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African and world leaders expressed their condolences upon the passing of President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia, who died earlier in the week in Paris. He had suffered a stroke during the African Union summit in Sharm el Sheikh some weeks ago and was airlifted from Egypt to Paris for treatment. The late President Mwanawasa was hailed by amongst others President Bush for his relentless fight against corruption but more recently also about his outspoken criticism of Mr. Mugabe for stealing the elections in Zimbabwe and for the violence unleashed against the Zimbabwean people by his goon squads.

Zambia has in recent years firmly established a reputation as a leading African adventure and wildlife tourism destination with the Victoria Falls of the Zambezi River arguably the best known attraction. National mourning is now underway in Zambia for a week but tourist visitors are able to conduct their safaris without any hindrance or problems, it has been pointed out to this correspondent by contacts in Lusaka.

A special summit of the African Union was called for March 2009 and Kampala has been selected as the venue for the continental meeting. It is understood that the African heads of state and government will deal with the growing crisis in Africa over displaced people and raging conflicts, which has brought misery to millions of innocent young, adult and aged persons. UNHCR reports attribute over 1.5 million refugees and well over 4 million internally displaced people to Eastern Africa alone. The Entebbe – Kampala sector hotels and conference venues expect to be fully booked during the still to be confirmed final dates of the summit and would be visitors to Uganda in March next year do well to get early confirmations from their selected hotels and book their flights with airlines of their choice, as there too the fully booked signs are expected to go up soon.

This latest major conference coming to Kampala is thought to be a direct result of the job well done in preparing and hosting CHOGM last year, proving eternal critics of the major investments undertaken by government and the private sector in infrastructure and hospitality businesses once again wrong.

Information received last week indicates that the hotel has in the run up of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) already spent US$27 million in rehabilitations, remodeling and refurbishments. It was now confirmed by the General Manager Jawaid Akhtar that a further US$10 million will be spent in the coming year to ensure the hotel retains its top level ranking in the country. The UAE based owning company Midroc, which also owns the Sheraton hotels in Addis Ababa and Djibouti as well as resorts and hotels elsewhere, has apparently approved the expenditure and availed the funds. Part of the work expected to be done will be a remodeling of the ‘Lion Centre’ set in the gardens of the hotel as a conference and function venue cum restaurant.

During the last week some contradictory reports emerged in the local media over the level of opposition or support to oil exploration and the construction of a mini refinery and thermal power plant in the Kaiso-Tonya wildlife reserve, which adjoins the Murchisons Falls National Park. What is clear is that public consultations were held and many submissions were made during the consultations in Hoima and also directly to NEMA about the plans. It is also clear that a full environmental impact assessment will soon go underway. Some conservation bodies asked to widen the EIA scope to include the entire Albertine Rift area to create a better understanding for the impact of the ongoing drilling, exploration and eventual production and processing of crude oil. Adds this correspondent: ‘as long as global best practise is employed by the oil companies, and sustainably ensured and transparently monitored, Uganda has no choice but to exploit these resources in the interest of developing the nation. Oil companies involved in drilling, exploration, production and processing must however make lasting contributions towards the conservation of wildlife and towards the protection ob biodiversity in the Albertine Rift to allow not only for the use of the new oil resource but also the long term protection of wildlife and nature based tourism. Business, conservation and tourism need to learn to coexist and show mutual respect for each other in the national interest. That does include foregoing quick fix solutions and carefully balancing the pro’s and con’s in each and every case’.

A meeting between the representatives of the two governments took place earlier in the week, discussing the joint infrastructure project. The existing railway heads at Gulu and Pakwach are to be linked by a new railway line initially to Juba, Southern Sudan’s capital, and then on to Wau, a town further North but still within the Southern Sudan’s territory. The project has been on the drawing board for some time now and will, once complete, offer a strategically important rail link for the South Sudan to the Indian Ocean ports of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, allowing for imports and exports through friendly countries and avoiding transiting the rather more hostile Arabic North of the Sudan. A referendum on the future of the Southern Sudan, presently an autonomous region with its own government structure under the CPA – Comprehensive Peace Agreement – of 2005, will be held in 2011, deciding if the South will become independent or remain, possibly with an even stronger status, within a united Sudan.

Sad news have reached that, as repeatedly reported in this column in past months over the pending dispute about gorilla tracking permits linked to the Nkuringo Community Development Trust Fund, Uganda Wildlife Authority has now been taken to court. The aim of the suit is to overturn a contract signed with the NCDTF, which is supported by USAID and the African Wildlife Foundation. The Uganda Wildlife Authority has so far stood firm in the face of thinly concealed intimidation, political lobbying and a foul mouthing campaign against the promoters of the deal by those opposed to the signed contracts for their own motives. It speaks volumes about the mindset of the plaintiffs that they waited for the new ‘Clouds’ eco lodge to near completion and open its doors, after an investment of over US$1.2 million was sank into the project, before they went to court. Such actions, according to a leading investor in the safari lodge sector also at times in the crosshairs of the same agitators, may make it more difficult in the future to attract funds for investments in new lodges and resorts, if anyone could then go to court and attempt to carve out a ‘piece of the cake’.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority has according to usually well-informed sources already filed their defense in the High Court and stands firmly by the contract. Once the case reaches the hearing stages this column will report further developments.

Information was received from Kenya that the construction of a terminal / office building and a bituminized landing strip will go underway soon just outside Nakuru. The construction should be completed within the next two years. Although there is a small airstrip inside Nakuru national park the new facility should allow for larger light and turboprop aircraft to land near the park and cater for more tourist visitors to arrive by air from other parts of the country. Air safaris across the Eastern African national parks and game reserves have gained in popularity in recent years as it substantially cuts the time tourists spend on the road and hugely increases the time visitors can actually spend in the game parks watching wildlife.

As was reported previously in this column, the expansion of Kisumu airport has taken a serious knock on the time table following sections of the surrounding community continuing to demand some financial compensation from the Kenya Airports Authority. The land in question was allotted in the twilight days of colonialism to build the airport and the handful of people living there or nearby were resettled at the time. However, the enormous demands now vented by the descendents and few originally affected people have spiraled beyond the billion Kenya Shilling mark, supported and egged on by ‘community and clan leaders.’ While KAA seems willing to make some payments the sheer magnitude of the demands may still put the proverbial spanner in the works and this important infrastructural project is now hanging by a thread. Watch this space.

The association of the safari drivers and guides has protested sharply over delays in completing one of the major roads into the Masai Mara Game Reserve by an Italian contractor, mirroring the Ugandan experience with an Italian firm over the completion of the Northern bypass. Drivers and tourists suffer from often impassable or very difficult to drive on roads in and out of the reserve, where the annual migration of the wildebeest from the Serengeti into the Masai Mara can be seen every year around this time. Major roads and tracks inside the reserve too are said to be in a bad state and after heavy rains often impassable, as seen early in the year. While those who can afford it now rather fly into the parks and reserves and use lodge or camp based transportation and their local guides, the road safari segment is nevertheless still the largest in the safari sector and needs decent roads connecting the key parks on the safari circuit.

As indicated some time ago in this column, it has now finally been confirmed that Air Tanzania will indeed invite a Chinese airline to acquire 49 percent of their shares and inject much needed extra capital into the Tanzanian national airline. According to further information available, the China Development Bank will make loans available for the purchase of additional new planes in coming months, probably of both Airbus and Boeing make, to allow the airline resume traffic on international, continental and regional routes which it could not serve due to lack of suitable aircraft. The airline already operates a recently acquired A320 and two recently acquired Q300, with two Q400 turboprop aircraft due to join the fleet in 2009. While this development means good news for Air Tanzania and Tanzanians and the country in general other airlines in the region will have to take a hard look at their own business strategies, in particular smaller one or two plane and upstart airlines, to be ready when Air Tanzania will eventually unleash quality competition on them.

A family owned airline has now reportedly started operations from Dar es Salaam with a Boeing 737-200, not the best of credentials these days for an upstart company, as this type of aircraft – while cheap to lease or buy – burns substantially more fuel compared to more modern jets and is more expensive to maintain. The aircraft is reportedly fitted with 14 business class and 96 economy class seats, again considered large for the Nairobi route they intend to fly regularly on scheduled services. The aircraft will also be available for charters according to the promoters. The airline headquarters will be based at the international airport in Dar es Salaam. Best of luck to the newcomers, safe landings and time will tell just how well they will eventually do.

An apparently privately owned Tanzanian ferry ship sank with about 250 tons of cargo but luckily no loss of live, as the ship went down near Bukasa Island. Ugandan fishermen and an emergency response team dispatched from the Entebbe pier, after the news of the accident reached the shores rescued all 15 crew and passengers on board of the vessel, which was en-route from Mwanza to Port Bell. Demands for a more comprehensive search and rescue capacity between the three countries bordering the lake however re-emerged promptly, as calls also grew louder to crack down on the overloading of vessels and lack of ship inspections which are to ensure safety equipment is on board, is working and the crew is trained to respond to emergencies of this kind. Demands for better regulation, oversight and enforcement of existing rules were also voiced in the Ugandan parliament after the story reached the legislators.

Last week parliament in Kigali was dissolved by President Paul Kagame at the end of its elected term. A general election for parliament is now taking place on 15th of September this year. This will be another milestone in the process of growing deeper roots for democracy in Rwanda, which has risen like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of the 1994 genocide under the leadership of the RPF. Presidential elections are however not due for some more years.

The Rwanda Investment and Export Promotion Agency this week announced that a major Chinese firm had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Kigali City Council to acquire and develop 2 hectares of prime land around the ‘Jali Club’ and Rwanda Television. The Chinese are said to be investing some 40 million US Dollars into the project. Rwanda – China relations have strengthened since the China – Africa Summit earlier in the year and investments by Chinese companies are on the rise, not just in Rwanda but the region and the continent at large.

The recent budget in Burundi has seen the tax burden for hotels and restaurants increased to a whopping 22 percent, a measure the fledgling Burundi tourism sector says will cripple their efforts to promote the country as a destination due to the high cost on visitors. This constitutes an increase of 5 percent and does not include provision for service charge or any type of a levy for the promotion of tourism or support for hospitality training yet. After peace returned to the country following the agreement by the former government and rebel groups, Burundi is now emerging from the political and economic doldrums and has become an integral part of the East African Community.

The South African national airline has resumed the continental top ranking according to the findings of Skytrax, when the latest annual best airline details were released last week. The position had in past years changed hands between KQ and SAA at regular intervals, spurring service improvement at both airlines to recapture the ‘lost’ position the following year. Ethiopian Airlines this year came second and KQ slipped to third most favorite airline in Africa but remains the firm favorite in the East African region.

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