Nearly 40 tour companies in Tanzania are planning to drag the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA) before the court of law allegedly for defamation.
A fortnight ago, the local Kiswahili tabloid carried a story saying the NCAA document containing the list of shame of 35 tour companies allegedly for being at the center of massive fraud.
The listed tour companies have since denied the allegations, complaining over the NCAA condemning them unheard and painting a picture before the eyes of their domestic and international clients that all of the mentioned firms are not trustworthy.
They are demanding that the NCAA should apologise through letters, the local and international media, and pay them damages for tainting their images to the public and their clients or face legal suit for defamation.
The tour operators also want NCAA to send them justification for its claims as well as statements and balances of their cash captured in accounts of the authority’s blocked electronic payment system.
Two of the victim tour companies – Corto safari and Duma Explorer – admit receipt of invoices from the NCAA demanding a mere $10 and $100, respectfully, without justifying the claim.
“We have since paid it to avoid nuisance, but on condition that we get evidence for the alleged fraud. Two weeks later to our shock, we saw our company in the media” says Corto Safaris director Ms Hellen Mchaki.
She explains that the NCAA served her firm with the note mid-December 2017 demanding the $10 in outstanding electronic card payment for 2015.
NCAA introduced the electronic payment system complete with payment cards in 2011 to ease the burden tour operators faced in carrying colossal amounts of hard cash with them and to save tourists’ precious time at entrance gates as well.
Nonetheless, tour operators had poked holes in the NCAA electronic payment system saying it lacked transparency; backups and that it was unnecessarily time consuming, as only the authority controlled and operated it.
They argued, for example, that the NCAA machines did not generate balance statements for users to access them online and that they lacked a hotline number in case of any default.
Lack of any alternative means for tour operators to pay entry fees in case the NCAA card was lost or the machines could not load sufficient cash prompted the authority to change the system.
“Much as the NCAA controlled full proof of the electronic payment system, one wonders how tour operators could temper with it,” Ms Mchaki queries, lamenting:
“It is quite unfair and unprofessional to punish the company for the unjustified $10, while the authority is still retaining millions of its money in the frozen accounts of its wallet.”
The firm says NCAA has not done any effort to reverse the money from the frozen accounts to respective companies. It displayed payment documents and correspondence regarding the matter.
The NCAA accounts were frozen back in 2015 allegedly for outsiders tempering with the electronic payment system.
The firm recalls having a balance of $2,225.70 and Sh2, 095,520 in the accounts of the NCAA wallet by the time the electronic payment system scrapped off.
Duma Explorer Director, Mr Hezron Mbise, registered his disappointment over the way NCAA gate clerks mistreated his clients by denying them entrance over unjustified claims of the $100.
“Imagine tourists couldn’t be allowed into Ngorongoro crater and efforts by one of my driver to get reasons proved futile. This is unprofessional,” Mr Mbise noted, stressing that few days later he started receiving a lot of e-mails from his agents questioning about the issue.
However, NCAA has admitted ownership of the reckless internal memo and apologised to the victims for the losses they are counting.
The apology comes just as some of the 35 irate tour operators are mulling over suing the NCAA allegedly for slander.
“Although we neither published the enlisted companies nor did we reach the decision to prohibit any of them from taking tourists to the Ngorongoro Crater, we apologise for the leakage of the internal memo,” the NCAA Deputy Chief Conservator – Corporate Services, Mr Asangye Bangu, says.
Will the NCAA apology convince the affected tour companies to rescind their decision to recourse to court, it remains to be seen.
“We’re banking on the wisdom of each of the affected individual tour operators,” Mr Bangu told journalists shortly after the meeting with some of tour operators in Arusha.
“Much as tour operators contribute about 98 per cent of our annual receipts, the damage caused to them will also affects us,” he observed.
The NCAA management was apparently discussing measures to take against the 35 tour operators it accused of tempering with its defunct electronic payment system and causing financial losses to the authority before the media intercepted the internal communication.
“I do not have the figure of the loss on my fingertips,” said Mr Bangu, insisting that all what the NCAA wanted now was to make amend with parties affected as a result of the published article.
A Kiswahili tabloid published an article about three weeks ago revealing the NCAA internal memo’s proposal to prohibit the 35 tour companies from taking tourists in its area.
The internal memo implicates the firms in tempering with an electronic payment system, compelling the authority to abandon it in 2015.
Some of the tour operators cried foul, pointing an accusing finger at both the NCAA and the newspaper for damaging their reputation in public, but more seriously, in the eyes of their esteemed customers oversees.
For his part, the Tanzania Association of Tour Operators (TATO)’s chief executive officer, Mr Sirili Akko, said he made all efforts to ensure that the antagonist parties meet and sort out their differences amicably.