It was learned during the week, that one of the two major oil exploration companies, Tullow Oil, has now confirmed that their planned mini refinery will be built outside the so called ‘protected areas,’ i.e., not inside a national park or game reserve. An area has been identified and earmarked in the recently-submitted Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study, which is now available for stakeholders to scrutinize and comment on before NEMA makes a final decision.

Tullow’s decision has been applauded by large sections in the conservation fraternity across Uganda, including the local offices of the WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society WCS, and Nature Uganda although it can be expected that hardcore elements amongst the conservationists will continue to oppose any oil drilling, production, and processing along the confirmed deposit sites near Lake Albert and Murchisons Falls National Park.

News emerged late last week that plans are underway by the National Forest Authority to de-gazette more than a dozen ‘urban’ forest reserves, including the Kitubulu Forest Reserve in Entebbe, which forms part of a continuous ecosystem along the lake shores, protecting from soil erosion and keeping biodiversity intact. Kitubulu was being encroached by developers for the construction of resorts and top of the line residences, and the Municipal Council of Entebbe and the NFA did not always see eye to eye over the reserve, in particular after NFA halted developments sanctioned by the council. At least some developers have shown this correspondent evidence, that they legally acquired their plots as shown on municipal maps outlining plots bordering the reserve, but they were stopped by NFA anyway and found their projects at the brink of collapse when they could neither complete them nor get compensation for the money spent up to that point.

It is recalled, in fact, that the then Norwegian executive director of the NFA displayed almost unbelievable arrogance when dealing with complainants, some of whom had been licensed by the Uganda Investment Authority. His behavior when dealing with the highest office in the land, was later on ‘punished’ when he was compelled to resign his position and leave the country.

It was also established that many of the reserves now earmarked for de-gazetting, which in any case requires an act of parliament first, are already heavily encroached, but NFA sources insist that when forest reserves inside or adjoining city or municipal areas are considered for de-gazetting, that the responsible bodies must offer equal sized land elsewhere for re-forestation, which would then be gazetted as ‘replacements.’

Meanwhile, the executive director of the National Forest Authority, Mr. Damian Akankwasa, has decried the loss of forest cover in the Kibaale district in Western Uganda, underscoring the challenges which await NFA in the coming year. He did also mention that some 20,000 acres of forest have been replanted by both NFA and private developers, but mostly with fast-growing species of trees rather than tropical indigenous hard-wood trees, which may take 50 years to mature while the ‘commercial’ types only take 20 or less years until harvesting.

Sources at Emirates’ Kampala office confirmed that the airline took delivery of their fourth A380 aircraft in Hamburg, Germany just before the end of 2008, allowing further expansion of their A380 routes in coming weeks. There is some speculation, though, about the scheduled delivery of their next A380 due in March 2009, which according to some sources may be delayed by a month or more as Airbus Industries continues to struggle to meet their ambitious production deadlines.

Just around the same time, ownership of the airline was also transferred by governmental decree from direct government control and ownership to the Investment Corporation of Dubai (ICD), itself a fully government-owned parastatal company.

The source also informed that DNATA, Dubai’s ‘national’ air travel company, was also transferred to ICD at the same time. No reasons could be established for this move, which in practice, however, changes little for the affected companies in the near future.

It was learned that effective January 1, 2009, Mrs. Julie Otage-Odur has been appointed to the position of cabin crew manager, based at the airline’s airport offices in Entebbe. Julie looks back at a long and distinguished career in the aviation industry as a flight attendant, purser, and senior purser with several airlines before joining Air Uganda in 2007, and her latest career advance can only be seen as a stepping stone towards even more important roles in the industry in coming years.

In a remarkable turnabout, government has now apparently given a one year ultimatum – thought by many to be too generous after the time already elapsed – to either build the promised hotel complex or else the land would be repossessed. This column has repeatedly reported in the past that the failure of the Saudi tycoon to commence work on the 17+ acres site given to him for near free has fueled public anger and put the ‘pro’ advocates on the spot. Inspite of all assurances in the past, the project never did take off and when the matter was taken on by a number of parliamentarians, government did finally react in the described manner. Watch this space for updates.

One of the major road construction projects connecting Uganda with the Southern Sudan seems, for a change, ahead of projected completion schedule, unlike Kampala’s Northern Bypass road, which is now three years behind completion and no end in sight. The road construction between Soroti and Lira is substantially advanced already according to press and on-site reports. From Soroti in North Eastern Uganda, the road will then cut across to the border crossing point at Nimule.

Work is also underway on the Kampala – Gulu – Nimule road, and the road between Arua to Koboko is also being rehabilitated, which leads towards the Southern Sudanese towns of Yei and Juba.

On the Sudanese side, mobilization by the construction companies is ongoing to commence construction of the new Juba – Nimule road.

News was received from Nairobi confirming that the Turkish national airline will start flights from Istanbul to Nairobi by the end of February, offering convenient connections either way from and into their growing network. Kenya Airways had launched the route, via Cairo, some years ago but eventually had to drop it when fuel prices went rocketing and the global economic downturn set in. There is no word from KQ if they would resume flights to Istanbul directly again soon or if they would rather code share with Turkish Airlines, as was the case in reverse when KQ operated on the route. As Kenya’s tourism sector continues to recover and grow, this will be generally good news as more seats often translate into more passengers and speak visitors to Kenya and Eastern Africa. No confirmation could be received at the time of going to press which type of aircraft will be used or about the number of flights per week.

In any case, it will add yet another airline and destination to Nairobi, where the airports authority is frantic to advance expansion and renovation projects for JKIA as the airport is bursting at the seams.

A meeting between the two governments last week decided that instead of wasting time and resources on a US$10 million ‘feasibility study,’ the construction of the railway would commence just as soon as the new route has been mapped out. Media reports in both countries attribute comments to the meeting that the ‘feasibility’ was beyond any doubt, and that an international standard gauge railway line must be constructed to facilitate movement of goods and passengers from the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa via Nairobi and the Kenyan highlands to Uganda and beyond.

Already the construction of a standard gauge line between Juba and Uganda has been sanctioned, which will link the Southern Sudan also to the harbor in Mombasa and will strategically reduce the reliance on other more vulnerable supply routes.

Rwanda is teaming up with Tanzania to extend a railway line from the proposed inland dry port of Ishaka to Kigali, which would allow further extensions to Burundi and the Eastern Congo.

Inspite of growing pressure from dissenting members of parliament, the general public, the media, and international organizations and groups, the Kenyan president has assented to a draconian amendment in the country’s media bill. Government’s security organs now need little if any cause to raid newspaper offices and television stations, whenever one of the ‘rulers’ feels aggrieved over reporting or the tone of articles and broadcasts.

In 2006, a major attack on the media took place in Nairobi by government agents while the president’s wife at the time also slapped a journalist and got away with it.

It is now deemed safer for international journalists to report on Kenya from the outside, which is not much different from Zimbabwe, where major world news organizations have been banned from and have to file reports from neighbouring South Africa or under cover, an option the Kenyan journalistic fraternity sadly does not have, putting them now at daily risk to be arrested and harshly questioned while going after the daily business.

Having emerged from the fallout of botched elections just about a year ago, when reportedly 1,000 people lost their lives, Kenya formed a ‘coalition’ government which is also divided over many pressing political issues, not the least these latest shackles put on the media. The Prime Minister in fact had assured the Kenyan public that the President would not sign the bill into law, only to be publicly shown off by his political senior. Watch this space as another round of political drama unfolds in Kenya early in 2009.

In a related development, it was learned by the time of going to press that the immense pressure exerted by media organizations, the business community, civil society, and a growing number of politicians, a review of the draconian law will be carried out soon with the aim of meeting many of the demands made since the President signed the bill into law, while at the same time probably delaying the ‘effective’ date of the law to avoid further confrontation.

Serious discrepancies have emerged in figures provided by immigration departments for travelers crossing the Namanga border post between Kenya and Tanzania. The Kenyan immigration department reported figures higher by 207,000 as exits compared to a figure lower by 207,000 given by the Tanzanian immigration offices for entries over the same period of time, according to recent media reports. Are there over 200,000 people living in the no man’s land or have the calculators malfunctioned? Similar discrepancies were reportedly also found when comparing figures at other major crossing points between the East African states although the numbers quoted in the media were considerably lower.

The Kenyan low cost airline, now increasingly an airline with a fully regional outlook, will commence daily flights from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro/Arusha on ATR 42 aircraft offering 48 seats. This will be the first scheduled destination in mainland Tanzania after Fly540 had some months ago already commenced daily flights from Nairobi via Mombasa to Zanzibar.

Dar es Salaam is due to be added next to the growing number of destinations, and the setting up of the airline’s offices is said to be nearly complete.
It was also learned that political interference over traffic rights has led to the suspension of flights to Juba, but it is hoped that the situation can be sorted out in due course.

No sooner had the last column gone out did news break that the Tanzanian Civil Aviation Authority had restored the AOC, or Air Operator Certificate, to Air Tanzania, permitting them to resume flight operations. It is understood that the airline had finally produced the required documentation for TCAA and ironed out the discrepancies which had led to the AOC to be withdrawn some weeks ago under unclear circumstances.

Sources in both ATCL and TCAA again reiterated that the airline’s planes had been and continued to be completely airworthy and the suspension of the license was entirely over documentation issues, a statement which again raised more questions than it provided answers.

However, the precarious financial situation of the airline caused a further delay in starting flights again, while waiting for government to make good of promises to inject much needed fresh capital into the parastatal and sanction a new cooperation partner. It was, in fact, learned that the Tanzanian government did eventually inject some 2.5 billion Tanzania Shillings into ATCL’s accounts and has promised to avail further funds to get the national airline back into the air. It is expected that just as soon as this is happening, IATA will then also restore full membership to ATCL.

It is also expected that a few individuals in management positions may be sacrificed – speak fired – over the airline’s suspension, once probe reports by two committees set up to investigate the causes of the suspension and problems have been handed over to the government.

The Chinese airline initially lined up for this purpose, however, has not moved any further with their plans, probably as a result of the global economic slowdown and the decree of the Chinese government to slow down or temporarily halt aviation expansion plans until an economic recovery is well underway.

The Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, which was contracted by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, will soon release the figures of a wildlife census taken across the country. The task was given to them to establish the real numbers of game left in protected areas and elsewhere in the country, as claims are being made by the conservation fraternity that there is a rapid deterioration of numbers going on, which affects bio diversity and is potentially hurtful to the lucrative safari tourism industry.

The following statement was obtained from ORTPN/RDB during the week and is reproduced here to shed some light on the hopes and aspirations for Rwanda’s fast growing tourism sector:

Tourism has had another successful year, with a significant impact on Rwanda’s economy, contributing to job creation, local community development, and a variety of local and international investments. It is the leading export sector in the country and is growing continuously.

• Visitor numbers have increased from 826,374 visitors in 2007 to an estimated 1 million visitors in 2008, a 30 percent increase. Projections for 2009 see numbers growing to 1.14 million.

• Revenues are estimated to increase by 54 percent compared to 2007, rising from US$138 million in 2007 to an estimated US$214 million in 2008. Revenues in 2009 are projected at US$224 million, demonstrating the industry’s growing potential. Leisure visitors have so far doubled in 2008 compared to 2007.

The tourism industry contributes significantly to benefiting the lives of Rwandans, generating 343,000 jobs in 2008 — an increase of 26 percent from 2007. Local communities benefit from tourism through ORTPN’s Revenue Sharing Scheme which grants 5 percent of its revenues towards supporting community projects so as to improve their welfare. Total support given in 2008 (including the Revenue Sharing Scheme) totaled Rwf 460, 522, 154 and contributed to the following projects:

• Support for 11 schools comprised of 2600 students;
• Health centers at Banda, Ngange, and Gasumo, benefiting approximately 30,000 community members surrounding Nyungwe National Park;
• Water tanks and taps were built for communities surrounding Nyungwe National Park and Volcanoes National Parks, benefiting nearly 5,800 families; and
• From revenues generated by Kwita Izina, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge was launched and is fully owned by communities and contributes greatly to poverty alleviation. Revenues generated from the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge were used to construct 26 houses for vulnerable families living around the Volcanoes National Park.

As an institution, ORTPN and her partners have set up a Genocide memorial fund, which in 2008 assisted child-headed genocide survivors in Nyamata and the Ntarama Genocide Memorial. ORTPN through her social responsibility initiatives, also assisted earthquake victims in the western province and survivors of Kirehe floods morally and financially.

Investments in tourism can be seen through an increase in the number of hotels around the country from 148 hotels with 2,391 rooms in 2007 to 163 hotels with 3,552 in 2008. Tour operators and travel agancies have increased from 34 in 2007 to 48 in 2008.

Other investments see accommodation improvements in Kigali, Kinigi, Akagera, and Nyungwe; tourism products and experiences being developed at Nyungwe National Park and Lake Kivu; and investments in service development and capacity building in conservation through the Kitabi College for Conservation and Environment Management (KCCEM).

Maintenance of the integrity and biodiversity of the national parks is a priority for ORTPN. The Transboundary Executive Secretariat of the Greater Virunga Massif Ecosystem was set up to protect the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda, and DRC was inaugurated and headquartered in Kigali and chaired by Rwanda. An MOU between ORTPN (Rwanda) and INECN (Burundi) for Transboundary collaboration for the protection of the Nyungwe–Kibira ecosystem was signed. A business plan for Akagera National Park was developed and agreed upon by ORTPN and Dubai World in the framework of investment through public and private partnership. All these endeavors are being undertaken to ensure good conservation practices between Rwanda and her neighboring countries.

The following efforts have contributed greatly to the positive image Rwanda is developing as a popular tourism destination: Rwanda won African Best Exhibitor for the second year running at ITB Berlin, the world’s biggest tourism trade fair. A recent achievement saw Rwanda being voted among the “Top 10 Countries to Visit in 2009” by Lonely Planet, one of the world’s leading travel guides. Rwanda’s main tourism event, Kwita Izina, which attracts tourists and conservationists alike to the base of the Virunga mountain chain, has been instrumental in communicating the success of Rwanda tourism and conservation.

Rwanda’s up-and-coming ideal destination that will be featured in 2009 is Nyungwe National Park. Investments in the park include a state of the art eco-lodge and a mid-range lodge; a unique, interactive interpretation center; a canopy walk allowing visitors to experience the park from a new vantage point; and a new boat on Lake Kivu to facilitate the primate product that links Volcanoes National Park with Nyungwe National Park. Nyungwe boasts 13 primate species, 275 bird species (of which 25 are endemic to the mountainous Central African region), 250 tree species, and 148 varieties of orchids. Nyungwe is one of the region’s most distinctive natural attractions and is a great asset to Rwanda’s tourism portfolio.