Thousands of people across the globe have come together protesting against the potential building of a controversial cable car on Mount Kilimanjaro, a World’s Heritage Site.
In March 2019 Tanzania’s deputy Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Constantine Kanyasu announced plans to install a cable car on Africa’s highest mountain, as a strategy to attract more visitors and boost tourism numbers.
The cable car would be aimed primarily at facilitating visits among older tourists, who may not physically fit enough to climb the mountain, which, at its peak, stands 5,895 meters tall.
Instead of the familiar views of snow and ice, this cable car would offer a day trip safari with a bird’s eye view, contrary to the eight-day hiking trip.
But reaction has been swift, with an online petition against the project on the key World heritage site, attracting nearly 400,000 protesters around the World who ask the Tanzania to keep Mount Kilimanjaro ‘cable car-free’.
Online petition points out the economic impact to about 250,000 local porters who rely on tourism activities on Mount Kilimanjaro alone, for their livelihood.
Kilimanjaro is one of Tanzania’s major tourist attractions, drawing 50,000 climbers and earning the country $55 million annually.
“The introduction of a cable car on the Mountain, that would no longer require the assistance of porters, would destroy this source of income” writes Mark Gale, who launched the petition on Change.org.
Gale also points out that the oldest person to hike Kilimanjaro was 86 years old and says that the mountain is well within the capabilities of “older” visitors.
“I climbed last month at 53 years old and it was an amazing experience putting one foot in front of the other and living on the mountain, there is no thrill in taking a taxi to the top of a mountain” Mr Gale noted.
Tanzania Association of Tour Operators (TATO) CEO, Sirili Akko, said he thinks there is a need to commission a study which would guide the government on opportunity cost of missing out specific market niche it is targeting for cable car – elders and disabled – against irreparable environmental damage and negative publicity.
The proposed cable car service “will be rolled out along the Machame Route where the ascent will start and end,” according to Beatrice Mchome from Crescent Environmental Management Consult, and who is leading a team of experts in conducting the environmental and social impact assessment.
The Machame route, also known as the Whiskey Route, is the most popular for its scenic beauty. However, the trail is considered difficult, steep and challenging, particularly due to its shorter itinerary (five to six days for those seeking to reach the summit).
This route is better suited for more adventurous climbers or those with some high altitude, hiking or backpacking experience.
Ms Mchome told tour operators in Arusha that the cable car, when eventually built would operate 25 cable cars capable of carrying 150 passengers at a go to the Shira Plateau, nearly 3,000 meters above sea level.
The cable car service is to be built and operated by a private US company, which has in turn registered a local firm, AVAN Kilimanjaro.
Edson Mpemba, chairperson of the porters’ society, lamented that if built, “most of the tourists will definitely choose the cable car to reduce costs and length of stay,” affecting the general tourism associated with Kilimanjaro.
He also wondered why decision-makers are overlooking the interests of the quarter million unskilled labor force that depends on the mountain for a living.
“Think of the ripple effect on families of the 250,000 porters,” he said, cautioning that, “the cable car facility will initially look like a noble and innovative idea, but it will, in the long run, ruin the lives and future of the majority of local people whose livelihoods depend on the mountain.”
The executive secretary of the Tanzania Porters Organization, Loshiye Mollel, expressed fears that the project will render the 250,000 porters destitute and could force them into lives of crime.
The chief park warden with KINAPA, Betty Looibok, however says that the construction of the cable car will depend on the outcome of the environmental and social impact assessment currently in progress.
“The cable car is for physically challenged persons, children and old tourists who want to experience the thrill of climbing Mt Kilimanjaro up to Shira Plateau without wishing to reach the summit,” she explained.
While Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Dr Hamis Kigwangalla believes that the cable car service will bring in more tourists who ordinarily would not choose to climb the mountain, Mr Mpemba sees a loss of jobs for the porters and lower earnings for the government from fewer stays as tourists arrive, zoom up and down the mountain, and leave, killing the very essence of mountain climbing as a tourism experience and denying porters a livelihood.
Some people argue that cable cars in the wild are in use in other parts of the world such as Switzerland and the US. But there is an environmental cost to building cable cars.
First, trees and vegetation have to be cleared to create the cable line route causing adverse environmental impacts, as does erecting huge pylons and towers and stations that destroy the flora, which take years to recover, if at all.
Merwyn Nunes, a former civil servant in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism and the founding chairman of the Tanzania Association of Tour Operators (TATO), says the project also negates Section 58(2) of the 2008 Tanzania Tourism Act No 11 which states that mountain climbing or trekking activity is strictly for companies fully owned by Tanzanians.
A seasoned tour guide, Victor Manyanga, cautions that the cable car service will promote mass tourism, contrary to Tanzania’s tourism policy and at the expense of Mount Kilimanjaro’s ecology.
“The Machame itinerary along which the cable car will be constructed is the birds’ migratory route, and electric wires will definitely harm them,” he said.
Sam Diah, another tour operator, wondered why Tanapa had awarded a foreign company the project without adhering to the country’s public procurement laws.
Tour operators are also worried about the safety of the 150 cable cars passengers in case of an accident, as rescue helicopters carry only four casualties at a time.