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Wolfgang’s East Africa tourism report

Written by editor


It was learned on occasion at some meetings recently at the Metropole, that the hotel has now joined a global marketing and reservations group aptly named Small Elegant Hotels. The hotel’s general manager Rahul Sood, also the current SKAL Kampala president, informed this column about the development and expressed his delight and pride over meeting the required criteria to join a global group. Amongst those criteria are the size of the hotel – not more than 200 rooms in total for a member establishment, room furnishings’ equipment and size, restaurants’ service standards and food quality, meeting facilities, location, and accessibility amongst others. More information can be found via and of course by checking out .

The Sheraton Kampala Hotel participated extensively in this year’s Earth Hour in support of environmental protection and raising awareness for the need of swift and comprehensive action to reduce carbon emissions and hopefully still arrest global warming. The hotel affirmed in their recently released newsletter that restaurants were lit up by candle light and that guests were encouraged to switch off lights and air conditioning in their rooms during Earth Hour. The public areas were lit to a bare minimum to comply with public safety standards and city council regulations, but all outside signage lights and spotlights were turned off for the duration. The Sheraton Kampala Hotel only recently won recognition for their year-round efforts to conserve energy and water, making it an example for others to follow.

Another hotelier – a phrase often used to upgrade themselves from the financially impressive status of ownership towards a more professional and, therefore, more coveted standing most of the time, although not backed up by vocational training or academic achievements in relevant hospitality institutions – professed not to know anything about the global event, while yet a third gave himself away by asking this correspondent, “Earth what?” In contrast this correspondent’s residence remained dark for the evening with a single candle on the terrace providing illumination. Congratulations to all participants who heeded the call to be part of this global event.

Reports emerged earlier in the week that a single tourist Visa for all of east Africa is underway, but a swift investigation revealed that this long-pending goal is still a long way off. The present downturn in tourism arrivals, however, is thought to act as a catalyst to persuade the governments and immigration departments of the EAC member states to act more swiftly now in making this important mechanism a reality. The idea was first floated at an East African Community Committee meeting on Tourism and Wildlife Management in 2001, when the Ugandan delegation put it on the discussion list, but little has happened since then as the respective immigration departments are not keen to forgo revenue and happily make tourist visitors pay extra Visa fees when traveling from one east African country into the next. Commendably, Kenya has at least granted free repeat entry when first entering Kenya on a visit, then traveling to a neighboring EAC country before returning to Kenya, but none of the other countries has followed suit. Kenya has now also halved their charges for a Visa from US$50 to SU$25 per person and is granting children up to the age of 16 free entry altogether, again an action the rest of the EAC countries has yet to follow suit.

A further bone of contention is travel by duly-registered expatriates in any of the 5 EAC member states, who are presently treated as foreign visitors when crossing borders, a situation which, too, must be changed. This target group holds great potential for travel into the region during their local vacation time but presently have to fork out, depending on family size, hundreds of dollars in Visa fees, often opting then for holidays in destinations like the UAE or South Africa, where most of them do not need to purchase a Visa at all.

The comments in the regional media over the single tourist Visa are, therefore, thought to be largely premature and will depend on the implementation of one of the key protocols amongst East African Community members over the freedom of movement, as well as regional immigration agreements. In a more positive move, however, during the ongoing negotiations over the Common Market Protocol, Uganda, too, has joined Rwanda’s position to abolish work permit requirements for east African citizens and will advocate to make this a reality across the region – again, however, this is some time away from reality although a most commendable move.

Emirates, the award winning airline from Dubai, has apparently caused the emotional temperatures of some travel agents to rise, when the carrier announced last week, and was quoted accordingly in a local daily, that their fares will remain unchanged. In clear text, the airline’s statement countered pronouncements by the Ugandan travel agents association TUGATA, that all member agencies AND the airlines would now levy a service charge on ticket sales after payments of commissions expired earlier in the year. This correspondent, when purchasing tickets recently from two airlines directly (not Emirates) for flights into the region, was also not charged any such fee, but the quoted ticket cost only. That experience contrasts with an emailed statement obtained quoting TUGATA as having said: “The opinions expressed in this article are for Emirates Airlines alone. Allow me to reiterate the words in the chairman’s address to all members this morning. The committee has not received information that the market has rejected the new model. On the contrary, it seems the new model is slowly but steadily being accepted by the market. We need to stay stead-fast and united as the model takes root. Please do not allow this and other such negative publicity to de-rail the agreed minimum service fee you all committed to charge as per the TUGATA General Meeting of November 19, 2009. This is ultimately for the good of the industry to ensure that we all remain in business while offering high-quality service to our clients.” Asks this correspondent, are there some perplexed doubts or maybe even a lager mentality emerging or are there indeed elements in quiet but active disagreement opting out through the back door? Related to this development was a comment made by an airline country manager, who clearly said on condition of anonymity, that airlines would not accept to have fees imposed on them by travel agents, and that they were under no obligation to charge the service fees agencies now demand from their clients when selling tickets directly. He also added: “It is interesting that normally agents criticize airlines for charges added, so why should we now add their inventions on our prices? They can do what they want to do; there are many ways of selling tickets, and nowadays we sell on the Internet with corporate agreements and directly to travelers coming to our offices. It is not cheap to run a big office in town, but it is part of our service and sales strategy.”
Emirates has meanwhile extended their special sales period until the end of June for extra low fares purchased directly either online or at the Emirates offices, a move thought to serve a degree of notice to those travel agents who wish to pursue the matter with some vigor, that the airline is quite capable of doing their own things without the consent or approval from third parties.

Meanwhile TUGATA also held an AGM last week, and the entire executive team, less the treasurer who preferred to retire from his office for personal reasons, were re-elected. Congratulations to them all and, of course, watch this space for future developments.

The value of the Uganda Shilling continued its fall against major currencies, when trading at 2,175 to the US dollar at the end of last week, while the Euro was fetching just about 2,900 Shillings. The trend will make expenditure for visitors from abroad cheaper as they buy more for their home currency, but inflationary trends are now also expected to reverse again upwards, as all imports, including fuel, will likely be subject to price increases reflecting the fallen value of the local currency. The cost of diesel had finally reduced in recent weeks to between 1,600 and 1,700 UShs, while petrol now trades in the 2,300 to 2,400 range.

Travel from Uganda abroad is also set to become dearer as ticket prices are quoted in US dollars, and hard currency is needed to pay for allowances and spending money used abroad, probably impacting on the rate of travel from Uganda to Europe and beyond.

An announcement was made last week that government will divest of its remaining shares in the Apollo Hotel Corporation, which owns the Sheraton Kampala Hotel. A major percent block of shares was some years ago sold to MIDROC, a company also owning the Addis Ababa Sheraton, the Djibouti Sheraton, and a number of other hotels and resorts. Under the initial divestiture, it is understood that MIDROC can acquire another major block of shares giving them a clear majority but that at a later stage, some form of flotation on the Uganda Securities Exchange will take place to allow investors and the general public to also own some shares in one of Kampala’s most successful hotels. The upcoming transaction will not, however, affect the franchise agreement in place with Starwood Hotels, under which the Sheraton brand falls.

Meanwhile, the parliamentary committee on privatization has given government one month within which to sell their shares in the Commonwealth Resort in Munyonyo and recover the money spent to get the venue ready for the Commonwealth Summit at that time. Watch this space for updates.

According to reliable reports, another Chinese national was arrested at Entebbe International Airport when found with illegal ivory in his possession. This column had reported similar cases before happening in the wider region but no amount of public outrage or successful prosecutions seem to be able to squash the greed for the coveted white gold. The south eastern Asian region is notorious for its hunger for ivory and other animal products in search of ornamental carvings and cures for ailments. Conservationists expressed their hope for a swift prosecution and a stiff sentence to serve as notice to other would-be smugglers that long prison terms await them when nabbed.

Only recently did Africa’s own telecom giant MTN reach the 4 million subscriber mark, leaving other mobile phone companies trailing in their wake. The arrival of MTN nearly a decade ago, has revolutionized the telecom industry, and the now 5 competitors in the market – MTN, Uganda Telecom, Zain, Warid Telecom, and Orange – are taking their fight to the market with ever-new products and frequent tariff cuts. It is now thought that nearly 10 million Ugandans have access to their own telephones compared to the early 1990s, when landlines connected only about 50,000 subscribers. Tariffs for Internet connections are presently also tumbling ahead of the connection of two rival fibre-optic seabed cables reaching Mombasa, which will increase capacity multi-fold and cut cost by up to two thirds of the present tariffs when operational. UTL’s 3G connection – currently the fastest wireless system on the market – was initially quoted in US dollars but last week halved their subscription cost to now 130,000 UShs or about US$65. It is thought that rates will come down yet further when the bulk of the Internet and data traffic eventually routes via the new cables instead of using satellites. For visitors from abroad coming to Uganda, this is all good news as they can stay connected at very reasonable prices while holidaying in the country or going after their business.

In a related development, MTN is the major South African sponsor of the FIFA World Cup next year in South Africa, cementing the company’s global position as a major player in the world-wide telecoms industry. Made in Africa by Africa.

In an apparent move to dispel growing doubts over the start of flights from the US via west Africa to Kenya, planned for June this year, the airline has now gone on the offensive reassuring travelers and the business community alike that they will stick to their plans. The present sharp economic downturn and global financial crisis has hit US airlines particularly hard, and there were whispers in the region over Delta’s ability and willingness to commence a new long-haul route in this adverse climate. As the time of the planned inaugural flights draws nearer, watch out for more news updates on this development.

Owing to intense public scrutiny and an outcry, by not only the public but by Kenya’s national airline and other air operators using Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the Kenyan Transport Minister yesterday cancelled the deal under which the Kenya Airports Authority, and in particular their outgoing CEO, tried to gift the old airport structures to a literally unknown entity OneJetOne, which has the former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Transport on their board of directors. In a terse statement, the Minister reaffirmed doubts mentioned in this column in recent weeks that the deal had not complied with procurement procedures and also said that no letter of offer was ever given to the intended beneficiary, thereby voiding any contractual expectations and obligations.

This development will add yet more egg all over the face of outgoing KAA CEO George Muhoho, who had his request for a contract extension or renewal denied a couple of weeks ago by his board and is now ending his term of office at the KAA in a disgraceful manner and under heavy clouds of allegations and suspicions. A new CEO is due to be named shortly, it was learned, and will be reported in this column in due course.

Information was received that the Kenya Airports Authority, presently under intense media and civic society scrutiny over their plans to hand the old Nairobi airport to a relatively unknown entity, is to embark on a multi-billion Kenya Shilling upgrade of facilities in Mombasa. Kenya’s second most important international airport, which receives most of the all-inclusive charter flights from Europe, is expected to get a new taxiway guidance system and a grand overhaul of the existing runway in coming years. Also due is a new security fence covering the entire airport perimeter, resurfacing of roads and tracks, and a new CCTV system for all areas. Other work will address the water supply system, lighting, electrical ducts, and a new standby power system.

Meanwhile, a deal done by KAA with a Qatari investment group to clear that the deal was not competitively advertised for tender as required by law and court action from civil society watchdogs, are now no longer ruled out. Part of the deal would be the construction of at least two hotels, several exhibition halls for use by developing a massive 90-acre area on airport land outside the main perimeter fence has hit the headlines again in Kenya with further allegations of underhand deals. It would be a venue for international, regional, and domestic trade fairs and also restaurants and even a hospital. The land has been gifted to the investors under an 80-year lease and the Kenyan Transport Minister, in fact, reaffirmed yesterday that the deal was above board and would go ahead. Watch this space for updates.

In an announcement yesterday by Kenya Airways’ commercial director, it was made public that the airline will halt its daily flights to Kisumu, presently operated on Embraer 170 equipment until construction at that airport is complete. The airline said that the runway presently is no longer suitable in its present state to accommodate safe operations of their flights. Other domestic airlines like Jetlink and Fly540 will continue to fly daily to Kisumu but are using smaller aircraft.

Kenya Airways also announced the suspension of flights to Malindi due to a fall in demand, leaving this route also to domestic competitors, several of which are serving Malindi on a daily basis from Nairobi. KQ has pointed out that passengers already booked will be flown to Mombasa and transferred by road to Malindi, unless they opt to rebook themselves on other airlines for a direct flight.

The visit in 2006 by then Illinois Senator Barack Obama to Kenya had attracted much attention already at that time, not only because he was then the only African American Senator, but also for coming home to visit his roots. President Obama had, of course, visited Kenya before but with less prominence and attention. The Explorer base camp on the Talek River in the wider Masai Mara conservation area is now using the 2006 visit and stay by the President to market the property more vigorously in the future. Equal attention is, however, given to the environmental record of the small scale property, which has received a gold rating. A night’s stay in the Obama room, including all meals, will cost a visitor about US$150 at present, but this price may inflate somewhat as demand is expected to go up sharply.

Meanwhile, the Ugandan New Vision made fun of their readers on April 1 when they announced an imminent trip of President Obama to eastern Africa, including Uganda. It seems phone lines were running hot when the papers hit the streets until the readers of Uganda’s most popular newspaper eventually found out that they had been fooled. Happy April Fool’s Day!

While Kenya’s latest e-medium is getting their new website ready, the company has set up a Gmail address to maintain contact with their contributors and readers. Should your mails, therefore, bounce in coming days, try [email protected] . This column will report once the new website and email contacts have been successfully launched.

Damming of the Omo River in Ethiopia is now seen as the most imminent threat to the survival of Lake Turkana and the surrounding communities depending on the lake. Already in a state of draught-induced shrinkage, it is said the lake’s inflow will further reduce greatly in coming years when dams under construction and under planning are completed. The result would likely be a substantial reduction in water levels, and the subsequent rise in temperature could then lead to even greater evaporation than is the case already. Other lakes across eastern Africa, too, are suffering similar problems, including Lake Victoria, where water levels have barely stabilized now after years of progressive reduction. When development on one had is leading to destruction elsewhere, greater care should be taken in the planning of such projects, and affected communities ought to have a say and be consulted before their future is condemned by others under the pretext of bringing progress. Watch this space for updates.

Reports from Nairobi indicated that the profits made by Serena Hotels’ holding, TPS East Africa Ltd., dropped by nearly half for 2008 while revenues dropped by some 12 percent. The outlook for the current year also remains a little shaky in view of the present global economic and financial crisis, which saw tourist arrivals remain far from forecasts. Other hospitality businesses, however, performed worse than this, and some of the more marginal beach hotels were reported to have closed down due to lack of business.

The business results for 2008 were, of course, largely influenced by the political events during the first quarter of last year, when the country saw a massive reduction of arrivals, which later leveled out to a drop by a third on a year-on-year comparison. Although the trend reversed in the second half of 2008, the global recession then wiped out the gains of a massive marketing effort by Kenya, without which, however, the annual results would have been even worse. The outlook for the future, however, is stable, and a recovery for the tourism sector is expected from late 2009 onwards.

Information received from Nairobi indicates that the Libyan owners of the Grand Regency Hotel are now finally coming around to get some major work done on the hotel. All areas of the hotel are due for upgrade and a massive overhaul, as little had been done on the property since the hotel was initially built and opened in the early 1990s. Meanwhile all their major competitors in Nairobi’s 5-star bracket had carried out multiple upgradings since then, maintaining their own market standing and appeal to their clientele, and in these economically challenging times, quality is one of the hallmarks a hotel’s customer will be looking for when choosing.

Readers will recall mention in this column over the controversial sale of the hotel to the Libyan government a while ago, when in a cloak and dagger action the Kenyan government decided to hurriedly sell off the property, raising allegations at the time over underhanded dealings, which have never really gone away.

The Tanzanian government has entered into an agreement with the IYPE – International Year of Planet Earth – for broadcasting rights to screen the great wildebeest migration globally. This announcement was made by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism earlier in the week. A team of broadcasters and support personnel will be taking and simultaneously transmitting live pictures of the animals while crossing the Serengeti from one end to the other in search of pastures and their birthing grounds.

A couple from France, whose child was killed over three years ago by a leopard regularly seen passing through the lodge compound, won their court case against Tarangire Safari Lodge, when they were awarded 60 million Tanzania Shillings in damages. The lodge was found negligent in not ensuring guest’s safety to keep the wild animal at bay or at a safe distance from the main area used by clients. Several lodges and tented safari camps across the region may now have to review safety measures, as they continue to bait leopard to offer their clients the opportunity to see the elusive nocturnal cat to ensure no similar incident will take place in the future. The lodge was also ordered to erect a commemorative plaque at the place of the incident after obtaining clearance by TANAPA. Reportedly, the lodge owners were not present in court when the judgement was read out – considered a rather cowardly absence if found true.

The authorities in Dar es Salaam have requested assistance from Interpol over reports that several tons of ivory, allegedly from Tanzania, were found in Vietnam. The consignment is reportedly worth over US$10 million. The sale of ivory carvings is apparently still legal in Vietnam, although a ban on ivory trading was imposed more than 15 years ago. It was learned that items from before the ban can still be legally sold, but this is an open gate for fraud and restocking with illicit blood ivory, often from poaching in eastern Africa. Interpol with its technical resources and lab technology might be able to actually ascertain where the ivory originated from, but indication is that it was shipped from Tanzania via Malaysia before entering Vietnam inside containers with plastic waste for recycling. Should Tanzania be confirmed as the source, government sources in Dar es Salaam have already vowed to bring the culprits to book and an investigation is already underway.

As reported previously in this column, the Rwanda stand at the recent ITB won, for the third time running, the first prize as Best African Stand. The trophy was handed over to Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame by the team members, led by RDB Deputy CEO and head of ORTPN Chantal Rugamba. President Kagame used the opportunity to campaign for a single Visa to the East African Community member states and also proposed a single East African stand for next year’s ITB and other key trade fairs. Again, well done Rwanda and well done, indeed, President Kagame.

As expected, and mentioned several times previously in this column, the French judiciary has now formally lifted the arrest warrant against Rwanda’s Chief of Protocol permitting her to travel freely anywhere in the pursuit of her official duties and private matters. The lifting of the warrant comes at a time when Rwanda is preparing for the 15th anniversary of the notorious Hutu-inspired genocide, which cost the lives of some 800,000 innocent people in the tiny east African nation within the space of a few months from April 1994. The main case itself has, however, not yet been dropped, but the lifting of the warrant is now a strong pointer that the French judiciary will, in due course, throw out the case for good.

Conflicting dates for the event in 2010 have now caused this meeting to be released to Nairobi from the chosen venue of Kigali. The last summit took place in Arusha last year, when Rwanda was selected as the next host country, but certain national events were later found to be in conflict with the anticipated summit dates, which could also not be changed. This will be good news for Nairobi, which can now look forward to hosting hundreds of additional guests, although it is hoped that the Sullivan Summit will eventually be held in Rwanda.

In a development similar to the one in Uganda and across eastern Africa, the US dollar also appreciated greatly against the Sudan Pound, as feedback from Juba indicates. The Pound was initially launched at a rate of two pounds versus one dollar, but has progressively devaluated, with buyers now requiring about 2.70 Sudan Pounds to get one US dollar. Yet, dollars are said to be scarce in Juba as the regime in Khartoum has completely stopped remitting dollars from oil proceeds to the south and is only transferring local currency, and not much of that either, a move thought to be yet another deliberate measure of emasculation and recrimination against the southern Sudan, where the population will vote on full independence in 2011. Hard currency is allegedly being hoarded in Khartoum by the regime to finance purchases abroad to boost their popularity in the north, where strongman Bashir is holding on by the skin of his teeth, following the ICC issuing an arrest warrant for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by his regime, his goons, and his followers in Darfur – and previously, of course, in the southern Sudan. The dire financial situation in the southern Sudan is now also a cause of concern for neighboring countries due to the intense economic ties developed over the past years. Only recently did SPLA veterans and serving personnel block the roads to and from Uganda in order to get their pending back pay, causing the loss of all cargos of perishable goods to be stuck at the frontier from Uganda at Nimule. The situation has, however, calmed down after payments were released, yet a lasting solution has to be found to avoid a repeat of such damaging incidents.

Information was received from Juba that SABMiller, the South African brewing giant, has started work on the establishment of a brewery near Juba, which will have a 15,000 hectolitre per month output when completed. Presently, all beers and sodas are imported from mainly Uganda and Kenya, a situation which has depleted the empty stocks in those countries, as few crates and bottles seem to be returned from the southern Sudan. With regular supply hitches caused by broken bridges or impassable roads and, as reported last week, unpaid security staff staging impromptu road blocks, the completion of a brewery will be a relief for the south. It is also a sign of the growing liberation from the Islamic north of the country, which has, in past times, repeatedly tried to impose their own policies including Sharia law on the mainly Christian south, which included prohibiting the production and consumption of alcohol. Needless to say, these attempts ultimately all failed, and SABMiller’s confidence in the south Sudan as an emerging new nation will undoubtedly be rewarded in coming years. It will also give visitors and locals alike the opportunity to sample a local beer made in southern Sudan. It was also learned that the registration of copyrights for the new brand and logos posed a major challenge for SABMiller, as those offices are still located in Khartoum where the registration of such trade marks for alcohol continues to be an offense. Government of Southern Sudan, or GoSS in short, however, appears to have found ways and means around these ludicrous bureaucratic hurdles and has given SABMiller assurances of protecting their investments. Way to go!