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Wolfgang’s East Africa tourism report

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Dr. Yakobo Moyini, a past chairman of the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the immediate past chairman of the Uganda Wildlife Society (a leading conservation non-governmental organization), passed away earlier in the week after some period of illness. Yakobo spent much of his life dedicated to conservation and the cause of protecting the environment and the flora and fauna of Uganda, in particular after he had returned in the early ’90s from Canada (where he had attained his Ph. in forestry) to Uganda, his native country. As many others Yakobo had gone into exile to avoid the past dictatorships in the country, before returning home to help building the “new Uganda.” Yakobo hailed from Adjumani in Northern Uganda and was laid to rest in his ancestral land.

He was well known to this correspondent in both a personal and professional collegial capacity and his loss will be felt for a very long time to come. Rest in peace my friend!

The works contracts were signed this week between the Madhvani Group, owners and operators of the two key safari lodges in the country, and their selected contractors, to restore the Chobi Safari Lodge to its former glory. With security returning to Uganda’s North, after the LRA was expelled from Uganda in a concerted security effort nearly two years ago, more and more tourist visitors came to Murchisons Falls National Park and the previously closed gates into the park from the Northern side were reopened. Chobi was famous in the late ‘60s and ‘70s for fishing the Nile between Karuma Falls and the better known Murchisons Falls and restoring the lodge is expected not only to serve the fishing aficionados but also regular tourists wanting to visit the forested part of the park above the main falls. Road works are also going on to restore game viewing circuits, create more access points to the river and provide materials specially created for that hitherto inaccessible part of the park.

The reconstruction is going to take about one year to completion and will add much needed room capacity to the park. Packages will be available in conjunction with the group’s sister lodge Paraa, which is located overlooking the main river crossing in the heart of the park.

The other sister operation is the Mweya Safari Lodge in the heart of Queen Elizabeth National Park, arguably the most popular safari lodge in the country.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority board of trustees, incidentally headed by a corporate lawyer, has given the green light to the executive director to sign away a substantial piece of land in a mining concession to Hima Cement. The locally incorporated company is owned by Lafarge of France and early indications are that global conservation bodies and activists are now going after the French company and put not only the company, but also its executives, board members and shareholders under the spotlight. The highly controversial decision to allow Hima open quarry mining and crushing of limestone is also bound to bring Uganda’s development partners into the fray. The World Bank’s private sector lending arm, the IFC, had already indicated that they would not finance Hima/Lafarge’s plans, as in particular the World Bank itself has poured mega millions of dollars into the rehabilitation of Uganda’s protected areas and in especially into Queen Elizabeth National Park. The brewing controversy is following closely on the heels of more recent efforts to dissect the Mabira Forest and turn a quarter of the sprawling central forest reserve into a sugar cane plantation. These plans, as earlier plans to turn the Pian Upe Game Reserve into a farm/ranch, presently stand defeated, but it will only be with the help of development partners and global institutions, that conservation stands a chance to survive this latest onslaught on Uganda’s natural beauty.
One of the main issues conservationists have with the project is the noise of blasting and crushing the stone, the inevitable dust, subsequent water and landscape pollution and damage to the flora and fauna, all of which is right at the edge of a globally recognised Ramsar site. Uganda is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention and other global treaties to protect biodiversity and nature, and in fact hosted not long ago a global Ramsar meeting, in which verbal commitments were made towards conservation and protection, which now sound hollow and unreal.

Tourism to Uganda is largely wildlife and nature based and has suffered of the Ebola scare in late 2007, now formally declared over by WHO and health ministry officials, before being further affected by the present Kenyan situation, which has a severe impact on tourism across the Eastern African region.

The company has meanwhile decided to avoid loans from major banking consortia, including the World Bank’s IFC, ostensibly to avoid the environmental demands coming with the loan packages, and has vowed to use internal funding for the project. The company has also given vague assurances as to mitigating measures to be employed for the project, but this latter point has met with both stony silence as well as derision from conservation groups, tourism stakeholders and sections of civil society. Watch this space as the saga continues.

Misguided stakeholders, speak disgruntled individuals pretending to speak for a wider constituency in the Kisoro area of Uganda have belatedly expressed their concerns over the contract UWA has entered into with the Nkuringo community, granting them concession rights and guaranteed gorilla tracking permits for a group habituated in the immediate neighbourhood of their villages and homesteads.

A process which started way back in 2003/4 saw a commendable effort being made by Uganda Wildlife Authority to engage with and benefit communities surrounding national parks, here in particular the Western side of Bwindi National Park, only accessible by road via Kisoro to Nkuringo. The area is gifted by both habituated and non habituated gorillas and a separate forest nearby is home to chimpanzees, a unique combination for primate tourism. UWA at the time engaged the community, together with the AWF and finally reached a ground breaking agreement, granting the community, through a cooperative type development association, a licence to market the tracking permits and have an upmarket eco lodge built on their land, catering for tourists.

After a sustained open bidding process, in which such companies as Serena Hotels endlessly dragged their feet over this golden opportunity, Wild Places Africa / The Uganda Safari Company won the tender by offering the best package for the community. This involves a royalty agreement and job creation for “real locals,” where the company has already excelled in their other safari properties in Kidepo National Park and the Semliki Game Reserve. It was the winning combination of these proposals cum an impressive lodge design, which impressed the tender committee at the time and won Wild Places the concession.

Building of ‘Clouds’ – incidentally mentioned before in this column, has now commenced and up to 10 stone cottages are nearing completion on the site, which is located in one of the most scenic parts of Uganda. Barbs therefore for the envious objectors and bouquets for Wild Places to add another key attraction to the tourist circuit in Uganda, incorporating “green principles” as well as giving direct benefits to the people of Nkuringo.

In spite of assurances, and press reports to the contrary and apparently owing to “a more important bill takin g up our time,” to quote a senior member of parliament, the long overdue tourism bill was last week still stuck in the hearing process. Some 10 chapters had been addressed by parliament, but the remaining balance of the bill’s chapters was still due for the full process in the house. This development, once it became public knowledge, disappointed and angered the tourism private sector to no end, causing emotional outbursts by some stakeholders known for such, and others saying “government has no visible interest in tourism” while yet more complained that “government has absolutely no idea about the tourism sector at all.”

Other more level headed individuals however went on to lobby parliamentarians and once again explained the urgency to have the bill passed. These efforts, especially towards select influential members of parliament, finally seems to have done the trick as the bill was then eventually passed on Tuesday afternoon and is now only awaiting assent by the President to make it the law of the land for the tourism sector. A regulatory framework has also been prepared and is expected to be promulgated by the minister in due course. The new law has also repealed the Hotels Act of 1964, the Tourist Agents Licensing Act of 1968 and the Uganda Tourist Board Statute of 1994, now providing for one comprehensive piece of legislation for the entire sector.

The award winning lodge in Mabira Forest has of late become a focal point for mid week and weekend trips by prominent Kampaleans as not only a luxurious getaway but also, as confirmed by many guests staying there, to demonstrate solidarity with the ‘Save Mabira Movement,’ which has successfully stood up against government’s ludicrous plans to dissect the forest and turn a large portion into a sugar cane plantation. It is believed that the commercial success of the lodge will undoubtedly add weight to the argument that more is to be gained by keeping the forest intact for tourism and conservation purposes than giving it away for free to a greedy sugar baron, whose sugar factories are amongst the least productive in the entire country.

However, in a recent Uganda Wildlife Society annual general meeting more reports emerged on a continuous assault on Uganda’s protected areas for commercial and industrial purposes. The society vowed to strongly oppose such attempts to encroach on national parks, reserves and forests for short-sighted commercial gains, when in the long run tourism and conservation, including the upcoming carbon trading, may yield a multiple in financial terms for the country. Prof. Derek Pomeroy was re-elected Chairman of the Board of Trustees of UWS for a second and final term of office.

Over 2,500 youth leaders from across the African and Arab countries will assemble in Kampala between March 07 and 14 to hold a cultural and youth issues summit at the lakeside resort of Munyonyo. Some 18 presidents and prime ministers have also confirmed attendance of this ground breaking meeting.

The Dutch government has given a grant of 4 million euros for gorilla conservation projects across the region, involving Uganda, Rwanda and Congo DR. The International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) is closely involved in the project, which also includes the Uganda Wildlife Authority, Rwanda’s ORTPN and Congo’s wildlife management body. The endangered mountain gorillas are found in all the three countries along their respective national parks straddling the frontiers across the border triangle. Gorilla tracking is a major tourism activity in Rwanda and Uganda, but Congo has been falling short of the achievements and standards of the other two countries, as they continue to struggle with security in the area’s national parks, poaching of the prized animals and almost total indifference, in fact what often appears as contempt, towards wildlife conservation by their regime in Kinshasa.

It has emerged in recent days, that the Ugandan rebel and terror gang headed by one Joseph Kony, wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, has began leave their hideout in the park and is now moving towards the Central African Republic, giving hope that the park will soon come under formal park authority administration again. It was in this park where the last remnants of the Northern White Rhino were found some years ago, which were then wiped out by the Congo regime’s own intransigence and callous attitude towards wildlife conservation and the heavy poaching by the rebels of the entire rhino population (now thought to be extinct), elephant and other species.

Congo has been sitting on the fence in regard of the rebel group’s continued presence on its territory, as it has incidentally done in regard of the Hutu militias, which found safe haven after committing the 1994 Rwanda genocide before running to safety in Congo.
The LRA was due to assemble at designated points under the “cessation of hostilities” agreement signed with the Uganda government, while engaged in “peace talks” in the Southern Sudanese capital city of Juba, but this now seems less likely to be done by the rebels. The talks have also been dragging on with rebel representatives being changed at will by Kony or – as in the case of his deputy Otti – being killed by his goons. Both the Ugandan armed forces (UPDF) and the Southern Sudanese SPLA have taken all possible precautions to avoid the rebels re-infiltrate sections of Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda, while covert support seems to once again reach the rebels from the Khartoum government, which has long actively fuelled this conflict to divert attention from their own criminal conduct, first in the South of the Sudan and now continuing in Darfur.

It was learned just a fraction too late for last week’s column, that Kenya Airways commercial director Hugh Fraser will be leaving the airline, as will his colleague Neil Canty, holding the portfolio of finance director. In particular, Hugh was enormously instrumental in the team supporting and surrounding CEO Titus Naikuni, to build Kenya Airways into the success story it was prior to the opposition inspired post election violence, which hit Kenya on a broad basis and ripped the carpet – speak business – from underneath the feet of many leading companies including KQ. Recent reports filed in this column already spoke of the problems the airline was encountering in particular on the European routes and routes in and out of Mombasa. Staff have been asked to take paid leave (for the time being), although no formal lay offs are presently underway. A strict cost saving and cost reduction programme is presently being finalised and implemented to keep Kenya’s national airline financially balanced, until the recovery of the tourism sector goes underway and passenger numbers return to normality. However, it is sadly noted that this recovery will apparently be without Hugh, whom this correspondent wishes the very best in the future.

It is also noted that other senior staff had left the airline over the past few months, probably making way for a major top management shake up and organizational revision, including creating the position of chief operating officer (COO). Kenya Airways CEO Titus Naikuni’s position is reportedly however not under review as he continues to enjoy the ongoing confidence of key shareholders like Air France/KLM and the Kenya Government.

The airline has been struggling before the Kenya post election violence started affecting the passenger and cargo performance, with a huge network and fleet expansion and related problems, but was reported to be on the way to getting things on the straight and narrow once again before the current crisis began to depress the financial results and drove the share price to sharply lower levels.

Hot on the heels of these changes come further news that the airline suspended the Paris route for the time being, owing to a sharp drop in passenger numbers. Passengers already booked will now connect to Paris via Amsterdam, where the onward flight is operated in code share with KLM or via London, where the onward codeshared flight is operated by Air France. The route may be restored at a later date, once demand levels have risen sufficiently again to justify the service.

France’s anti travel advisory has been particularly aggressive, warning off would be travellers with grave language, but this may change in view of a political agreement coming nearer and the situation in Kenya in general stabilising in recent days, after the opposition goons apparently got the message from their puppetmasters to stop the unwarranted attacks on fellow Kenyans. Germany, Italy and the UK already lifted their anti travel advice which will be a welcome boost to restore tourism arrival from these countries to their per-election levels.

The just concluded visit by President Bush to Rwanda – and Tanzania, for that matter – is expected to boost tourism arrivals in coming months due to the excellent press coverage received during the state visit. Rwanda has been hailed as a model nation, recovering from the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi ethnic community and moderate Hutus in 1994 by hardline Hutu militias, spurred on by incitement from politicians, many of whom have now been jailed or are facing trials in Rwanda and at the Arusha special court set up by the UN. The present government led by President Paul Kagame has turned the economy around and supported tourism to the hilt, while also excelling in fighting corruption and meeting democratic benchmarks.

While in East Africa, President Bush demanded an end to the violence in Kenya and a swift political settlement, having dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Nairobi in support of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s initiative for an early agreement between the two protagonists. He demanded in even sharper terms an end to the violence in Darfur, where the US is engaged with massive food aid for the starving population, displaced from their land by Khartoum sponsored militias as well as direct military action by a ruthless government. President Bush also visited the Genocide Memorial in Rwanda and, with his wife Laura, paid respects to the over 800.000 innocent victims of ethnic slaughter.

While in Kigali President Bush also formally commissioned the newly built American Embassy.

Rwanda’s ORTPN will be present at the forthcoming ITB once again and will be happy to meet tourism trade visitors to showcase the “land of a thousand hills.”

There were, however, disgruntled undercurrents about the security regulations ostensibly imposed by US agencies, and several tourism stakeholders complained about airport and road closures impacting on their day to day business, delaying clients arrivals and departures in and out of Arusha and subsequently also in and out of Kigali. Said one operator from Arusha: ‘it was nice of sorts to have them here and get global coverage, but thank God they are gone again, not to imagine they had been around for a week and what this would have done to our businesses and day to day life’.

As reported in this column some time ago, Rwanda was also seeking to develop an alternate route for its imports, probably hastened by the present Kenya crisis, which seriously affected imports and exports for this land locked East African hinterland nation. Progress has now been made in the various stages of preparation to eventually link Kigali with the Tanzanian inland dry port of Isaka, from where the railway would continue to the Indian Ocean seaport of Dar es Salaam. Construction of the railway link is expected to commence later this year and will take approximately five years to complete.

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