AVIATION, TOURISM AND CONSERVATION NEWS from Eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean islands.
A weekly roundup of breaking news, reports, travel stories and opinions by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang H. Thome
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Fourth edition June 2013
East Africa News
EMIRATES TAKES COVETED ‘WORLD’S BEST AIRLINE’ SKYTRAX AWARD AT PARIS AIRSHOW
(Posted 19th June 2013)
Emirates’ media team was quick out of the blocks to capitalize on the airline bagging the most coveted of Skytrax awards, the one for ‘World’s Best Airline’ at the Paris Airshow yesterday, where a grand award ceremony was held. Skytrax is the measure of all things in the award industry, as in this case over 18 million passengers cast their votes, among them frequent flyers who really have seen it all and know what quality and service, in their books, looks like.
Additionally did Emirates also scoop the title for ‘Best Airline Middle East’ and for ‘Best Inflight Entertainment’, the latter one for the 9th year in a row.
When writing about Emirates I often refer to the airline as ‘awardwinning’, a phrase which apparently rattles a certain breed of readers, prompting them to comment ‘oh enough already’ or ‘what do they pay you to say that’ or ‘WE also won awards’. To the latter I can only say that until and unless your media and PR team wakes up and makes hay out of what you win, don’t bother to complain, and to the former, here is the living proof that Emirates is indeed entitled to be called ‘the award winning national airline of Dubai’
President Tim Clark was at hand in Paris to receive the award trophies, and used the opportunity to state: ‘Being honoured with these awards is testament to our unrelenting effort to be the world’s best airline’ said Tim Clark. ‘We are constantly striving to offer our customers consistent, world-class service that extends from the moment they make their booking to the moment they arrive home at the end of their journey. These awards are widely regarded as the industry’s benchmark for excellence. For us, the awards clearly reflect a vote of confidence from global travellers, who acknowledge and appreciate our continuous drive to deliver high-quality service. To be voted ‘World’s Best Airline’ by millions of discerning travellers really is something for our 60,000 strong workforce to be proud of’.
Emirates flies daily from Dubai to Entebbe, and double daily from Dubai to Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, holding a significant market share in all three East African markets. Regular promotions keep the airline in the sights of travel agents and individual clients, like the current summer promotion where packages offering excellent value for money are available for those daring to endure the hottest time in the city which never sleeps, which grows every day and which offers the largest of almost everything there has even been built or invented around the globe, Dubai. Congratulations to the entire Emirates Team and for those doubting Thomases I described before, Hello Tomorrow, Go Fly and experience it!
TOURISM STAKEHOLDERS EXPRESS DISMAY OVER KAMPALA TROUBLES
(Posted 22nd June 2013)
Some of the Ugandan tourism stakeholders presently in Rwanda for the annual Kwita Izina Festival of the Gorillas, have left no doubt about their frustration over the international media picking up about the clashes in Kampala over the past days, which in the words of one ‘… put our country in a very bad light abroad’. There was consensus that while the Uganda Police has a duty to maintain law and order, their methods, and worse, their methods employed in front of live cameras by the world media, were highly questionable and bound to impact on the hard work of the tourism industry to portray Uganda as a country worth visiting. ‘We cannot have pictures on the main global news channels with tear gas clouds engulfing the city of Kampala. This is where the tourists come first and from where they leave. Remember the negative publicity we got when a security operative was seen some time ago to smash the windows of Besigye’s car with a gun butt and then empty several teargas canisters into the car. Now a teargas canister is thrown into the car of the Mayor of Kampala in front of cameras again.
Our life is made very miserable here. First do we not get any money for tourism marketing in the budget. Let’s not be fooled, what they gave tourism is an insult and not worth to be called money when one compares with Rwanda here. Second, after already crippling our tourism marketing, now they unleash such scenes on to the global media again and how shall we counter that without a good publicity budget. This government still thinks tourism is just happening, is a boundless resource for them. If they don’t wake up they will find out that you cannot milk the cow unless you feed her or otherwise the cow will collapse’ said another, wary to have a name published for fear of repercussions. A third Kampalean then added: ‘When people book to attend a conference in Kampala, they look up all events in our city on the internet. Therefore you can no longer hide such situations. When things look bad in a city, visitors may decide to stay away to avoid trouble. There are growing issues with travel insurance for tourists and when their foreign ministries give travel advice to avoid certain places, such insurance can just invalidate if they still come after being told to stay away. I know, tourists have not been involved in such incidents but we tour operators take them to the markets to shop and see what life in Uganda is like. During days like this we must keep them in their hotels and if they paid for the excursion they must get their money back. What I hope for is that situations like these are handled more carefully and that police and security is more sensitive. Let them avoid to be seen dishing out brutality on foreign TV. It gives Uganda a bad reputation and shows us in a bad light. People can come to Kenya or Rwanda and give us a pass if they fear for their safety’.
Other comments received since the budget reading also focused on the statistics government presents as tourist arrivals, when in the words of one regular source: ‘…arrivals is not the same as tourists. Most of our arrivals are by road from Kenya or Rwanda or South Sudan. Those we do not count as proper tourists. We talk of tourists when people come for the sole purpose of a vacation, a safari holiday. Then there are conference participants who also take tours before or after their conference. And then there are visiting friends and relatives who are taken to the parks by their hosts. Those we consider tourists but most coming from Kenya come for some sort of trading but not to be tourists like we understand it. Therefore, overall arrivals figures which include our land borders together with Entebbe should not be publicly announced as tourists. Real tourist numbers are much much lower. Increased mobility within the East African Community for trade and business should not be used as the argument that we now have a million tourists coming to Uganda. Our friends at UTB know that very well so can we please have proper statistics of tourist arrivals in a separate column? Then the picture will look very different and to boost that number we need a lot more funding for marketing Uganda. I am impressed how Rwanda has focus and works together to promote events like the Kwita Izina week. They are a smaller country but very well organized when it comes to tourism and their government gives them money whereas our government gives us words’.
Negative publicity has also spread in overseas media about the massive loss of forest cover in Uganda and the unresolved issue of Mabira, which is still looming large, has also not helped to project Uganda as a country firmly committed to conservation, when just too many examples suggest otherwise. Shrinking wetlands have had a significant impact on the number of migratory birds coming to rest in Uganda before flying on, a fact affirmed by data supplied from among others Nature Uganda or the records of the bird guides regularly undertaking counts.
Instead of having the wind in the sails to propel the sector forward it now seems that the tourism industry has a stiff breeze blowing into their combined faces and it can only be hoped that a more positive and enabling business environment for the sector can heal the bruises and allow the tourism industry the growth it is otherwise capable of. Considering that these events are taking place only days after similar negative publicity hit the city of Arusha, aka Safari Capital of East Africa, it seems that the fears of Ugandan tourism stakeholders are not entirely unfounded. Watch this space for more updates as and when available.
MOUNT KENYA WILDLIFE ESTATE GETS READY TO SHOWCASE FIRST COMPLETE HOME
(Posted 20th June 2013)
Ol Pejeta is arguably Kenya’s most complete and easiest to access wildlife conservancy, where game and cattle live side by side on the sprawling 90.000+ acres estate. Home to the highest concentration of the Eastern Black Rhino in the entire East Africa and an almost as large population of the Southern White Rhino, it is also the only place on earth where the rarest of the rare, the Northern White Rhino can still be found in the wild. A dedicated chimpanzee sanctuary, also the only one in Kenya, rounds up the visitor experience of being able to see rare game, or game in fact not found anywhere else in the wild in the country.
Several upmarket lodges and camps, like Serena’s Sweetwater Safari Camp, Ol Pejeta House, Porini’s Rhino Camp or the Kicheche Camp, offer guests first class hospitality, while the conservancy’s own self catering units, especially the Pelican House, offers guests all the required amenities to enjoy an almost homely stay, cook their own meals and yet not break the bank. Camping too is possible on the conservancy, thus giving accommodation options for those travelling on shoe string budgets but also those who fly in by charter to the main airfield in Nanyuki, or the conservancy’s own airstrip and then pay top dollars for a pampered 5 star experience.
The addition a few months ago of the Morani’s Restaurant, where breakfast and lunch are available for day visitors has closed the remaining gap in providing a visitor experience second to none. Located less than three hours drive from the capital Nairobi, Ol Pejeta has in recent years become a favourite destination for locals and expatriates but has also seen a steady rise in arrivals by tourists from overseas, who can enjoy conventional game drives in 4×4’s but also walks, night game drives and even adventure activities, offered by Rift Valley Adventures.
Two years ago did news emerge that the conservancy would be setting aside some 1.000 acres of peripheral land, bordering the boundaries of the estate towards the town of Nanyuki, to set up an exclusive residential estate, which would allow living with wildlife. The first of the homes is now ready and can be viewed by prospective buyers, though nearly 80 percent of the proposed 66 villas have already been bought. Of the first 31 homes only one is still available and of the second 35 units, which will be constructed soon after completing phase one, 22 have already been sold, three have been reserved and only 10 remain open for sale. Starting this weekend will Ol Pejeta arrange for viewing of the completed sample house and is open for potential buyers between 22nd and 30th of June.
Set against the backdrop of Mt. Kenya on one side of the property, which dominates the skyline to the East of the property and the Aberdare Mountains to the South West side of the property, the Mt. Kenya Wildlife Estate at Ol Pejeta will be a first of its kind in Kenya, and in fact in East Africa, where one can actually live in a secure residential gated community environment and yet have the conservancy’s wildlife close up and personal.
All possible care has been taken to meet stringent environmental guidelines, and as a result no individual swimmingpools have been allowed in order to conserve the precious water, though a communal pool and some attached changing rooms and a pool bar are available for estate residents. The use of solar power has been integrated into the building design, reducing reliance on mains power supply.
Fancy living in a place where one is literally on safari all day and all night, with game wandering about outside the balcony? Here is an opportunity for those interested which should not be missed, for when the remaining homes are sold at 33.000.000 Kenya Shillings, the Mount Kenya Wildlife Estate will be a closed community.
KTF SPEAKS OUT ON ATTEMPT TO ROB KENYA’S TOURISM SECTOR THROUGH BUDGET CUTS
The Chairperson of the Kenya Tourism Federation, Mrs. Lucy Karume, too wasted no time to go on record and condemn the attempts by the parliamentary budget and appropriations committee to rob the tourism sector blind by diverting half the allotted budget to other, non tourism related purposes.
The Chairman of the Mombasa and Coast Tourism Association, seasoned hotelier Mohammed Hersi, too let fly on his Twitter time line earlier today, all but calling the MP’s responsible imbeciles, a word however used by other stakeholders on open TL or in email exchanges seen.
KTF’s CEO Agatha Juma has just sent out a strongly worded statement by the KTF Chair, which is taking the battle right back to parliament, and promises to leave no stone unturned until this lunacy has been halted.
The tourism sector is appalled by reports indicating that Kshs.2 billion has been slashed from
the tourism budget to be used to pay teachers allowances and in effect to forestall a strike.
This is a dangerous move and will have severe adverse effects on the economy in the short,
medium and long term. The tourism sector is struggling to recover from the down turn it
experienced from mid last year till now; this was caused by overseas operators shying away
from marketing Kenya as a preferred tourism destination because of the general elections
which were held on March 4th.
While there has been optimism in the sector, there have been repeated calls for
Government to engage in a serious Tourism Market Recovery Program even as private
stakeholders invest more resources in marketing their businesses and the country. The fact
that the Jubilee Government promised to give greater focus to tourism sustainability and
growth, has given investors’ confidence to plough deeper in their pockets to sustain wage
bills even in the face of reduced business that is not supporting costs of doing business.
Should the budget cuts take place, the government should be prepared for massive job
losses from the tourism sector as investors cannot forever hold out waiting for business to
improve as we will be expecting not an increase (as anticipated) but a decrease in
marketing activity. With our competitors giving more focus on marketing their destinations
which are not as endowed as ours and already receiving in some instances more than 5 – 10
folds our international tourist arrivals, less visibility for Kenya in the international market is
guaranteed to result in even lower tourist arrivals.
The effect will not only be felt by investors and employees in the sector but all other sectors
in the economy will feel this move hurting their pockets especially the manufacturing and
agriculture sector. The hospitality sector is a large consumer of locally manufactured
consumer goods and agricultural produce.
We fail to understand why economic development is being sacrificed with no regard to the
consequences it will have. Let government find money from other sources and let tourism
play its role in sustaining and growing the economy
Mrs. Karume’s statement has according to information received from a credible source in Nairobi been sent to the Ministry of East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism, the Office of the President and the Office of the Deputy President, but also to the coalition party offices, member of the national assembly and the senate and in particular to the members of the budget and appropriations committee, to warn in particular the latter of their liability for the disastrous consequences for the tourism sector, should the proposed siphoning of funds be formally sanctioned. Here in Rwanda, tourism officials expressed, on condition of strict anonymity, their complete shock that Kenya’s parliament would act in such total isolation from reality and wished their colleagues at KTB and the Ministry of East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism well to seal their budget against any encroachment, for whatever purposes.
This is an emerging story and more will no doubt we heard about it in coming days and week, so watch this space for more twists in the tail.
TOURISM STAKEHOLDERS INCENSED OVER ATTEMPTS TO DIVERT THEIR BUDGET FUNDS
(Posted 19th June 2013)
‘We will not take that laying down but will use every option available to us to have this decision revisited and our funds kept where they belong, in tourism’ ranted a regular source when news broke late yesterday that the National Assembly’s Budget and Appropriation Committee had chopped a major percentage of funding off the budget of tourism in order to pay teachers a backlog of dues, which goes back to 1997.
Incensed stakeholders flooded this correspondent’s mailboxes with protests and lamentations, one of them claiming:’ Only yesterday did KTB show the data of arrivals till April this year and entries through JKIA reduced by 20 percent compared to last year. We told that fool of a minister last year that he better find the funds to embark on a serious marketing offensive ahead of the elections, but he would either not listen or simply did not understand what was going on. While he strutted about claiming 2012 would be better than 2011, the industry knew what was coming. KTB told him what was in the offing and instead of listening and acting he tried to sack the KTB CEO. KTB needs those fund to embark on a global campaign to revive our tourism fortunes. If we do not have the funds promised to us in the budget estimates submitted last week, the recovery of tourism will remain slow and sluggish. If government wants double digit economic growth, they have to put petrol in to the engines which can drive this growth, not take the engine out of the locomotive and sell it for spare parts, if you get my meaning. Those claims of the teachers go back to the Moi regime and 10 years of Kibaki’s government. Why do they want to strike now for 16 year long claims? Kenya cannot afford a teachers strike, that is true, but it can also not afford to starve tourism of funds. If they go ahead it might cripple KTB’s action plans and in a year there will be much gnashing of teeth when more bad results are revealed. Let those parliamentarians cut their own mega earnings and give to the teachers, that would be a start’.
Indeed, the year started with a further downturn in arrivals, continuing the trend of late 2012, when Kenya’s military engagement in Somalia to drive out Al Shabab militants and destroy the pirates safe havens on land resulted in a series of retaliations, mainly in areas bordering Somalia but also in Nairobi and Mombasa. Ahead of the general elections in March this year in Kenya did tour operators from abroad also scale back their presence, charter flights were thinned out and especially the coastal resorts took a hit in sharply lower occupancies across the board, with a few notable exceptions. The inaugural address of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy President William Ruto gave hope to the tourism industry that the funding allocated would permit to roll out a major recovery marketing campaign, extending from core markets in Europe to new and emerging markets in Eastern Europe, India, the Far East including China and North America. The lastest development at the National Assembly though has now dashed such hopes and dampened the mood, with anger already rising up, setting up the sector for a major confrontation with the new government. There were a few calming voices, suggesting that parliament needs to be lobbied and the budget committee be told with fact and figures how their cutting of the tourism budget could affect the national economy overall, should tourism underperform, but considering the imminent threat of strikes from teachers, MP’s may not be in the mood to listen to common sense. Hard times ahead it seems for Kenya’s tourism industry, unless the promised funds can be saved and secured in what might become a major showdown too between government and parliament over economic priorities. Watch this space for regular and breaking news and more twists in the tail of this emerging saga.
ELECTION JITTERS COST KENYA’S TOURISM DEARLY
(Posted 18th June 2013)
Figures have just become available, showing the widely expected drop in tourism arrivals between January and April this year, largely attributed to the oftentimes grotesque if not outright venemous anti travel advisories issued by certain countries, which were known to have an added agenda vis a vis one pair of candidates standing for presidential election.
Some embassies and High Commissions in fact almost deliberately wrecked the Easter weekend for Kenya’s beach resorts and safari lodges, when they put out a wildfire alert days ahead of the Easter holiday weekend, literally banning their citizens from leaving home, purportedly for their own security.
As everyone knows now, Kenya’s elections were conducted in a reasonably free and fair manner and remained largely free of violent incidents, apart from a handful, swiftly dealt with by security organs, who reigned in both supporters gone wild in celebrations or wild with grief for their candidates defeat.
The Kenya Tourism Board has given out these statistical figures only yesterday, which show a drop in arrivals through Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International airport from last year’s 310.072 between January and April to this year’s 248.296 or a drop of about 20 percent overall. The picture in Mombasa is slightly better in percentage terms with a 6.5 percent decline for the first four months of the year, from 2012’s 80.226 to this year’s 75.066 visitors. It should be remembered though that the start of 2012 was unfolding strong before the events of September last year, ahead of Kenya’s military entry into Somalia to fight the Al Shabab terror menace, took place.
Tourism stakeholders have however expressed their confidence that for the remainder of the year the outlook is much brighter, partly as a result of Mombasa bound charters being re-started and partly for better economic circumstances in key producer markets of Europe. Asian and African markets have remained strong throughout and shown in fact remarkable growth, making up for some of the losses in arrivals from the more traditional market places. The new government of President Uhuru Kenyatta has also proclaimed tourism as one of the key elements in their programme to achieve double digit economic growth and the sector was during the recent budget presentation given more funds, rather than less as was the case last year, when in fact higher marketing spending could have cushioned the drop in numbers considerably. One regular source, in his own words still digesting the numbers, only commented ‘oh well it could have been a lot worse’ but was not ready to comment in greater detail as ‘we are also still evaluating the impact of the budget proposals last week, so give us a bit of time’.
Fair enough that request is, but a general consensus has started to emerge, that the worst of 2013 is behind the sector and the future appears much brighter once again. Watch this space for regular and breaking news from East Africa’s tourism sectors.
ARUSHA TURNED INTO GHOST TOWN AS POLICE TEARGAS PROTESTS AGAINST BOMBING
(Posted 19th June 2013)
East Africa’s safari capital, aka the city of Arusha, found itself under siege yesterday, as police battled with protestors, saturating the streets with teargas. Tourists were kept in their hotels by concerned staff and managers, who were worried that should the wagenis venture out, as they normally do, they might be caught up in the sporadic violence or have to shed involuntary tears, should some of the gas come their way.
Shops remained closed as business ground to a halt, following the previous day’s grenade attack on an election rally by the main opposition party. Some have said this amounts to an outrageous but not unusual response by the Tanzanian police, clearly doing the bidding of their political masters in power but it left the tourism sector exasperated for the lack of common sense used by security organs. Additionally were rumours flying high and low, especially on the social media time lines, of who was most likely the mastermind behind the attack, which claimed several lives and injured many more.
This being the second such incident within a month and a half, a previous incident happened at the official opening of a church where the Vatican envoy to Tanzania was present, has deeply dented the reputation of Arusha as a generally laid back and peaceful city, which serves as a gateway to climbs on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Meru and to reach the game parks of the northern circuit, Arusha NP, Tarangire, Manyara, Ngorongoro and the Serengeti.
These events unfold just days now before the planned visit by President Obama to Tanzania. Obama’s handlers already cancelled a visit to one of the country’s national parks, ostensibly over the cost involved for the security operation, but with these latest developments there may have been more to it than meets the eye, suggesting that the Americans may wish to keep the visit as short and snappy as possible before moving on again. While there is no indication at present, that the Arusha incidents may lead to a last minute cancellation of the Obama visit, it is equally clear that the US administration will be eyeing these developments with growing concern. ‘They have no choice but to come, because the Chinese president was here and this is a countermeasure they must employ. Even if these blasts had happened in Dar, Obama would still have to come to show flag and try contain the growing Chinese influence in East Africa’ commented a regular political analyst from Tanzania before adding: ‘Whatever the government now plans about a crackdown will maybe wait till Obama is gone again for fear that this might pop up on the agenda, because Kikwete [Tanzania’s president] wants to smile and not cry after meeting Obama’.
Tourism sources are at present more concerned over the short and medium term impact on tourist arrivals of such incidents getting global media coverage, especially in the run up to the Obama visit. On such occasions the entire country comes under scrutiny over their human right records, their treatment of the media, maritime disasters and plans for, among others, to build a highway across the Serengeti’s migration routes. Add to that the plan to build a port inside the Coelacanth marine national park near Tanga, plans for Uranium mining in the Selous – and the irony of it by Russian companies no less – plus plans to put a hydro electric power plant into Stiegler’s Gorge, also in the Selous it could make for some rather negative press for Tanzania. Poaching and illegal logging too have come under the spotlight again in recent weeks, as the global media digs up whatever there is out in the public domain, to write up their stories about the country Obama is visiting, while giving his late father’s homeland Kenya, right next door, a wide berth. Time will tell who the culprits behind this cowardly attack were, linked to the opposition as the government already suggested or linked to a government under increasing pressure ahead of the next general election, a the opposition suggested. Watch this space to find out about all those twists in the tail of this emerging story.
FASTJET MANAGEMENT LAMENTS ‘FALSE STARTS’
(Posted 17th June 2013)
FastJet’s management, while announcing that the airline has been granted international route rights as a designated carrier between Dar es Salaam to Johannesburg, Kigali and Lusaka, lamented that ‘We have spent so much time lobbying to make this happen and had so many false starts’ claiming it has held the airline back for the past 6 months since starting operations in Tanzania. While FastJet’s CEO Ed Winter was quoted to have spoken of a ‘real breakthrough’ a source close to Tanzania’s Civil Aviation Authority promptly responded, saying such comments were only bound to aggravate the regulators, who in his words ‘… do not feel appreciated by such statements after carefully studying the application and its benefits or disadvantages for Tanzania’s aviation industry and for the country. Regulators take whatever time it takes to do their job and if airlines feel they are wasting their time lobbying it does not show a good understanding of what such decisions entail’.
At the same time as the announcement for international traffic rights was made information was also made available that the startup of domestic flights in South Africa was to be delayed further, with no specific reasons given. Existing LCC’s in South Africa have reportedly been preparing for the market entry of FastJet as a new competitor, though none of them made any comments to the latest development. No new date was given for the commencement of domestic services in South Africa which had been postponed twice before, nor were any dates mentioned of the start of international flights from Dar es Salaam, other than that they would start before the end of the year. Watch this space for breaking and regular news from East Africa’s vibrant aviation scene.
RWANDA TOURISM DIVERSIFIES MORE WITH THE OPENING OF NEW ATTRACTIONS
(Posted 22nd June 2013)
Rwanda has for a long time been considered primarily as a destination for gorilla tracking, and indeed, even today, gorilla tracking is the single most important tourism activity visitors come here for to experience.
The tourism planners at the Rwanda Development Board’s Tourism and Conservation Department though have in recent years worked hard to showcase more of the country’s attractions and sights, and progressively added more places to visit and activities to undertake.
Birding trails outside the three national parks were launched with guides available from local communities, helping to spread some of the tourism wealth down to village level. The Congo Nile Trail along the shores of Lake Kivu was launched in late 2011 while the canopy walk, which was officially inaugurated in 2010 inside Nyungwe Forest National Park has turned into a real crowd puller. The opening last year of the Nyanza King’s Palace has attracted wide attention and special features and exhibitions by Institute of National Museums of Rwanda have added focus on the country’s history and culture.
Coinciding with the annual Festival of the Gorillas, aka Kwita Izina, has RDB given invited media representatives an insight into two new options for half day tours out of Musanze, either ahead or after tourists have enjoyed tracking the rare mountain gorillas or the golden monkeys, which can be found in the Volcanoes National Park.
One of the two attractions, still not open to the public though – the formal launch is expected to take place soon – are the Musanze Caves, an underground formation caused by a volcanic eruption millions of years ago, long known by the locals but only more recently ‘discovered’ as a tourism attraction and being readied for a regular stream of visitors. In fact several tube caves have been discovered in the wider area of Musanze, but this one, easily accessible from the main Gisenyi – Musanze highway and with just about 2 km in length, was found to be eminently suitable to ‘convert’ into a tourism site. On arrival do visitors find all the necessary gear to put on, from gum boots to waterproof jackets and the quintessential helmet and a safety briefing by the guides is mandatory, as no unaccompanied entrance into the caves is permitted and the do’s and don’ts must be understood before embarking on the descent to the cave mouth and the walk through to the exit.
In the more distant past, 1975 to be precise, did a group of Belgian speleologists embark on a survey of four of the known caves, followed soon after in 1977 by a Spanish team, which found another one to be over 4.5 kilometres long. More expeditions took place in 2003 and 2004 be foreign teams, which explored about 20 more caves, with others still to be mapped out. Caving could thus become a major adventure activity, complementing the gorilla tracking in the Volcanoes National Park, and the success, and uptake, of the Musanze Caves will certainly determine if RDB will invest the funds needed to make the caves safe for visitors, have proper paths put up from the entrances through the caves to the exits and spend more money on signage, staff stationed there and the equipment needed to safely explore deep underground.
Inhabited by mainly bats, but also rodents, crawlers and other slitherers, the caves have no vegetation inside but rich growths at the entrance and exit parts respectively. The cost of turning the Musanze Caves into a tourism site, were not immediately available, nor the time it took to get the site prepared to its present state, but by the look of it, whatever RDB spent was money well spent on a new exciting activity.
(Check out my YouTube uploads and see the brief interview with the guardian of the site)
The second site visited took me to the Buhanga Historic Eco Park, a site closely associated with the kingdom of old.
Now part of the Volcano National Park, visitors have the opportunity to see, and walk across the sprawling site, where in the old days the kings were given their ‘induction’ before being formally installed at the palace in Nyanza.
Two local guides are at hand to narrate their knowledge and lore, requiring an interpreter from Kinyarwanda to English. The guides received their information from their fathers who in turn received their information handed down from generation to generation of forefathers, who were in the employ of the royal household in an almost inherited capacity. They were the ones tasked to guard the Buhanga site and take care of the new king’s needs before his coronation and enthronement.
The entire area is about 13 hectares large, or small, and being a protected area home to about 150 identified species of bird, small game and even reptiles, none seen though during the 2 hour walk across the site. In the centre of the site stands tall the famous ‘Unity Tree’ about which many a saga can be told.
Combined with a visit to the King’s Palace in Nyanza, near Huye, and the main national museum in Huye itself, does Buhanga give an insight into Rwanda’s pre-colonial days when it was a kingdom, but on independence the monarchy was substituted with a republic, relegating the then king into a cultural figurehead.
What is remarkable is the restored pride in showing off the country’s cultural past and making visitors aware that there is more to it than ‘just gorillas’ when travelling to and across the Land of a Thousand Hills. True, Musanze is the undisputed gorilla tracking capital of East Africa but has in recent years become so much more to so many more people. Tourists now come to Rwanda to watch birds, hike the Congo Nile Trail or the trails across the Enchanted Nyungwe Forest National Park or see the rich heritage of Rwanda when visiting the sites and monuments across the country. The advantage of Rwanda is being compact enough so that one can with ease travel in a day from one corner to the opposite side, and on excellent roads for that matter, allowing to see much of what has been described in a matter of a few days. ‘In the past visitors came for 2 or 3 days, to see the gorillas and leave again. Today, we have so much more to see and the average length of stay has gone up. That means such visitors spend a lot more money while in Rwanda, which explains why we have seen double digit growth of revenues over the past years. The secret lies in diversification and RDB has been developing new circuits, new products and restored our historical sites. A visit to Rwanda now offers something for any budget and for any interest group. It is also good to launch some new attractions before Kwita Izina because all the regional and international media are here to report about it. This gives Rwanda a lot of exposure and helps us to promote existing and new sites’ said one of RDB’s staff attached to the media caravan. Very true and it gives the opportunity to thank RDB and their partners from the private sector for making this trip possible and reporting about Kwita Izina and all the new attractions in person from on site. Murakoze!
CHANGE HAS COME TO KWITA IZINA 2013
(Posted 21st June 2013)
Those who came to Rwanda to help celebrate the annual Festival of the Gorillas, the now in its 9th year Kwita Izina and expected to sing from the same hymn sheet as in past years, were in for a major surprise when they received the programme of this year’s edition. Where up to last year visitors came to expect interaction with the local communities in Igitaramo near the main naming venue in Kinigi on the night prior to the naming ceremony, the new look Kwita Izina has expanded on the aspect of culture, besides opening a whole new range of tourism attractions in the wider Musanze area for tourists, and in our case for the accompanying media trail, who can suddenly do a lot more than ‘just tracking gorillas’.
The Rwanda Development Board, organizer of Kwita Izina since 2005, has for this year created a dedicated tour, aptly named the Kwita Izina Caravan which covers either three or four nights and brings the record number of foreign attendees, who have traveled to the Land of a Thousand Hills closer to Rwanda’s nature and culture.
Rwanda’s traditional dances will always be at the centre of things and wherever the caravan passed, from Kigali along the winding road and its many scenic stops, including the Nyirangarama famous roadside eatery, drummers and dancers were in evidence. They were in attendance too at the famous Hotel Muhabura in Musanze – expect a separate story about this historical landmark soon – were an art and craft exhibition is taking place this week and where artists and mainly women’s groups were showcasing their creations. It is here that the late Dian Fossey spent much of her time when she periodically came down from the mountains for some R&R and meetings, and her favourite cottage number 12 has been meticulously maintained in the state it was in back in those days to honour her life’s work towards gorilla conservation and her patronage of the hotel.
The ‘Crazy Night’ concept will undoubtedly appeal greatly to an entirely new range of tourists, in particular the growing number of overland travelers and back packers, who come to Musanze to see the famous mountain gorillas and in the past were often left wondering, what else there was to do, especially at night. The Volcana Lounge, Musanze’s most popular nightspot and not far from some of the main hotels like the Ishema, the Muhabura and the La Palme, will host local, regional and international visitors for two nights, and give them a taste what nightlife otherwise is like across the year and outside the festival period. Here it will be the wagenis doing the dancing and shake their things, making a display of themselves in reverse order for the locals to watch but not before having attended the Igitaramo event, this year held at the Musanze Regional Stadium, where at the end of the traditional performances top music groups from across East Africa will perform to give locals and wagenis alike the chance to listen to the top rated regional earworms.
But RDB has gone beyond these jazzed up changes of the social side of the Kwita Izina programme and is now also showcasing additional options to sightsee, like a trip to the so called Twin Lakes of Burera and Ruhondo.
For too long did visitors to Musanze wonder, what else there is to do when coming to track the gorillas, undoubtedly THE key to this areas fame around the world, and an afternoon excursion to the lakes is helping now to fill the gaps and voids. Additionally has RDB opened up the Musanze Caves for visits. Extending underground for some 2 kilometres, the caves are home to large bat colonies and host some incredible variety of plants, shrubs and trees at the entrance, something I am for sure looking forward to explore tomorrow.
The main event, the naming of young born gorillas, this year it will be a dozen, remains the highlight of the weeklong festival and all and sundry will do pilgrimage from Musanze to Kinigi, where a stone throw from the park headquarters the festival site will be the place to be to celebrate Rwanda’s amazing accomplishments in gorilla conservation. Over the past 9 years 160 gorilla babies and one ‘migrant’ from the wild, named Umutungo by this correspondent last year, were given names. Umutungo’s newborn gorilla baby girl will be named this year too, a source of pride for myself who has been part of Kwita Izina for many years and who now has a family up on Mt. Sabinyo.
In none of the other mountain gorilla range countries along the Virunga mountains has the effort to highlight and publicize conservation efforts been taken to such lengths as is the case here in Rwanda. After a slow start in 2005 has Kwita Izina established itself as a prime event to celebrate conservation efforts, and giving a 5 percent share of the revenues made from tourism to communities living around the national parks in Rwanda, has made a huge impact on the change of mindset, turning erstwhile poachers into custodians and protectors of not just the gorillas but wildlife and birdlife in general. The standing of namers, this year will UNWTO Secretary General Taleb Rifai be among those selected, is testament to Kwita Izina now being a global event, when the world comes to Rwanda, to witness, to cherish and to celebrate. Watch this space for more reports in coming days as Kwita Izina 2013 is racing towards its climax.
THE DIRTY POLITICS OF GENOCIDE JUSTICE
(Posted 20th June 2013)
For those who followed the trials in Arusha at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, some mindboggling decisions on appeal may come back to the forefront of their memories, when news confirmed overnight broke that the President of the Appeals Chamber, one Theodor Meron, found himself accused of bias and for having pressurized fellow judges into acquitting key genocide suspects in cases before him. Some, including at least one who had actually confessed his crimes, the notorious Jean Kambanda, found themselves released beyond their wildest hopes while in other cases Meron was responsible to substantially cut sentences in favour of the genocidaires
It was a fellow Danish judge who last week exposed the charade Meron’s chambers had become, where justice was not only NOT served but the concept of justice massively perverted and besmirched
Meron stands accused of ‘Persistent and Intense’ activities, aimed to pervert the cause of justice and denying the million victims to rest in peace.
While common decency demands, that Meron too is treated as ‘innocent until proven guilty’, a principle he himself clearly turned on its head, probably in his twisted mind reading ‘guilty only if I can’t avoid it’, there can be no doubt that the unfolding investigation, should indeed firm evidence come to light that his sentence reductions and overturned convictions were based on bias and not on fact, must be conducted in an environment free of his presence. No one knows what steps the UN will now take, but Meron must immediately step aside to make way for a full and complete investigation into all those cases he handled, and by the look of it influenced.
What is also clear is that he himself, if enough evidence is unearthed, must be charged in a court of law, perhaps in a Rwandan Court of Law, and that all those cases must be reinstated for a fresh appeal hearing without fail.
A million victims demand and deserve justice, and it can only be speculated what motives Meron brought with him and what twisted sense of justice unfolded in his head, to have acted like the Danish judge described it.
The UN Security Council, which confirmed Meron in his position, must now act swiftly and comprehensively to prevent more damage to the UN’s already dubious reputation, over the past conduct of their troops in Eastern Congo, their constant biased ‘draft reports’ on Eastern Congo affairs blaming Rwanda for all and sundry and for this latest scandal falling under their jurisdiction.
It is not clear at this time, if Rwanda will demand that the suspicious cases be restored and heard again, either in Arusha or else in Kigali, but it is expected that when President Kagame is back from his state visit to Israel, that the cabinet will discuss this case, which has rattled Rwandan society like few issues over the past few years.
As to Meron, perhaps he should come to Rwanda and visit the national Genocide Memorial in Kigali, or as I have done over the years, visit some of the dozen more sites where the most gruesome of mass murders were committed, at times, like at the Nyamata Church, with over 10.000 who had sought refuge inside, at a go.
Perhaps then he might build up some justified bias, bias FOR the victims and AGAINST the perpetrators, initiators and inciters of those days, after seeing what really happened and not what his obviously clouded mind made it out to be. NEVER AGAIN, this time it must be NEVER AGAIN but justice has to be served first for the engineers of the 1994 genocide and for those who whipped up hatred and frenzy across the country back then. Performing this journey NOW would be good, as the commemorative period of the 19th anniversary of the 1994 Genocide is still ongoing, during which Rwanda observes a 100 day period of reflection and memorials, mainly to remind individuals like Meron of the reality and truth of what happened 19 years ago. A country, which has through the Gacaca court system managed to clear a caseload, conventional justice administration might have taken 200 years to cope with, a country where perpetrators and survivors life side by side in reconciliation villages, a country which has forgiven those who confessed but not forgotten, simply deserves better than what Meron gave, and justice, if it is to serve as a deterrent, must be seen to be done and felt. All I can feel after I heard of this sordid saga, is cold anger and I add my own voice, as I am in Rwanda right now for the annual Festival of the Gorillas, aka Kwita Izina, to those of my Rwandan brothers and sisters who seek justice for the million lost in 1994.
RDB GETS READY TO LAUNCH RELIGIOUS TOURISM CIRCUIT IN KIBEHO THIS WEEK
(Posted 18th June 2013)
The Tourism and Conservation Department of the Rwanda Development Board will according to an insider’s story, this week launch the country’s first religious tourism product, focusing on the Kibeho area in Southern Rwanda.
On the 28th of November 1981 were the first apparitions reported from that little village, with teenagers talking of having seen the images of Mary, mother of Jesus, something which kept occurring time and again until 1989.
In particular the visions seen in August 1982 are on record for having given a preview of the gruesome events in 1994 and those affected at the time gave testimony of seeing rivers of blood and mutilated bodies, harbingers of the things to come. The Catholic Church, through Bishop Misago of Gikongoro, sanctioned public devotion in August 1988 and formally declared the authenticity of the apparitions in June 2001.
Inspite of the recognition by the Vatican though, few outside Rwanda, but the most devoted followers of Mary, knew about these events for a long time though slowly the word spread, making Kibeho the centre of a steadily growing number of visitors from near and far, coming there to pray and to remember. Work on the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows started according to details received in late 1992 and managed by the order of the Pallotines.
The Tourism and Conservation Department recognized the value of the site and its potential to significantly increase participants of such pilgrimages coming to Rwanda, and hand in hand with local partners in Kibeho provided logistical support to market tours to this village.
The formal launch of Rwanda’s first religious tourism route will provide travelers to the country with compact information about the events in the 1980’s and the process of formally recognizing the apparitions, and allow local tour and safari operators to include a visit to Kibeho in their itineraries, when taking tourists to see the sights across the Land of a Thousand Hills.
The declaration made by the bishop of Gikongoro reads in part like this and will undoubtedly feature in pamphlets, maps and on the promotional websites: ‘Kibeho become a place of pilgrimage and of encounter for all who seek Christ and who come there to pray, a fundamental centre of conversion, of reparation for the sins of the world and of reconciliation, a point of meeting for ‘all who were dispersed’, as for those who aspire to the values of compassion and fraternity without borders, a fundamental centre that recalls the Gospel of the Cross’.
A tourism stakeholder, for long involved in Rwanda’s tourism industry, added his own assessment to the launch this week: ‘Our future lies in diversifying our tourism products. We now have 10 gorilla groups available for tracking but this is a finite resource. Even at a cost of 750 US Dollars it sells like hotcakes. Near that park are the Musanze caves which RDB started to open up recently for visitors. But truth told, we need to offer a lot more beyond gorillas. We have Nyungwe and that park has seen growing acceptance. We wait for the other big forest, Gishwati, to open up for hikes because there is a lot of demand for such vacations. The Congo Nile Trail needs perhaps more marketing and logistics too with more tourist class boats for trips along the Lake Kivu shores. This market is for adventure travelers, for hikers and bikers. But even normal tourists now take the route by 4×4 to enjoy the magnificent views from the hills down to the lake. Then, Akagera is our savannah park and we have new birding trails across the country even outside parks. Religious tourism opens another niche and allows for greater variety of tour options. We have highlighted the rich cultural heritage of song, dance and arts and our museums are giving visitors the insight they seek. All this combined gives us that extra element of value for money when tourists come here’.
Congratulations to the tourism gurus in the private sector and at RDB’s Tourism and Conservation Department for opening up Rwanda and showcasing new attractions year after year.
NYUNGWE WOMEN’S COOPERATIVE BENEFITS FROM TOURISM INCOME
(Posted 17th June 2013)
The Rwanda Development Board’s Tourism and Conservation Department, led by Ms. Rica Rwigamba, is the country’s custodian body to not just promote the country abroad but also manage the country’s three national parks and tourism attractions and conserve the precious wildlife, foremost of course the prized mountain gorillas. Ms. Rica was in fact saying, ahead of the event: ‘This is a celebration of these wonderful animals but also a way to thank all those who take care of them, starting from rangers, vets and the community living near their habitat’.
A revenue share programme, which benefits communities living near and around national parks, gives back 5 percent of tourism revenues generated, and considering that in recent years Rwanda’s tourism industry grew by double digit figures, the money available for disbursement has increased year after year.
The programme finances, as well as co-finances, water tanks and water pipes to make life for rural folks easier, has supported schools and helped to set up or maintain health centres, largely meeting the requests of local communities vis a vis what they need the most.
On Wednesday 19th of June will a maize mill project be handed over to a women’s cooperative outside the Nyungwe Forest National Park, significant in two ways. First of course it will allow the women to mill maize corn and sell maize flower at a substantial premium, using mechanized equipment which will improve productivity and output. Secondly, area residents in days now thankfully long gone, had regularly raided the forest of a certain tree species, which they then turned into mortars, where the maize was pounded by hand until sufficiently pulverized. ‘When we engage in such projects, it is always aimed at reducing poaching and encroachment in the parks but at the same time we offer the communities there benefits and incentives to respect our natural resources. Revenue sharing is also a way to say thank you to the communities. They now act as our eyes and ears on the ground and any suspicious activity they report quickly. It promotes partnership because they see there is material gain from embracing conservation and tourism’ said a member of RDB’s PR team when passing relevant details on to this correspondent. RDB this year is aiming at a revenue target of about 317 million US Dollars, and as the second quarter of the year wanes, this seems well within reach.
Kwita Izina’ organizers have for 2013 chosen the theme: ‘Celebrating Nature, Empowering Communities’ and this is exactly what project launches and project handovers this week are all about, empowerment, poverty reduction, job creation and to make life for rural communities easier, paid for by tourism income. Way to go Rwanda – see you in Kinigi this coming Saturday where 12 newborn gorilla babies will be named this year. This trip had been made possible courtesy of the Rwanda Development Board, national airline RwandAir (www.rwandair.com) and Serena Hotels, among many other sponsors and contributors to make this year’s Kwita Izina festival another showcase event for the Land of a Thousand Hills. For more information visit www.kwitizina.org or check the country’s main tourism site at www.rwandatourism.com.
AIR SEYCHELLES PARTNER ETIHAD CAPTURES KEY SKYTRAX AWARDS AT PARIS AIRSHOW
(Posted 19th June 2013)
Etihad Airways, which holds a 40 percent stake in Air Seychelles, has yesterday reclaimed the trophy of ‘Best First Class’ for the fourth year running, but also added two more, ‘Best First Class Seat’ and ‘Best First Class Catering’ to their trophy cabinet. The airline’s COO Peter Baumgartner, in a media release received overnight, let his joy over the awards a free reign when he said: ‘It is a huge accomplishment to take home the top honours in every First Class category again, underlining our leading premium product proposition. Etihad Airways has, in just 10 years of operation, risen rapidly in the Skytrax rankings because we are continually investing in innovative new product and service concepts. We believe that world-class hospitality should not be limited to hotels and restaurants, so we are elevating the travel experience by bringing the best of hospitality to every touch point in the journey’.
Both Air Seychelles, with their A330-200 and Etihad, flying in code share with Air Seychelles but using A320 narrow body aircraft on the route, only offer business and economy class on the route, but passengers connecting in Abu Dhabi to Etihad flights – many are codeshared with Air Seychelles – can experience these award winning service levels when switching to First Class travel.
Congratulations to Etihad for these latest rewards for persistently high quality.
AND in closing once again more reads from Gill Staden’s The Livingstone Weekly, covering stories from ‘further down South’
The new airport terminal is coming along a treat. I assume that we can expect it to be ready for August. It is a cavernous building … modeled on Heathrow?
In the meantime there is a new rule at the old terminal building and all the tour operator ‘meet-and-greeters’ have been asked to stand outside to relieve congestion in the arrivals hall. Normal Joe Soaps coming to meet a friend or relative are allowed in.
I assume this will all be over when the new terminal is active. In the meantime, the meet-and-greeters’ are in good humour – at least there is no chance of rain …
New ZAWA Gate
I was told during the week that the new ZAWA Gate along Sichango Road has not been put in place to charge fees, which is a great relief for the businesses in the area and for all of us who go to the lodges, Boat Club, etc, within that section of the park.
I was not told why the gate has been constructed and can only assume that it is meant to beautify the area.
Also in the news this week was the pledge by ZAWA to restock the park. This is good news. According to a report in the Daily Mail:
Guy Robinson, ZAWA Board Chairman: We are busy maintaining and erecting the last part of the fence in the park and we will soon be introducing some more animals into the park. We want to bring about 100 species just to boost the animal population in the park.
Within the ZAWA game parks, we are building some camping sites and trying to sort out some places where our visitors can make stop-overs and have a meal. We will also put up some picnic spots because you can’t camp in the park. These will be ready by the time we host the UNWTO general assembly.
This week a team of three from Kenya has come to Livingstone to help control elephants with lights! This system has been in place in areas of Kenya for the past year and is working well. Not only does it stop elephants but lions too. Not that we have a lion problem but they do in Kenya.
It was found that if small flashing lights were fixed on trees or poles about 25 metres apart, elephants will not cross the invisible boundary. This is what is being done around the Mosi-oa-Tunya Park to stop them moving into town and farmland. Already lights have been put around farms in Linda which have been constantly hammered by elephants to the extent that the farmers have given up farming. Now, though, although the elephants appear around the farms they will not cross between the lights.
Lights have also been put up near the Kazungula Road ZAWA Gate to stop them crossing into the Nakatindi Compound.
When I found the team on Saturday, they were looking at where to erect a ‘barrier’ to stop the elephants from encroaching on Livingstone from the park near Courtyard Hotel.
The team is heading to Victoria Falls Town during the coming week to help the people there too with keeping elephants where elephants should be and not in the town.
The lights have come from America where they have been used for years to control wildlife from entering towns. They are solar powered. The units are being nailed to trees and electricity poles.
International Cultural Arts Festival
Rhythm, music, arts and drums are coming to Livingstone Zambia to mark the Bicentenary of the birth of Dr David Livingstone, born 200 years ago. …
The renowned UK Caribbean Steel Orchestra – The Melodians – will be coming to Livingstone to take part in the Festival. This will add a very different lively rhythm and beat to the Festival, yet one which also has its roots in Africa. …
Sorry, but all I know of activities during the week is that The Melodians will be playing at the Waterfront on Thursday. The first session will be at 5.30pm with a second at 6.30pm. Entrance is free, so come and enjoy a sundowner with entertainment at the new Waterfront bar … don’t forget to have a look at the sacred ibis flying overhead just as the sun sets …
The Zambezi Explorer is a new boat on the Zimbabwe side of the Victoria Falls. Following in the heels of Livingstone, Zambia, where we have 4 large boats plying the river, Victoria Falls Town has also opted for a similar-sized boat. Up until now, many small boats have popped out of the banks of the Zambezi River on the Zim side at sundowner cruise time to beetle around the river.
So, is big better? I think both have their place. Big boats are good because they have proper toilets; passengers can walk around and chat to different groups of people instead of being stuck with one or two companions for the whole trip. Big boats too are taller therefore giving a better view. Small boats, though, can sneak into the gullies between islands finding wildlife, especially birds. And, for those who want to fish or have a more personal experience small is better.
Above are three of our large boats – Lady Livingstone and the African Queen and African Princess. They were all out on the river during the rowing regatta in 2011.
Below is the Makumbi, Livingstone’s first large boat. It used to belong to Eagle Travel but was sold when companies were privatized in the 1990s to Safari Par Excellence.
Money Release for UNWTO Preparations
In a report this week the Zimbabwe government is to release funds for the UNWTO. The Minister of Tourism Walter Mzembi has requested for US$6.5million but the report did not say if the total amount would be made available. Tendai Biti, the Minister of Finance, has mentioned previously that his government has many pressing demands on the Treasury; demands which needed to be tackled urgently.
However, having decided that money will be released, the UNWTO will be positive marketing for Zimbabwe. Tourism which used to be one of the mainstays of the Zimbabwe economy but dived into obscurity with the land invasions, has seen a comeback in certain areas, Victoria Falls Town being one of them.