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Travel News

Wolfgang’s East Africa tourism report

Written by editor

This correspondent and his family would like to wish all readers a merry and peaceful Christmas 2008.

This correspondent and his family would like to wish all readers a merry and peaceful Christmas 2008. The next column will be published on January 2, 2009, so I am also taking the opportunity to extend our best wishes for a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year in 2009.

Ugandans and East African citizens can once again enjoy a 50 percent reduction in park entrance fees between December 15 and January 15 when visiting the country’s national parks and game reserves. This measure has, in the past, attracted extra numbers of visitors to the protected areas during the main holiday period, which traditionally includes the long holidays for children between school years.

Meanwhile, news has also emerged that the five East African community-member states’ wildlife management bodies have agreed to recognize East African citizens like their own, when it comes to park entrance fees across the entire region. Citizens of any member state can now visit national parks and game and wildlife reserves in other countries at the same reduced rates accorded to the citizens of the respective country. There has been no movement, however, in extending a similar status to resident expatriates who are classified as foreign visitors in spite of paying taxes in the country they are registered in. Maybe the upcoming hard times in tourism, as international markets reel from the financial crisis and the subsequent economic slump, may change this and cause an EAC-wide agreement on Visa fees and entrance fees to the parks, in order to attract this important domestic/regional source for visitors.

In a related development, UWA has suspended their community-support programs for several projects around Mt. Elgon National Park due to accounting issues, which arose when over 30 million Uganda shillings were spent but not accounted for. Some of the projects are said to have provided only partial accounts while others provided no details at all by the time of going to press, prompting UWA to put on the brakes until the matters are resolved to the satisfaction of their auditors. The Uganda Wildlife Authority, by law, shares 20 percent of the park entrance fees with neighboring communities across the country.

A Dutch-owned new eco-friendly lodge has opened just outside the Kibaale National Park catering to tourist visitors, from outside and within Uganda, coming to the park to track chimpanzees, spot some of the nearly 350 species of birds, or simply enjoy the forest environment. Located only a few minutes’ drive away from the starting point of the UWA-organized tracking, the lodge is ideally suited for visitors to the wider area including visits to the nearby Rwenzori Mountains or the township of Fort Portal.
Self-contained accommodation is available in cottages and notably one tree house, along with a nearby campsite that is also available for clients bringing their own tented equipment. The lodge offers full-board accommodation for guests booked, but casual day visitors can also use the restaurant. Visit for more information.

Following agreements with the Uganda Wildlife Authority by UTB, it is now clear that the country will be represented in Berlin next year. The country’s stand at the WTM this year attracted a lot of attention, and a similar effort can be expected for Berlin 2009. Arrangements for meetings can be made in advance via [email protected] .
It was also learned that after increasingly acid comments from the stakeholder community about the pondering mode at the ministry in recent months, a new board of directors will finally be appointed very soon in accordance with the new tourism act passed earlier in the year. The Uganda Tourist Board, as required by the new law, will then undergo restructuring and reorganization to meet the challenges of the new millennium. Expect more information in the New Year about what is going to happen and when it is going to happen.

It was learned that the fragmentation in the association framework is set to continue with the formation of a new association for tourism ‘providers’ – speak-tour operators. It seems that a fraction of former and even present Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) members is set to start their own rival outfit, reportedly to participate in the allocation of gorilla-tracking permits, which were until now distributed under the auspices of UWA exclusively to members of the AUTO. According to the information received, not everyone was happy about the handling of the arrangements and the allocation of permits, and hence a break-away faction is now making preparations to get their own piece of the cake. There was no comment available about any possible mediation between the two fractions to avoid this development. Watch this space for emerging news.

The Ministry of Works and Transport, through the National Roads Authority, has reacted swiftly to dispel the baseless rumors spread last week about the state of the main bridge across the river Nile in Jinja. A consultative workshop was called for last Friday, bringing all stakeholders together, during which the real state of the bridge was discussed before turning the attention to the building of a second bridge nearby. It could also be ascertained that no further reduction of the speed limit across the bridge was introduced, and that the limit remained at 20 KM per hour for all vehicles with no overtaking allowed while on the bridge as a matter of long-standing rule.

Sections of the local media had portrayed the bridge as unsafe last week, causing concern amongst bridge users and the public at large.

News was received last weekend from a Brussels Airlines contact in Belgium, that the airline’s application to join the world’s biggest airline alliance has been accepted and a formal joining process is now underway. Once SN is officially part of Star Alliance, a process expected to take up to a year due to audits and quality-control requirements; it will be the third airline of the group flying to Entebbe, after South African Airways and Egypt Air. The development will also make undoubtedly a positive impact on Brussels Airline’s passenger and cargo loads to their East African destinations Entebbe, Bujumbura, Kigali, and Nairobi, as alliance members normally feed extra traffic into destinations served by other alliance partners.

Lufthansa, the leading founder of Star Alliance, has recently acquired a stake in Brussels Airlines adding weight to SN’s standing in the market as a “family” member of the extended Lufthansa group.

This column only recently reported that Ethiopian Airlines had entered into an extended code share agreement with Lufthansa now also covering flights from Addis Ababa to Entebbe, probably a harbinger of things to come. For SN passengers from Entebbe, it will mean better and wider connections to destinations presently not served by Brussels Airlines, the use of lounges and service points across the world, and access to the most extensive frequent-flyer program presently available on the market. In turn, Star Alliance will be able to feed into one of the most extensive Africa networks any airline operates from Europe, connecting via Brussels – the capital city of the European Union.

Following the delivery of additional aircraft, the main reason for the delay in starting flights to SFO, Emirates’ Kampala office has informed travel agents that bookings are now being accepted for their latest US destination. The airline is using a B777-200LR in their standard 3-class configuration, and the inaugural flight earlier in the week was operated under special parameters to reduce emissions throughout the flight’s duration. According to airline sources, the aircraft carried about 200 passengers and crew to the Golden Gate and took nearly 15.5 hours to cover the distance. According to airline sources, over 2,000 gallons of fuel were saved during the flight by employing newly-developed techniques and flight-management options.

Emirates now flies to 5 cities in the US so far, but going by their track record, they will be intensely looking at adding further destinations in the future. Ugandan travelers to the west coast of the United States now have additional options to travel and can choose connecting points in either Europe or Dubai.

News broke earlier in the week that the selection of a new king by a group of chiefs in the Busoga Kingdom was to be repeated. Reasons cited, following meetings of the chiefs with President Museveni, were the Constitutional Court injunction but probably more important was that the number of chiefs present did not meet the Kingdom’s requirements to legally select a new “Kyabazinga” or King. A new date for the process will be announced soon, while government in the meantime clarified that they would not recognize the results of the flawed first round of selection. Several chiefs had boycotted the meeting, while others had walked out of the meeting in protest. Watch this space for more news on this saga.

The Kampala Sheraton Hotel received the “Annual Energy Management Award” from the Energy Institute of Uganda earlier in the week, following a further 5.5 percent savings in electricity consumption through the use of best practice and investment in energy-saving measures. As the only ISO-certified company in the hospitality sector in Uganda, the Sheraton had already cut electricity use over the past years, and their latest achievement will go a long way in reducing the hotel’s carbon footprint even further.
Meanwhile the Sheraton has also blitzed the local market with their Christmas and New Year offers, which include room rates of only US$100 per night, inclusive of a full breakfast, use of the Kidepo Spa, and complimentary newspapers.

Sales and marketing director Janet Mzigo is off on maternity leave, and it is understood that both mother and baby are doing well back home in Kenya. She is expected to resume her duties at the Sheraton before Easter 2009. Congrats Janet.

The imminent entry of France Telecom’s Orange brand into the Uganda market has spurred a flurry of PR and marketing activities by existing telecom companies. Massive prices, including cars and even houses, in schemes aimed at rewarding customer loyalty, go along right now with reduced tariffs across the board, all brought to the public’s attention through full page, four-color adverts in the local newspapers and also in radio station and TV adverts. Hotels and restaurants, too, are using the run up to the holiday season to advertise their special offers for Christmas and New Year, often, however, with misleading prices when in the smallest possible print a mention of “subject to 18 percent VAT and service charge” is easily overlooked – imagine the rude awakening of clients who then have to fork out 20 – 25 percent more than budgeted for. A little more honesty in advertising may go a long way, especially ahead of the festive season. In any case, it is a welcome revenue bonanza for the print and electronic media who are profiting from the competition over clients.

The prospect of Orange, the France Telecom mobile brand, extending operations very soon to Uganda has caused excitement, when the company advertised in Kenya the Apple iPhone 3G – the first time a mobile telecoms company has put this phone on the East African market. The company has entered operations with a state-of-the-art 3G network and is expected to launch in Uganda early in the first quarter of 2009, widening the choice of operators in Uganda to 5 overall and hopefully bringing the cost of calls, text messages, and internet usage further down. Uganda presently has MTN, Zain (formerly Celtel), Uganda Telecom, and Warid Telecom operating across the country with fixed and mobile communications.
Orange Uganda has also advertised in the local media that they are seeking business partners across the country that are interested in running franchises and sales outlets. No firm date for the launch has been given yet.

In a related development reported today, Zain – formerly Celtel – has now added Ghana to their network and has promptly added the new destinations to their “One Network,” which allows Zain customers to make calls across the African continent at “domestic” call rates without roaming charges when abroad. Well done to support the Pan African ideals.

The free gift of land to the hotel company some years ago has still not resulted in any visible building activity on the site, where a leading city primary and demonstration school was hurriedly demolished at the time to make way for the venture. Although earlier in the year a fence was erected around the entire site, no evidence of construction has emerged since then, as neither materials nor site offices were put up. The sad situation also reflects badly on public officials who, at regular intervals, issued statements over the fate of the hotel project whenever the public got restless and demanded, in letters to editors of the leading daily newspapers or in call-in radio shows, that the land be returned. Notably, the company has invested mega millions into Fairmont Hotels Kenya, where a major upgrade and renovation exercise is going on, while ignoring the goodwill of the Ugandan people, from whom the land was taken with nothing in return so far.

The Jacana Safari Lodge, located at Lake Nyamusingire inside Queen Elizabeth National Park, has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. The ecolodge, owned and managed by GeoLodges Africa, is offering 10 twin-bedroom cabins and a two-bedroom family cottage and is set right on the shores of the crater lake under thick tropical forest canopy. Other lodges in their stable are the Nile Safari Lodge outside Murchisons Falls National Park established in 1993, the award-winning Rain Forest Lodge at Mabira Forest, and the most recently established Silverback Lodge outside Bwindi Gorilla National Park.
Visit for more information.

Across towns in Kenya, motorists were hard pressed to find available fuel in the face of a growing shortage of the commodity. Earlier in the week, Rwanda imposed rationing of fuel to about 20 liters a day due to insufficient deliveries. Uganda is just emerging from a fuel shortage, but the development in Kenya now renews memories of the crippling fuel shortage which hit the country a year ago over the New Year holiday. Longer transit routes of oil tankers enroute to Mombasa, due to the piracy around the Horn of Africa, have capacity issues with the main pipeline and are suspected of hoarding fuel products, which is the main suspected cause of the shortage, plus panic buying, of course, which takes place whenever rumors begin. This column will monitor the situation and file updated reports as and when news breaks.

Air operators, already in argument with the Kenya Airports Authority over the state of the main international airport in Nairobi – see previous week’s column about Kenya Airways CEO’s complaints – are also questioning the KAA’s commitment to the rehabilitation and modernization of the busiest airport in the entire region – Wilson Airport. This column has in the past reported about the woes of air operators based at Wilson and has also periodically mentioned KAA’s commitments towards major work on facilities.

Kenya has, during the week, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Spanish government allowing charter flights to connect the two countries for tourism purposes. Presently no direct air links exist, although many years ago, Iberia operated scheduled flights between Nairobi and Madrid. Kenya is due to participate in the biggest Spanish tourism fair, FITUR, early in the new year to make further contacts between the Spanish tour operators, aimed to bring more holiday visitors to Kenya.

The “Land of the Thousand Hills,” as Rwanda is fondly known by her friends around the world, has earlier in the week inaugurated the country’s largest national park to date. The status of the Nyungwe Forest has been raised to national park to attract more tourist visitors to the area, as Rwanda continues to diversify her tourism products in search of new markets. It is Rwanda’s third national park proper, after the Akagera National Park and the Parc de Volcanoes, the latter best known for gorilla tracking. Nyungwe is said to be home to a large number of chimpanzees and nearly 300 species of birds, although it is expected that this number is set to rise when further research is carried out

Deputy CEO of the Rwanda Development Board and former head of ORTPN, Mrs. Rosette Rugamba, also reiterated Rwanda’s agreement with Dubai World to build a five-star, eco-friendly lodge at Nyungwe, which is expected to be ready by mid-2009. She invited other investors in the tourism and hospitality sector to Rwanda and also revealed a partnership agreement with Burundi, into which the forest extends and where it is known as “Kibira Forest.” Burundi, as recently reported in this column, is also set to restart tourism to the country, and cooperation with Rwanda, in particular, for this border-transcending ecosystem will go a long way to set Burundi on the road to success.
It was also revealed during the formal function that a new College for Conservation and Environmental Management will be started in the area, supported by the American government and the McArthur Foundation. The college will offer research and study opportunities in particular for the Albertine rift countries of which both Rwanda and Burundi are part.

USAID, in the meantime, has already embarked in supporting community tourism projects to the Nyungwe area in a further effort to integrate the neighboring communities into the economic aspects of tourism, aimed to reduce poverty and create livelihoods.

News broke last weekend that Ugandan army units, SPLA troops, and apparently even Congolese units, are now attacking the LRA rebel bases deep inside Congo. For months on end now, the rebel chiefs tried to delay talks, stood up international envoys, issued more outrageous demands, and missed one meeting and signing ceremony after the other, all with apparently no sanctions or repercussions at all, while living off allowances provided by countries supporting the peace process, which was ongoing since the middle of 2006.

The LRA has been terrorizing the Northern Ugandan population for over 15 years and has become notorious for abducting thousands of young boys and girls, turning them into rebels and sex slaves and also for cruelties like cutting victims’ noses, lips, and ears off as “punishment.” Several major massacres are also laid on the rebels, in which hundreds of innocent villagers were burnt and butchered. Some of their most inhumane acts were:

– Atiak in April 1995, where over 250 civilians were massacred in cold blood.
– The abducting of over 100 girls in Lalwa in Kaberamaido for use as sex slaves.
– The Barlonyo massacre, which took place on February 21 and in which over 400 were killed.
– Pabbo IDP killings spread over several months in 2004, where about 5,500 residents were killed and in some cases bodies cooked to instill fear among the populace.
– The storming of St. Mary’s College in Aboke, Apac district on October 10, 1996 from where 139 girls were taken captive and later 109 released.

Subsequent to these and numerous other atrocities, their entire leadership came under indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and are wanted for trial, although going by experience, with their stubbornness it seems more likely that they are now facing the same fate as Savimbi and his goons in Angola, who could also not lay down arms and live in peace with the rest of their fellow countrymen and countrywomen.

Patience in Uganda and Southern Sudan has finally run out with the key players in the equation – both the mediators, as well as Uganda and Southern Sudan. No longer are the rebels’ militarily off limits, as was the case during the sham peace talks, but a combined force is now hunting for them, reportedly supported by the Ugandan air force, airborne units, and helicopter gun ships. Military action started last Sunday around mid-day and is said to be ongoing, although the main rebel camp was destroyed in the first wave of attacks.

The Khartoum regime, meanwhile, was warned not to stir up any trouble, as they were long suspected to have given sanctuary and support to the rebels (prior to signing a peace agreement themselves with the SPLM for the Southern Sudan), before military pressure forced the rebels then to withdraw into Congo – first the Garamba National Park, where they decimated wildlife to sell rhino horns and ivory, and then to bases further away near the border with the Central African Republic.

Khartoum has in recent weeks been massing troops in South Kordofan, near the demarcation line with the south, by their own reasons given, to prevent an imagined rebel attack from Darfur, which is generally perceived to be a far-fetched excuse for adding unilaterally more troops into the volatile area near Abyei, an oil-rich state claimed by the south, disputed by Khartoum, and a hotspot in relations between the south and the regime in the north. However, in view of the latest military action against the LRA, there may well be an ulterior motive behind these maneuvers.

It is hoped that the ongoing military action will be swift and decisive and either catch and deliver the rebels to the ICC in The Hague, or else solve the problem with military means. It also appears that the regime in Kinshasa has, albeit reluctantly, given permission for both SPLA and UPDF units to cross into Congo in pursuit of the rebels, which lends credibility to the military action.

Public opinion during the week was overwhelmingly in favor of the military action, except for the few isolated voices of known rebel supporters. The two camps’ peace negotiation, and also the mediator teams in Juba, have packed up their things and taken an early Christmas break, leaving several hotels in Southern Sudan’s capital city suddenly with empty rooms. None of the hotels reportedly have any provisional bookings for their clients to return on a later date, which in itself is quite revealing. Watch this space for updates.

Reports from Juba indicate a rising level of concern about isolated LRA gangs causing havoc in southern Sudan now, as they have done in the past, whenever the ditched peace negotiations were not going their way. The Ugandan rebels, however, have so far refrained from engaging directly with the SPLA, probably knowing their fierce response and fighting tactics, which prior to the CPA, held the Khartoum regime at arm’s length.
With the SPLA, however, now pursuing the rebels jointly with the Ugandan UPDF and Congolese units, fear has been rising that villages, trading posts, and small towns may be targeted by the rebels to get supplies and abduct young boys and girls and press them into service. Security patrols and aerial surveillance has been stepped up to counter any rebel efforts to either cross into southern Sudan from their hideouts in Congo or have other rebels inside the southern Sudan go active. A higher state of alert has been enforced across the border areas with the Congo, and reinforcements are said to be deployed. Hotel occupancies in Juba are not said to have substantially dropped, however, besides the negotiating and media teams now gradually vacating their rooms and facilities.

The UN has extended the mandate of coalition naval forces operating around the Horn of Africa to permit them hot pursuit on land, which may include attacking the pirates’ land bases with troops and also airborne strikes.
Kenya has, in the meantime, also announced that their navy and air force will attack pirate boats found inside Kenyan territorial waters, which extend 200 miles offshore. It was said that boats belonging to pirates will be sunk by Kenyan military sources.

The Chinese government has, according to latest reports, also dispatched some naval units to join a large multinational coalition near Somalia, and as numbers of navy ships and personnel grow, it will become more difficult for pirates to hijack ships, especially now that their land bases are no longer off limits.

It was also learned that cruise ships, in particular, will be closely watched and shadowed by naval units to prevent any attempt to hijack them. Many cruise liners traditionally come through the Suez Canal and then enter the Indian Ocean for port calls at the Seychelles, Mombasa, and Zanzibar, having to pass off the Somali coast when either leaving or entering the Red Sea. Watch this space for updates.