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Wolfgang’s East Africa tourism report

Written by editor


In a rather unprecedented but nevertheless courageous and highly-commendable move, the commandant of the Aviation Police at Entebbe International Airport issued a public apology to an angry traveler, printed in the country’s leading daily “The New Vision.” Days earlier, another letter to the editor was published complaining about three police officers behaving badly and by insinuation trying to extract a bribe over wrongful parking and other alleged offenses, including “talking back” to the officers concerned and “not being repentant.”

Senior Superintendent of Police Herman Owomugisha, however, not tolerating such alleged behavior and the subsequent smearing of the image of the aviation police by errant officers, responded publicly, including offering his mobile phone number, which the aggrieved traveler, and others finding themselves in similar situations, should call to provide immediate remedy. This outstanding response deserves to be mentioned as it portrays the efforts the police, especially at the airport, are making to change their image and serve and protect rather than grab and harass.

This correspondent’s experience, founded on regular visits to the airport, is generally positive, except for one single recent case, when a police officer patrolling the parking area demanded to know why I was sitting in my car listening to music rather than standing outside the arrival hall waiting for my passengers. “It is for security we do not allow people to wait in their cars; they must wait outside arrivals,” I was told, and when I challenged the officer and demanded to see those rules in print or else speak to her superior officer, she beat a hasty retreat.

As reported in this column’s breaking news some weeks ago – incidentally again beating the established local dailies to the print line – Skyjet suffered massive differences of opinion between the shareholders and directors, leading to a suspension of flights, a grounding of their aircraft, a halt in the delivery of their second B737, and forced leave for most of their staff.

Seventy-percent, majority shareholder, Mr. Deng Garang of the Alok Group in Juba, had reportedly clashed with minority shareholder Capt. Shawgi who holds 25 percent of the shares and yet tried to impose himself on his fellow directors in a series of shenanigans, which bemused the aviation fraternity to no end, had it not been so serious.

That problem was brought to an end earlier in the week when his shares were finally acquired through consensual sale, giving Mr. Deng a clear 95 percent holding and leaving Mr. Tamale Musoke, a Uganda business man also previously involved in aviation, with the remaining 5 percent.

As could be expected, a mudslinging contest preceded the agreement, and Mr. Musoke could not withstand the temptation to fire a parting shot at his erstwhile partner’s credentials in the local press, as the sale was certified and documented.

It is not known at this stage when the airline can resume operations, as the aircraft – having been parked for several weeks – first needs to undergo a technical check to ascertain its airworthiness status, and market confidence needs to be restored as well, having abruptly halted flights a couple of weeks ago. This left the route to Air Uganda who absorbed the traffic, which will now be a challenge to wrest back from them. This evolving contest over the route will be interesting to watch, especially in view of U7 last week suffering yet another change at the helm and bearing in mind that the Juba route is arguably the most profitable route from Entebbe for any home-based airline. Watch this space to follow the battle of the skies.

Following the transfer of Daniel Kangu from Kampala to the Nairobi Serena Hotel, Mr. Alan Igambi has now taken up his position as new deputy GM at the Kampala Serena Hotel. Alan previously served as deputy GM at the Mombasa Serena Beach Resort and Spa, attaining years of experience before coming to Kampala. He is joining Killian Lugwe, who has been at the Kampala Serena as general manager prior to the major rebuilding, during the works period and has, of course, since led the hotel with his team from success to success.

The Kampala Serena Hotel is acknowledged to be Uganda’s finest hotel and the leading contender for the top slot within the Serena Group. Welcome to Alan from this column and many happy and successful years in Kampala.

Rift Valley Railways (RVR), the initially south African-led consortium, which 2 ½ years ago won the concession to manage the combined Kenyan and Ugandan railway networks, has been given notice that the Ugandan government is set to cancel the concession for failing to meet agreed performance targets. A major restructuring amongst shareholders saw the controversial South African Sheltam Group being sidelined last year, but legal cases are pending over compensation claims by the former CEO and over other issues.

The Ugandan government has set aside, in spite of the present financial crunch, over US$8 million to provide a financial fallback in case of claims through the court system, although it is understood that government has received legal advice encouraging this decision and dispatching RVR’s management. How the Kenyan government will react in the light of this information will have to be seen, as court cases and injunctions through the Kenyan courts have made a straight-forward decision rather more difficult there. As and when the concession will be formally terminated, this column will update readers.

Management of the two lodges, soon to be joined by the Chobi Safari Lodge, have confirmed to this correspondent that they have placed orders for two more vehicles for their popular road safari packages from Kampala to the lodges. The Toyota 4-wheel drive luxury vans offer space for 5 passengers, all with their own window seats and have two large sun roofs to take the occasional pictures for the family photo album when passing some of the vantage view points en route to the national parks. Needless to mention, a DVD system allows passengers to listen to their favourite music or watch a DVD portraying Uganda as a top African destination, which is available from the driver guide. All inclusive package rates, availability details, and bookings for the road safari tours are available via [email protected] .

Meanwhile, these lodges have recently launched dedicated air safari packages, with flights operated by domestic aviation industry leader KAFTC (Kampala Aero Club and Flight Training Centre) in Kajjansi, which will deliver travelers within an hour from the outskirts of Kampala to the airfield nearest to the respective lodge – in the case of Mweya, just steps away from the lodge entrance. In Murchisons Falls National Park, the Pakuba airfield is being used, which while some 10 plus miles from the Paraa Safari Lodge, already allows a game drive while transiting to the lodge. In both lodges, purpose-built Toyota Landcruisers with large roof hatches are being used for game drives, operated by experienced driver guides well versed with the area and where to find the all important game.

The Madhvani family business empire in Uganda has recently advertised for fresh applications to receive scholarships of a wide variety of subjects but notably also for intending students of hotel management and environmental studies. The value of this year’s scholarships stands at about 500 million Uganda Shillings or nearly US$250,000. The scholarships were launched many decades ago and are administered by the Madhvani Foundation, a duly-registered charitable trust in Uganda. The Madhvani family, besides other business interests, owns and operates Uganda’s premier safari lodges like Mweya, Paraa, and Chobi, which is due for re-opening later in the year.

A source at the Emirates office in Kampala confirmed to this column last weekend that the airline had just taken delivery of their 75th B777, making the airline the biggest operator of this type of aircraft. Several more of these aircraft are due for delivery at the end of the year, but in 2010, the airline is apparently starting to stretch further deliveries until a full economic recovery is visibly underway. Meanwhile, the airline continues to serve Entebbe from Dubai, via Addis Ababa, on a daily basis, offering connections at Dubai International Airport into their global network and also, of course, offering very affordable stopovers for passengers to sample the emirate’s tourism attractions or doing a spot of shopping.

Recent reports in the local media suggest, that one of the licensed oil exploration companies has floated new proposals to government to have a pipeline constructed from the oil wells in Western Uganda along Lake Albert to Mombasa’s existing refinery, instead of – as initially promised – build a mini refinery on site first to generate heavy fuel oil and other products before increased production would allow an expansion of the facility. The Ministry of Energy has already made it clear, however, that they absolutely prefer to refine in country and export products to the region, to first meet Uganda’s own energy requirements before selling surplus to the neighboring countries.

The government has also asked the oil companies to consider using the gas found to produce electricity, an environmentally more friendly method to generate power than using diesel or heavy fuel oil plants, considering the emissions and the vicinity to game reserves, national parks, forests, and neighboring community farms.

While some oil companies are said to be sympathetic to the government’s requests and expectations, at least one other is now suspected of holding back with their investments and roll-out plans, endangering the 2010 deadline to have a 50 – 100 MW facility up and running, which was to feed electricity into the national grid to lessen the overall production shortfall. Unless there is a change in attitude to their blatant attempts to hold the government and the people of Uganda at ransom, expect them to be named and shamed in due course in this column. Watch this space for updates.

News broke earlier in the week that the African Union will hold the summit next year in Kampala. Dates will be availed in due course, as the city and the Entebbe – Kampala sector will, of course, be fully booked and hotel space likely to be scarce. It is also expected that President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni will be elected at the summit as the African Union Chairperson, an honor not only well deserved but reflecting Uganda’s present membership on the United Nations Security Council as a non-permanent member, representing Africa.

The Uganda Wildlife Photographic Safari Company has recently advertised for a “winged” gorilla trip, which uses light aircraft to land travelers at the nearest airstrip to the gorilla national park, adding great comfort and saving valuable time, as access by road, depending on weather and entry point to Mgahinga or Bwindi, can take a full day’s driving.

The company had also earlier advertised “participatory” safaris, where rounding up game for relocation (duly sanctioned by UWA, one should point out) or in game counts, were well received by the market and the available places sold. Visit for more information.

The Uganda Safari Guide Association has recently sampled their members’ opinions, and during the International Tourist Guides Day celebrations at the end of April, announced the results (non-scientific and, therefore, not meeting standard polling requirements) of an ad-hoc poll amongst their attending members as follows:

Best Hotel – Kampala Serena Hotel
Best Lodge and best lodge managers – Ndali Lodge
Best National Park – Queen Elizabeth National Park
Best Receptionist – Mweya Safari Lodge, whose general manager Richard Hodgson was also named as Best Manager

On the downside, the email broadcast also named “the worst,” and this has, according to information available to this column, brought the lawyers of those named into the fray for “slandering” their clients, being “unjustified and detrimental” to the respective businesses and smacking of personal grudges and a hidden agenda.

Predictably, therefore, the poll raised immediate outcries of both fair and foul since the back ground of the poll was not made public, while others in the industry engaged in mudslinging, name calling, and making cuckoo land comments, including offloading broadsides against the general manager of the Uganda Tourist Board, a long-time target for some elements in the tourism sector. Mr. Bahinguza had afforded the Safari Guide Association some well-meant advice over the manner of how the information was sent out and his own concerns over possible litigation, but this only seems to have infuriated some of the stakeholders, using the opportunity to vent their long anger against him.

The owners of the Kampala Hilton have excelled once again in changing their tune when they made new announcements for which they have become so famously notorious.

The hotel, when the construction started, was due to be finished for the Commonwealth Summit at the end of 2007, and at the time, the Aya’s, as the brothers are known in Kampala, proudly pronounced they would finish a floor a week of the proposed 20+ storey structure. Failing to meet the time target several times, ever changing new dates were announced periodically to the bemusement of the general public and the rest of the hospitality industry in Uganda.

Nothing of the sort happened, of course, as history tells, and now, several years into the build, the same man suddenly pronounced that a 5-star hotel takes at least 4 years to build, at last demonstrating some capacity to learn from his previous mistaken utterances. At the same occasion, the announcement was also made that the hotel would now be ready some time in 2010, again a change from earlier statements that the hotel would be finished later in 2009. Watch this space for more changes in the tunes.

News reached this column that Capt. Alex Fernandes passed away earlier this week. He was an initial founder member of the Skal Club of Kampala, when he was still actively flying and managing domestic airlines, but later on he moved out of country before eventually coming back and retiring from the cockpits. Alex will be sadly missed by his family, friends, and the aviation fraternity, with whom he continued to interact even in retirement.

Following the summit of the east African heads of state in Arusha last week, the signing of the common market protocol was finally agreed for November this year, and working groups were instructed by the presidents to take care of the remaining contentious issues. A customs union was incorporated in 2005, and internal EAC tariffs have progressively reduced and are expected to reach zero for trade within the member states as long as nationality production and origin rules are confirmed.

The EAC is, rather too slowly for the taste of many, en route to a full economic union, but several other protocols remain due for implementation, such as permitting the freedom of movement of persons across the region, a common currency, and most difficult – a full political union. It was notably Tanzania, incidentally also a member of SADC, the Southern African Development Community, which has been slowing things down in the recent past, but mechanisms are now being developed to allow those member states in agreement over issues to press ahead and implement their agreements, while the slower members can then play catch up as and when they are ready. It was also suggested to change the voting to allow majorities to carry the day, which would – if implemented – allow consenting members to outvote their dissenting colleagues.

The old and economically fully-integrated East African Community collapsed in 1977 following fundamental disagreements over policy between Kenya and Tanzania, while Uganda was at the time already in free fall as the twilight days of Amin’s dictatorial regime descended upon the Pearl of Africa. Kenya subsequently developed into a fairly prospering economy, while the policies of nationalization and socialism in Tanzania stifled development and drove the economy to ever-lower levels. Only when Founder President “Mwalimu” Julius Nyerere finally admitted to having made mistakes, stood down to make way for a new leadership, and allowed Tanzania to gradually navigate towards economic recovery, did change become possible. In particular, the tourism industry has made great strides since the mid 1990s, when initially Kenya-based hospitality groups began to invest in resorts, lodges, and hotels, later followed by international groups, while permitting capable Tanzanians, too, to carve out their market share. Unilateral on tariff barriers, however, which impede free regional air traffic and cross-border safari operations, are still a bone of contention, and the deeply-rooted sentiments often heard in Tanzania, against in particular Kenya, are clearly not helpful to achieve economic and political integration on the fast track. Watch this space for updates.

New plans have emerged that the regional governments are now truly committed to rehabilitate their aged railway networks, widen the spoor to internationally-accepted standards, and add more connections to facilitate bulk cargo movement to and from the Indian Ocean harbors. Passenger transport is also a laudable goal, of course, providing affordable and safe long-distance transportation, while special carriages or trains can also be used for tourist visitors. The new railway lines include a connection from the Tanzanian inland dry port of Isaka to Kigali and Bujumbura, possibly even connecting into the eastern Congo, while the Ugandan portion of the railway network is also set to expand into the southern Sudan and towards, if not into, the eastern Congo.

According to information received earlier in the week, a ministerial committee and meeting of experts in Arusha recently committed themselves towards the regional development. An added proposal even includes linking Addis Ababa in the future to the network, while inside Tanzania, new routes would also be considered.

The East African Community Secretariat was tasked to fine tune the expert’s plans and seek funding to have this mammoth project come to life, while the respective governments would make provisions in the forthcoming national budgets. Watch this space for updates.

Kenya’s national airline, also fondly named the “Pride of Africa,” has announced they have added a third daily flight between Nairobi and Johannesburg, reflecting an improved climate between the two countries for trade and tourism and indicating that the airline has left the problems caused by last year’s rocketing fuel prices behind them. They now also fly thrice a day to Kigali, operated on one of their new Embraer 170 jets, while Bujumbura is now being served twice a day in the morning and evening, also using the new Embraer aircraft. The Bujumbura evening flight arrives there at 11:00 pm – like the last flight from Nairobi to Entebbe – and the aircraft and crew then stay overnight to fly the aircraft back to Nairobi very early in the morning, allowing passengers to connect into the entire domestic, regional/continental, and international network’s morning flights. The Kenyan flag carrier has cemented their lead role in regional aviation by adding new aircraft, destinations, frequencies, and embarking on a vigorous quality-control program aimed at retaining passengers and gaining new market share across the African continent.

After years of arguments between the Kenya Airports Authority and local communities over land belonging to the airport, a compromise appears to have been reached. The dispute goes back to the pre-independence days, when the British colonial administration had acquired the land to build an airport, and when the long-overdue, runway extension came up, the communities used their old claims to extract money from government. This now done, the work is on schedule and 500 meters of the 1-km runway expansion is already completed. Other work and upgrades are also scheduled for Kisumu, which should see aviation in western Kenya take a boost.

Following is another interesting excerpt from the Aero Club of Kenya newsletter, courtesy of Harro Trempenau.

The Aviation Consumer Protection Department (ACPD) of the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) is in the process of compiling articles for its inaugural Aviation Consumer News. The newsletter will be distributed electronically nationally, regionally, and internationally. According to Cornel Oguya, head of consumer protection at KCAA, it is the policy of ACPD to present factual and reliable information to aviation consumers, and it is seeking informative articles about aviation issues of concern to stakeholders. Of course, there is no shortage of those and, if genuine, your complaints and discussions about issues will be published without fear or favor. Oguya goes on to say, “The articles are expected to contain pictures and other illustrations to help enhance and enrich the contents.” Many stakeholders are sceptical about the notion of “Consumer Protection” by KCAA, viewing it as tokenistic PR exercise because so few complaints have been seriously addressed by KCAA in the past. It will take time for KCAA to rebuild its credibility with the aviators, and this effort may be a first step towards that goal.

Not long from now, all Aero Club members will be able to enjoy the view on the valley at Orly Airpark, Kitengela. The long-awaited Club House is nearing completion, and the veranda and bar are receiving the final touches. Orly Airpark recently expanded and now covers 235 acres.

A number of projects are under way, including an airport lounge and toilet/shower facilities. With the NEMA environmental audit in progress, an electric fence has been commissioned around the entire site, and several private cottages and new hangars are under construction. It is planned that the main apron will be covered entirely with Bamburiblox by the end of 2009 and that a staff housing block and a new borehole will be completed this year. KP&L connection is also on target. Those who have not visited this new exciting airfield in the Kitengela (along the “Pipeline Road”) should perhaps take a look. Take a picnic and watch the gyrocopters, micro-lights, skydivers, and other enthusiasts perform.

When news broke that Kempinski Hotels in Tanzania – already operating the Kempinski in Dar es Salaam, formerly the Kilimanjaro Hotel; the recently-opened Bilila Lodge in the Serengeti; and the Zamani Beach Resort in Zanzibar – would develop the site of the Hotel Seventy Seven in Arusha, critics immediately reared their ugly heads again using the old tired argument of Tanzanians have been denied. There seems more than the usual bit of paranoia going on in this east African country about foreigners owning and operating hotels, resorts, and lodges, and a report from fellow eTN columnist Apolinari Tairo last week over racism and apartheid allegations in the Tanzanian hotel industry, has immediately raised the concern and alarm levels amongst foreign investors.
Several sources this column spoke with since then in turn have alleged that in spite of their investments in the country’s hospitality sector and the jobs they created in the process, they are constantly worried over such issues as work or residence permits and feel they are a convenient target and scapegoat for Tanzanian business individuals who lost out on bidding for new concessions, failed to raise sufficient capital to buy or co-invest in projects, and then seek cheap political publicity with innuendo and both overt and covert bad talk about investors who deny citizens a fair chance. To think that a leading international hotel management company like Kempinski, which employs over 1,000 Tanzanian staff in their present three operations, should be subjected to such miserly talk?

In contrast, foreign investments in the hospitality industry in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda are not only most welcome but actively encouraged (as long as they are serious and not of the Kingdom sort), which has helped to develop the tourism sectors in those countries with greater speed and without, in fact, denying the respective citizens their own chances to engage in the sector’s opportunities. That said, in those three countries, however, even citizens of the other EAC member states can acquire and own land and develop it, something Tanzania has hitherto denied them in reciprocity as they continue to stall this element in the negotiations of a common market protocol. Do I sense some misguided paranoia there? It is not always the neighbors who are the bad guys, but they are, of course, ideal candidates when scapegoats are needed. Watch this space for updates.