooted initiative, although the new company may at a later stage invite a private co-investor to design and build accommodation and other hospitality facilities.

The annual gorilla-naming ceremony and festival in Rwanda is set this year for June 20, when the festivities will kick off in “the land of a thousand hills.” Some 16 recently-born gorilla babies will be available for sponsorships and subsequent naming. The festival has, over the years, become a major tourism attraction for Rwanda and attracts thousands of spectators, corporate sponsors, and, of course, media attention from around the globe. The 2009 festival will be the fifth since creating the event and will be a week-long series of commemorations and celebrations. In 2007, the name “Kwita Izina” was pronounced as a new brand, aimed at promoting Rwanda as a major tourism destination. This year’s naming ceremony also coincides with the UN’s International Year of the Gorilla. Visit or for more information.

This correspondent will be reporting live this year from the event in recognition of the importance of the festivities.

The finance and environment ministers from a number of African countries met last week in Kigali to discuss financing mechanisms for environmental projects aimed to make Africa’s contribution in the global climate-change debate. Participating governments, NGOs, bi- and multi-lateral donor agencies, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa discussed the impact of climate change to African economies and mitigative measures they could employ to halt the trend and eventually reverse it.

Effective immediately, the immigration department in Rwanda will issue new visa stickers for successful applicants, which can be read by special reader machines installed at the international airport and other key border points. For security purposes, the new stickers will also contain a scanned picture of the visa holder to make identification upon entry easier, while other key data from passports and the application form are also included in the sticker for easy verification on arrival. Visa fees for affected nationalities requiring a visa to enter Rwanda remain unchanged, however.

The executive director of the association for the conservation of nature in Rwanda joined birdwatchers, conservationists, and environmentalists in celebrating the annual event. Rwanda claims to have over 140 species of migratory birds criss-crossing the country during the migration periods, which makes the country a well-worth destination for “birders.” Ongoing sensitization of the population living near lakes, rivers, and wetlands is ongoing in Rwanda, it was learned, with the aim to protect biodiversity and enrich the tourism potential of the country.

Earlier in the week, news reached this column that a private company is set to open an aviation training center at the international airport, aimed to train pilots (fixed-wing and helicopter), as well as offer courses for engineering, cabin crews, air traffic control, and related subjects. Once complete, the center, due to open by end of 2010, is expected to be certified by not only the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority but by the other 4 CAAs in the east African region as well as South Africa. Adds this column: “What an investment in the future of local manpower and the aviation sector in the region.”

The hotel’s cash transfer to the bank was recently subject to an attempted robbery, when a group of soldiers and hotel staff allegedly conspired to waylay the hotel vehicle and grab the money, telling a story of a robbery in their statements. Subsequently, however, police found the statements of the staff involved differing, prompting further investigations, during which most of the money was recovered, and the culprits are now awaiting trial.

In further and better news, both the Kivu Serena and the Kigali Serena Hotels have been awarded the prestigious SGS International Food Safety and Hygiene certificates following an independent audit of the hotels’ facilities and operations. No other hotel, resort, or lodge in Rwanda presently holds such certification.

The volcanoes surrounding the eastern Congolese city of Goma are reportedly getting active again, as seismological surveys appear to reveal. More than half of the city, including parts of the airport, were destroyed and damaged in 2002 when one of the volcanoes erupted and lava flows swept into the city, driving the population into full scale flight. The latest of the mountains stirring now is said to be some 20 or so kilometers from the city center, so an eruption is likely to spare most of the city this time around, should the predictions be true.

Reports from Khartoum speak of May 24, when the national airline will resume flights between Khartoum and Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, operated by Sudan Airways. The development drew some sharp comments in the southern media from mainly southern Sudanese observers about the cooperation between Khartoum and Eritrea, as well as doubting the carrier’s ability to safely operate, following a string of accidents and subsequent suspension of their AOC last year.

As reported previously in this column, the Gibe Dam in southwest Ethiopia has caused a lot of concern to environmental advocates and green campaigners. Some went as far as to blame the upcoming US$1.7 billion dam for causing Lake Turkana in northern Kenya to dry up. The International Rivers Network, a US-based international pressure group, has now also waded into the arguments and projects increased desertification around the Lake Turkana area and famine-like conditions for over 300,000 residents and herdsmen in the area surrounding the lake. IRN has, therefore, appealed to the African Development Bank to review their financial commitment towards the building of the dam, which the Ethiopian government intends to use not only for the domestic electricity market but to also export power into the wider region on a large scale. Amongst other banks, the NGO also appealed to the European Investment Bank to reconsider their financial pledges. IRN claims that ADB’s internal guidelines have been and continue to be violated and that any financing of the project would violate bank policies. They further claim that even Ethiopia’s own laws and regulations have been pushed aside with impunity since construction began in mid-2006, such as the un-tendered award of the construction work to Italian company Salini, the same company which has incidentally delayed the so-called northern bypass around Kampala by several years and overshot the initial cost estimate by a substantial multiple.

Wolfgang's East Africa tourism report
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