(eTN) – Disturbing news emerged from Tanzania that scores of tourist vehicles were kept at gates earlier this week, while attempting to enter various national parks and that aircraft trying to take off from park airstrips were prevented from leaving by TANAPA staff, which, according to a reliable source, also arrested a camp manager on unspecified charges.
An initial count of affected vehicles arrived at a preliminary figure of over 200 tourist safari vehicles, carrying hundreds of tourists who had paid their safari packages to their respective tour operators, overseas and locally in Tanzania, all of them first bewildered before this turned into anger and in some cases outright rage.
The background of this development earlier in the week needs to be explained to understand the full folly of TANAPA’s action and then see it in the light of a long line of actions by the Tanzanian government impacting severely on the country’s global standing as a partner in conservation and against promoting the country as a desirable tourist destination.
It was reported here earlier in the year, that TANAPA and the Hotel Association of Tanzania (HAT), representing safari lodges and safari camps licensed by TANAPA, had engaged in negotiations over a new set of concession fees, which culminated in a new contract being signed in February 2011. All’s well that ends well, one would think. Think again, as within a few months, TANAPA seems to have discarded the agreement reached and announced unilaterally that they would, effective August 1, raise their fees, in some cases tripling them.
When the hotel association then decided to take the matter to court, having a signed agreement in hand, and obtained an injunction to halt any TANAPA action until the principal suit brought by HAT could be heard and determined, the wildlife management body then tried to circumvent the court order by demanding that tour operators have to pay concession fees alongside the park entrance fees, putting the onus of the collection on them instead of the concessionaires. This, too, was deemed not only illegal by the tourism fraternity but also proved impractical, as such fees are already built into the accommodation cost safari lodges and camps charge to the tour operators or individual clients. TANAPA’s letter to TATO, the Tanzania Association of Tour Operators, dated July 1 but only received by TATO’s offices on July 5, says, among other things: tour operators, tourists, and visitors will have their own arrangements for set-offs with hotels, lodges, and tented camps.
However, it was established that no such “off sets” were in place, not contractually agreed between tour operators and lodge/camp operators, nor had those individual clients with prepaid accommodation packages for their safaris any legal recourse in place to compel safari lodges and safari camps to actually refund to them directly any such fees built into the accommodation rates and paid by them in advance to secure their bookings during the current high season.
Said one source on condition of strictest anonymity – fully understood considering the vicious backlash one can expect from Tanzania’s officialdom when “going against the grain” – to this correspondent: “TANAPA had agreed with our association on a new set of fees. Those fees we shall remit as we have always done before, and there is a mechanism for that. What we shall not do is to refund clients who paid us directly, or tour operators with contract rates, or any clients for that matter, fees which were illegally raised by TANAPA and over which we are now in court. TANAPA knows that but chose to conduct this illegal operation to force tourists to pay up from their pockets. We can only reiterate that the fees agreed [upon] early this year are the ones now in effect, not the unilateral ones declared in total isolation by TANAPA. The legally-agreed fees will be remitted, but not one cent more until the court case is heard, and we have a judgment. We are confident we will win this case.”
The damage done by this cloak-and-dagger action by TANAPA to the country’s tourism sector is said to be “huge and spreading like wildfire overseas,” according to a regular source in Arusha from within the safari operators, as irate clients called their home-based travel agents, tour operators, and in some cases their local newspapers that they were held at ransom and in some cases spent the entire day outside park gates.
Another source had this to add: “TANAPA forced us to sign bills for these concession fees, due to be paid within 7 days. At least now clients can get on with their safari itineraries, but I doubt if our companies will honor to pay such bills, which were forced on us under duress. Personally, I think that this is, in fact, giving our court case more strength, because it exposes TANAPA’s illegal moves as an act of brute force.”
The Tanzania Tourist Board, presently working on a re-branding of the tourism sector ahead of the 50th anniversary celebrations of Tanzania’s independence later this year, is said to be shell shocked, too, though not officially commenting, but this latest damage done to Tanzania’s reputation abroad is just one in a long line of misjudgments, brainless rhetorics, and affronts, which marked the country’s U-turn from founding father Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s commitment to protect Tanzania’s wildlife and parks at all cost.
Worth mentioning here are the ongoing squabbles over the commitment by Tanzania to UNESCO NOT to build a road across the migration paths of more than one-and-a-half-million wildebeest and zebras in a letter, only to be rubbished later on by a number of government ministers and officials, causing ongoing consternation and confusion over the issue.
Second on the list is the planned establishment of a soda ash plant at Lake Natron, which would have an irreversible impact on the breeding patterns of the “lesser flamingo,” as the muddy lake flats are the only breeding ground for these birds in the entire East Africa.
Uranium mining, in spite of warnings of toxicity of such activities, in the Selous Game Reserve combined with reactivated decades-old plans to build a dam across Stiegler’s Gorge in the Selous, in both cases notwithstanding that it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here, the Minister of Tourism only recently let his true thoughts and sentiments show when in a sudden angry outburst towards journalists he called UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee an “inconsequential entity.”
The woes for Tanzania’s global standing as a conservation nation, however, does not end here. President Kikwete’s directive to the tourism ministry to withdraw an application for recognition of the Eastern Arc Mountains as another prized World Heritage site, goes directly to the core of Tanzania’s conservation policies and is evidence that where “development,” in this context mining and logging interests combine, conservation is getting “shafted.” Not being recognized as a World Heritage site makes decisions for commercial exploitation easier, as no one needs to be asked for consent under binding conventions Tanzania has signed on to, as is the case for the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Serengeti and Selous, which stands in the way of making quick decisions by the executive in Dar es Salaam at the expense of the environment.
The list is, however, not yet exhausted as a recently-created marine national park near Tanga, at Mwambani, is also in the cross hairs of developers who want to build a new harbor into the very site where prehistoric Coelacanth fish, long thought extinct, are found, prompting the declaration of a marine national park in the first place.
And then there is, of course, the battle over the sale of ivory stocks with the CITES Secretariat, on which recommendation the last CITES global meeting in Doha in March 2010 turned down Tanzania’s request for an exception. This prompted several spats by ministry officials with not just CITES but also accusing a neighboring country of being “behind the hostile stand.” Yet, a CITES report clearly put the onus on Tanzania’s government, which it basically accused of doing little if anything to prevent poaching in Tanzania and the smuggling of blood ivory, birds, and other wildlife through its territory. Occasional arrests of ivory smugglers, mostly Chinese for that matter, are used to gloss over a range of institutional failures within the public set up of the conservation sector in Tanzania, and TANAPA’s latest action is just another case in a long line of grotesque misjudgments, raising the question if official institutions are now not just shooting themselves in the foot but aiming to blow their feet off altogether.
Said a source in Dar es Salaam in regular contact with this correspondent but also demanding strict anonymity: “Our government does not like to be held accountable. Our government bodies are not ready to be accountable to the public. TANAPA’s latest decisions show that they lost all common sense and put themselves above the law. The matter is in court for crying out loud, but still they try to create facts on the ground and give a damn about hundreds of tourists going back home with a very loud message like ‘Don’t go to Tanzania, it is the wild west out there.’
“Our officials always like to blame Kenya for being in the lead, taking the lion’s share of safari business in East Africa, but the Kenyans do not commit such mistakes, and so many mistakes like our lot does. I am not sure, but it seems like a collective act of institutional suicide of institutions tasked to protect our environment and manage our natural resources.
“Our minister was in Manyani not long ago when Kenya’s President Kibaki burnt several tons of ivory. Then he comes home, and rumor has it, he privately called the Kenyans ‘crazy’ that they burn ivory instead of joining with Tanzania to persuade CITES to allow them to sell it. He is the same guy who also called UNESCO names a few weeks ago. Who can take us in Tanzania serious with such officials representing us? Or are they gone bonkers and try to kill the industry, but for what purpose I wonder? After all it pays for their own existence.”
Meanwhile, efforts are continuing to have the case brought by the hotel association against TANAPA heard early under a certificate of urgency, which is reportedly being prepared, although the present court holiday in East Africa is making an early court date unlikely. TANAPA’s reaction is being monitored in regard of the payment due date for the crudely enforced bills for concession fees imposed on safari operators and individuals, and the tourism industry in Tanzania is holding its combined breath to see that date come and pass, but is bracing for another round of tit for tat by TANAPA, i.e., keeping tourists for ransom at their gates in order to force and extract payments of what is essentially looked upon as institutional blackmail.