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Travel News

Wolfgang’s East Africa tourism report

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Written by editor


As demand for visitor and observer seats for the annual budget readings seems to grow every year, and with seats on the visitor gallery in the traditional parliamentary chamber rather limited, this year’s budget reading was held at the main auditorium of the Kampala Serena Conference Centre. There, the largest of several halls can seat in excess of 2,000 people.

The much-awaited budget in Uganda for the financial year 2009/2010 also brought smiles to the faces of the tourism stakeholders, as import taxes on dedicated tourist vehicles were scrapped and the sector was allocated up to 2 billion Uganda Shillings or about US$930,000 for marketing. While this sum is still considered by industry experts as too little, it is nevertheless an improvement compared to previous years and should help the Uganda Tourist Board to establish a better presence in the market place. The announcement, however, must be taken with a grain of salt, as in the past, allocated sums differed at times widely from the actual funds eventually transferred, so the real impact of this figure remains to be seen as UTB now tailors an action plan around the projected funds and has it cleared by the Ministry of Tourism, Trade, and Industry for implementation.

The main thrust of this year’s budget in Uganda were, once again, roads, education, health, and agriculture, which were allocated a staggering 49 percent of the overall projected expenditure in 2009/10 from a budget now totalling nearly 7.334 billion Uganda Shillings. This represents a 15 percent increase compared to last year, which considering the present inflation rate announced yesterday of 12.4 percent, indicates a progressive spending trend aimed at fighting the economic downturn. Growth last year still stood at 7 percent across the Ugandan economy in spite of the harsh global environment, which unfolded last year with record fuel prices and the onset of the global financial crisis.

In comparison, the Kenya budget went up by some 25 percent, the Tanzania budget went up by 31 percent, while Rwanda added some 24 percent in budgetary forecasts, well above inflationary trends and also aimed to offset the economic crisis unleashed upon them by the developed world through extra spending.

In Kenya, the tourism sector also managed to breathe a small sigh of relief when dedicated tourist vehicles – ordinarily 4 x 4s – were given import tax exemption, while the tourism marketing budget, following a last-ditch effort by KTB, KTF, and other industry stakeholders, was allocated a combined 1.2 billion Kenya Shillings for the tourist board, the Kenya Tourist Development Corporation, and additional one-off marketing activities in 2009/10. It is understood, however, that the private sector, together with the tourist board, will make representations to government to increase the KTB marketing budget in the coming months to at least partly match the massive spending presently underway by both Egypt and South Africa, which will next year, of course, host the FIFA World Cup, an event thought to benefit South Africa’s tourism sector like no other event before. Comments seen from all tourism industry leaders were unanimous that greater funding is required to market the country and calls were renewed to commit a fixed percentage of tourism’s earnings in coming years for marketing purposes if the ambitious projections for arrivals in the coming years are to be met.

Sadly, no data were immediately available from Burundi on their budgetary forecasts, but all efforts will be made to rectify this and to obtain data relevant to the tourism sector and the economy overall.

In a related development in Uganda, it was announced that the dreaded plastic bags would now all be banned by the end of the year 2009, allowing for existing stocks to be utilized until then. Previously, plastic bags were only banned below a certain strength, but their impact on the environment, as predicted way back in the 1990s, could no longer be ignored by government. It is expected that paper bags will have to replace the plastic ones or else one has to go shopping in the future with the traditional baskets and woven bags.

The ban also extends to liquids in plastic bottles, where in particular empty water bottles, are now littering the entire country. No information could be obtained at short notice, however, if water would be exempt or if the producers will have to switch to cartons or reusable glass bottles from 2010 onwards. It is appreciated that clean drinking water is hugely important but the rubbish heaps have been growing exponentially, and there seems no other solution in sight.

The importation of old computers and related equipment, often a disguise in the past to dump desolate goods in the country, was also prohibited with immediate effect, a move also applauded by industry experts, especially as new computers are now duty exempt and, therefore, not just more affordable but also protected by warranty and sure to have legal program contents.

Overall, the tenor of comments of the business fraternity across the eastern African region was a positive one, as there were no significant tax increases and the domestic markets were spared of unpredictable one-off measures aimed to increase revenue for government while hampering economic growth.

After years of being in idle mode, BA announced that beginning in late 2009 they will add two more flights a week between London Heathrow and Entebbe, offering a total of 5 connections each week. Travelers have long asked the British airline to add more frequencies, but BA left the growth, until now, to other airlines like Emirates, KLM, Brussels Airlines, and Ethiopian, all of whom kept adding flights or changed to larger aircraft over the past years. BA is the only airline with nonstop connections to the UK, and while more costly for connecting Ugandans due to the added transit Visa cost, it is still popular with travelers. This column will report progress and confirm if indeed the airline’s plans will materialize. Keep watching this space for updates.

The Egyptian national airline has, through their offices in Kampala, confirmed a change of location and terminal at Cairo’s international airport. The airline is now operating out of the new Terminal 3, which is also the new home of all other Star Alliance partners flying in and out of Cairo. The airline expects improved service delivery in the handling of arrivals, departures, and connecting passengers, many of whom come or go to Entebbe in Uganda and to the other airports served in the eastern African region by regular scheduled flights operated by Egypt Air. It was also learned that Egypt Air was eying Lusaka and Douala as new destinations, with flights expected to commence later in the year.

A forest ranger deployed at the Mt. Elgon National Park lost his life over the last weekend when a mob of agitated illegal squatters went on a rampage after they had their weapons confiscated by the park staff. Another ranger was seriously injured when he was hacked with a “panga,” a common farming implement also used as a weapon by criminals. The park has a notorious history over illegal encroachment, often covertly supported by local politicians, in direct conflict with the existing laws covering the operation of the Uganda Wildlife Authority and in other places such as the National Forest Authority. Some 500 hectares of land are claimed by the lawbreakers, but the most recent redrawing of park boundaries shows the disputed area inside the national park, not outside. The locals involved in the fracas have a history of such murderous activities from as far back as 2002 when they killed rangers in cold blood to underscore their claims. Police and other security organizations are said to be hunting for those responsible, and this column expresses condolences to the family and friends of the deceased ranger.

The Rwenzori Mountain National Park, along the border with Congo DR, was very recently declared a Ramsar site, in view of its importance as a major water catchment area of key importance for the populations living nearby the mountain range and along the Albertine Graben. This is the twelfth such site in Uganda, a remarkable achievement and evidence towards an active conservation policy of government, although some sections of the conservation fraternity will probably dispute this statement due to ongoing inconsistencies in the implementation of such conservation policies and doubtful rulings by NEMA. The new Ramsar site covers nearly 100,000 hectares of area and reaches right up to the mountain tops. Well done Uganda.

A source at the Uganda Wildlife Authority has recently confirmed that the main ferry crossing the river Nile at Paraa, Murchisons Falls National Park, has received two brand-new engines, donated by the European Union. This will be good news for users, as the reliability of the ferry crossings can now be improved and down times will be considerably reduced, permitting more crossings for tourists and transit traffic at convenient times.

A dedicated marketing blitz will unfold in Russia, Poland, and the Czech Republic next week in order to attract tourist visitors from these countries and establish the possibilities of having inclusive tour charters bring their nationals directly to the Kenya coast or even consider scheduled flights by their respective airlines to Nairobi. Kenyan Tourist Minister Najib Balala will lead the combined public-private sector delegation to underscore the importance of the mission.

An announcement was received earlier in the week that Kenya Airways will add a twice weekly flight from Nairobi to Malabo / Equatorial Guinea commencing first week of July. The ongoing network expansion to viable destinations across Africa is in line with KQ’s strategic plan to eventually cover all commercially important cities across the continent with either direct or nonstop flights from and to Nairobi. Well done KQ, truly the ‘Pride of Africa’.

It was also learned that the Seychelles will get a third weekly flight from beginning of July this year, which will make Nairobi an ideal connection point for holidays between Eastern Africa and the island nation.

While below the global average drop experienced by airlines on all continents, the 7 percent figure recently published for the African continent is nevertheless alarming for airlines, as it eats deep into their passenger base and many marginal operations in the east African region and across Africa that are now under threat for financial survival. The big airlines on the continent, notably Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines in east Africa, South African Airways, Egypt Air, and upcoming Royal Air Maroc, seem slightly better off due to their presence in global alliances and their developed hub and spoke connections via their main home airports. In contrast, point-to-point airlines, often poorly capitalized and using aged aircraft, will need all the luck and blessings they can get to survive the present downturn. Demands by ICAO on bringing African aviation into the 21st century and uplifting the below-average safety performance of African airlines, is also thought to cost more money than some airlines have available, leading to a likely further reduction in operating and duly-licensed airlines.

It was also learned that a continent-wide aviation leadership forum will take place in Nairobi later in the year, aimed at further educating the sector and bringing the latest knowledge, skills, and information to the aviation fraternity across eastern Africa.

As the rumor mill is busy at work in Kenya, speculating over the real reasons behind the sudden cancellation of the intended Delta flights from Atlanta to Nairobi a couple of weeks ago, yet more bad news has emerged from Delta’s head office. The airline intends to make deep cuts in their international schedules in the coming weeks, reaching up to 20 percent in transatlantic traffic, 15 percent across their international network, and overall, including their domestic network, at least 10 percent of all present flights.
Earlier in the year, Delta had already indicated a cut of at least 10 percent across their international network, but this has now gone up significantly – also shedding new light on their recent decision to delay their Kenya flights still further, at the time blamed on obscure Department of Homeland Security advice.

The bad vibes in Kenya and the region were further fueled when news emerged that Delta was also intent on halting their service to Cape Town in South Africa. This added credibility to the rumors that the so-called advice from Homeland Security was welcomed news for them to stop the Kenya flights before they began, as the economic crisis at home, faced yet again with rising fuel costs, made Delta postpone this venture rather than running deeper into the red on their balance sheets. Watch this space for updates.

Reports reached this correspondent from the Kenyan coast that two of the ferries connecting the Mombasa Island with the south coast, broke down again last weekend, once more causing chaos for departing and arriving tourist and the “wananchi,” a Kiswahili word for “people” who had to miss work or shopping trips into the city. New ferries are being readied in Germany and are expected to arrive in Mombasa later in the year, but meanwhile the aged ferries presently in use keep breaking down ever so often. Reportedly, two smaller ferries, normally operating on a different route, were drafted into service at the main harbor channel crossing by Kenya Ferry Services management, but it proved too little too late as the traffic jam reached for miles on both sides of the channel.
In a commendable development, however, the ferry staff reportedly identified those in the queue who had to meet their flight departure times and apparently guided them on to the ferry, bypassing other less urgent traffic. This commendable situation was, however, also according to reports from Mombasa, met with howling protests of others sitting in the queues, in particular truck drivers. There were no reports this time of tourists actually missing flights, but the bottle-neck situation will remain a constant threat to regular traffic until the new ferries have been delivered to the company in Mombasa.

For anyone interested in investing in Kenya, the process has been made easier for newcomers. Kenya Buzz, the country’s premier e-guide for events, has published a handbook on how to go about setting up a business without running into too much red tape or missing crucial steps along the way. The handbook costs 500 Kenya Shillings. For inquiries from outside Kenya, write to [email protected] or visit their website

East Africa’s main international tourism trade fair, the Karibu Tourism Trade Show in Arusha, closed its doors last week after several successful but reportedly hectic days for exhibitors and visitors. One-hundred-eight delegates at the trade forum came from 18 countries across Africa, Europe, and North America, and also from India and Pakistan. The trade show proper attracted 252 exhibitors, taking up all the available spaces, while leaving others who booked late out in the cold. By the time of closing, it was already recommended that interested parties book spaces very early for next year, when the demand is expected to be up again and when also more space will be availed to cater for growth.

Detailed reports on the trade fair and its participants are available from the organizers, and interested parties can write to [email protected] to be mailed the respective information.

Once the leading hotel in Arusha, the Mt. Meru Hotel, formerly managed under the French-owned Novotel brand, has gone into decline, compared with the newly-built or more recently refurbished and upgraded rival properties. This anomaly will, however, be corrected as the present owners have signed a US$24 million loan agreement with regional and domestic financial institutions. The funds will be used to completely refurbish and modernize the hotel, which has reportedly been closed for a while now awaiting the commencement of construction. Work should begin in earnest in the very near future and is expected to be finished by the end of 2010. At that stage, the hotel is expected to once again offer 4-star standards across their 200 suites and rooms and will offer enhanced meeting, recreational, and restaurant facilities.

News has been received that the Tanzanian operation of the regional low-cost, high-value carrier Fly540 will commence scheduled daily flights in a few weeks from Kilimanjaro International Airport, near Arusha, to the heart of the Serengeti. It was learned that the airline will use a Cessna Grand Caravan, a very reliable single-engine aircraft able to carry up to 13 passengers. As Fly540 also flies daily from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro, the onward connection into one of the world’s best-known national parks will undoubtedly add value for passengers.

A private institute was opened earlier in the week in the Grumeti reserve, after completing construction and equipping the school. The new facility will cater to post-secondary school students wishing to undertake courses in environmental topics, which will bring the entire issue of conservation and best environmental practices nearer to the communities living around major national parks and game reserves. It was learned that the courses and course content have all been sanctioned by the relevant governmental bodies, and studies are due to commence soon, once student intake has been completed.

The proposed railway link from the inland dry port of Isaka to Kigali, and eventually on to Burundi and possibly the eastern Congo, has received the apparent blessing of the combined donor community, which will support the US$3.5 billion project with grants and soft loans. It is expected that the World Bank and the African Development Bank will be major sources of funding, although the private sector, too, is anticipated to help finance this major infrastructure project, which aims to cut transport cost for imports and exports for central eastern Africa. Presently, both Rwanda and Burundi depend on road transport, and a rail link would inject a completely new perspective into these economies. Tapping into the eastern Congolese market would add yet more scope to the project and make it even more viable.

Meanwhile, discussions continue to link the Ugandan rail network into the southern Sudan, while on a wider regional basis, plans are also being studied to establish the feasibility of a new route from Kenya to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. The latter country, in particular, presently relies heavily on imports and exports via Djibouti by road, since relations with Eritrea – now in possession of the sea harbors since attaining independence from Ethiopia – have since soured. A link with Kenya would, therefore, be of strategic value besides offering another safe route for imports, exports, and passenger transportation. Watch this space for updates.

In a recent development, it was revealed that, following the installation of state-of-the-art monitoring equipment, the Rwandan authorities are set to take back control of their upper airspace, which was hitherto controlled and administered by neighboring Tanzania under a government-to-government agreement. The new facility extends some 300 nautical miles around Rwanda and is considered sufficient to serve the purpose. The development also means that Rwanda can begin to control and collect their own revenue from aircraft over-flying their airspace, as is provided for under international conventions. Previously, Rwanda only had direct control of aircraft movement under 24,000 feet – or light level 240 – while the airspace above was controlled by Tanzanian authorities. It is also understood that Burundi’s air traffic control is working under the same arrangements, whereby Tanzania is looking after the upper airspace.

While the border posts between Uganda and Rwanda have now been operating for a while around the clock, to the benefit of travelers and trade, news was received earlier in the week that the country’s borders with Burundi and the eastern Congo will also move towards an around the clock regime beginning in September of this year. For a long time, restrictive border-post opening times hampered free travel and movement of cargo across eastern Africa, but at last this now seems to be coming to an end for the benefit of all.

Last weekend saw the launch of the latest book in Kigali on Rwandan botany titled “Les Plantes Ligneuses du Rwanda,” describing details of over 800 “woody” species. Author U. Bloesch recommended the new book, during the launch, for researchers, as well as for visitors to the country to make use of it as it features the widest available descriptions of the flora of the country. Adds this correspondent: seen the book while in Kigali, and it represents excellent value as a nature guide.

A small delegation from Burundi attended the Kampala Africa–Asia Business Forum earlier in the week, where they also presented new printed material and contact details to the tourism trade from across the region, the wider continent, and the Asian participants. They are now available for answers in the English language, rather than previously only in French, with immediate effect via their main email: [email protected] or by phone via +257 22 224208.

A new and open bilateral air services agreement (BASA) was signed last weekend in Khartoum between the Republic of the Sudan and the United Arab Emirates governing air traffic between the two countries. It is understood that besides the respective Civil Aviation Authorities and governmental representatives, UAE airlines – like Emirates, Etihad, and Air Arabia – were represented at the talks. This will make travel in the future easier as capacity restrictions will no longer apply on air traffic between the two countries for either passengers or cargo. Several flights a day presently operate between Juba and Khartoum, making connections to and from the Gulf easier for travelers. However, it must be pointed out that in general, southern Sudanese travelers seem to prefer connecting via Entebbe, Nairobi, or Addis Ababa rather than flying via Khartoum, which many in the south continue to perceive as unfriendly to them.

Care and Save the Children, two globally-renowned aid organizations, were permitted last weekend by the regime in Khartoum to return to the country and begin work again in Darfur from where they were expelled in March this year as an angry reaction to the ICC issuing an arrest warrant for regime leader Bashir. It is also understood that some other aid groups have been allowed back into the Sudan albeit under slightly-changed names, arguably to save face for the regime, which incidentally reacted again with predictable anger and outright denials when this news broke in the global media.