Traveling the region – the upsides and the downsides


(Posted 08th April 2017)

(The Lake Duluti Serena’s main building at night)

I remember travelling the region during the first edition of the East African Community, when from harbours to railways, from phone companies and mail transport and then some more all these services were integrated under a regional umbrella body. There were the East African Ports, East African Railways, East African Airways, East African Post and Telecommunications and East African this and that, besides private sector tourism bodies like the East African Tour Operators Association.

Crossing borders back then was an almost invisible thing if one failed to notice the signboards at the physical crossing from one country into the next as there were no cumbersome customs and immigration posts. Entering and leaving the East African Community was subject to customs and immigration controls but travel within the what was then called the ‘Schedule Territories’, was made for the free movements of not just locals but in particular the wagenis from abroad.

Today is travel between the five member countries of Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi subject to these hassles of customs and immigration, making travel often unpleasant if an ill-tempered official makes it his or her purpose of the day to make a traveller miserable.

While travel between Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya is now – under the NCIP, short for Northern Corridor Integration Project countries – made somewhat easier, locals can travel by using their national ID cards and expatriates in these three countries can travel Visa free under the ‘Interstate Pass’ arrangements, are customs checks still in place and inconvenience travellers. What, one wonders, would I possible smuggle from Kenya or Rwanda back into Uganda, unless dirty underwear is now an item to be paid duty for, and no surprise would it be given the big holes in the annual budgets.

Enough of tongue and cheek though for now as I turn my attention to the real travel side.

Uganda has since the launch of the Visa free Interstate Pass travel for expatriates and ID based travel for locals, rocketed into fourth position overall in terms of arrivals into Kenya. The presence of Kenya’s leading beach resorts at the 2017 edition in February of POATE, the Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo, was testament how much they value the Ugandan business. A group of hoteliers based along Diani’s award winning beaches made the trip to POATE as a team and are now smiling all the way to the bank. Even though there are no more direct flights from Entebbe to Mombasa – one now has to travel via Nairobi or Kigali to get there – have visitor numbers grown in leaps and bounds.

The same cannot be said though for travel from Uganda to Tanzania or even for travel from Rwanda and Kenya to Tanzania. The lack of participation by Tanzania in these travel facilitation measures have left that country short of experiencing a similar travel boom from Uganda despite the many attractions available for visitors, from national parks and game reserves to the beaches of the Swahili coast, Zanzibar (Unguja and Pemba) and even as far as Mafia Island. The same can be said for travel from Rwanda and Kenya to Tanzania, where the growth rates are way below those of travel by Ugandans (locals and expatriates) to Kenya.

For now I want to just concentrate of visits to places outside national parks, as going there has been made rather expensive by Tanzania’s decision to heap VAT on park entrance fees, but that is a story for another day.

Kenyan and other East African expats are always on the lookout for new places to visit, over long weekends but also during their local vacation period.

The roads from Nairobi and Mombasa to the border with Tanzania have vastly improved and are undergoing further upgrades and improvements especially to make exit and entry into the cities easier.

Be it the new highway from Voi via Taita Hills to Taveta and on to Moshi and Arusha, or the highway from Nairobi via Athi River, Kajiado and Namanga to Arusha, apart from traffic jams getting out of the two cities, those have made road travel much easier. Once reaching Athi River out of Nairobi or Mazeras out of Mombasa, it is smooth cruising to the nearest border post with Tanzania. Of course do East Africans need a passport to enter Tanzania and expats from neighbouring countries have to pay an entry fee, aka Visa of 50 US Dollars – adding up to 200 or 250 for a family of four or five – something today seen as waste of money given visits within the three, Uganda – Rwanda – Kenya are now free.

Accordingly are visitor numbers from the three to Tanzania not growing as they could and should to the detriment of hotels, resorts and safari lodges, especially those outside the national parks. A long weekend spent in Arusha or outside the city or a drive on very good tarmac roads to for instance the Lake Manyara Serena is within easy reach of Nairobi’s affluent expat community but often dismissed exactly for the reason of extractive Visa fees, when other options exist how and where to spend that money.

Yet do the attractions beckon. There are a number of resort and hotels outside Arusha visitors can choose from, notably and among many others of course the Lake Duluti based Serena from where it is but a long stone throw to a great golf course, KiliGolf.

Set in a coffee estate and overlooking Lake Duluti has the Serena in Arusha all one could wish for, from maid services for toddlers and younger kids to excellent food and spacious rooms set in clusters, perfect for friends travelling together. A pool invites for a refreshing dip after doing a boat trip on the lake, perhaps trying out one’s fishing skills, or just an extended hike across the coffee estate. Bird walks and bike trips too are on the menu of activities guests find at the Lake Duluti Serena. The concierge service at the Serena is happy to arrange for golfing at the Arusha Golf Club or KiliGolf for the avid golfers while those not keen on chasing a small white ball can enjoy a massage at the hotel or just laze by the poolside while the kids are under the care of a professional maid.

Moving a little more out of Arusha provides visitors coming in their own cars with a very scenic drive out of the city towards Lake Manyara. All but one of the lodges and safari camps are outside the national park on top of the Mto Wa Mbu escarpment and again does the Lake Manyara Serena Safari Lodge stand out among its peers. The view from the lodge would be described by Americans as ‘Awesome, just Awesome’ while us locals just use words like ‘Out of this World’ all meaning a spectacular setting and scenery unfolding at the bottom of the escarpment which forms part of the Rift Valley walls.

Sporting and adventure activities await guests at the lodge, including mountain biking, hikes and bird walks. Also available is a Spa for those who need a massage after some hiking or biking or simply enjoy the good life.

Given an all tarmac access from the borders in Namanga or Taveta to Lake Manyara, and the choice to stay outside the park which makes a visit more cost effective, is this property just like the sister hotel near Usa River (outside Arusha enroute to the international airport) an ideal choice for a long weekend, a short break or a week’s vacation time without busting the bank. Serena offers low season resident’s rates just as they do in Kenya and – apart from the entrance fee into Tanzania, aka Visa fees – can visitors expect to spend a similar budget on a stay as they would at home in Kenya with the added bit of fuel for the longer drives.

At KiliGolf are incidentally properties available for sale for those who think of investing in a weekend retreat or place where to spend quality time. However, unlike in the Gulf, where buyers of real estate get automatic residency, is this still an issue to be resolved in East Africa where a number of gated estates on golf course developments have sprung up over the past years. When full clarity on this has been accomplished on this score it should be an easy sale especially to buyers from around the world looking for a sound investment from where they can indulge in their favourite pastime, golfing.

One thing is clear, travel across the region could be greatly expanded were Tanzania to join the ID based travel arrangements for EAC citizens as is being practised by Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya and accept Interstate Pass travel by expatriates duly registered in other EAC countries.

Perhaps does the Tanzanian hotel industry need to speak up some more and explain to their government what vastly improved occupancies would mean for not just their properties but also for overall revenues and taxes and employment opportunities and even added new investments.

For now, with Easter around the corner, will Rwandans and Ugandans, both locals and expats, very likely once again stream to the Kenya coast – where incidentally another Serena resort is found – and where no entrance fees become due at the border, leaving plenty of money to indulge in cold Tuskers or invest in a sunset dinner cruise on one of the converted dhows sailing up and down Tudor and Mtwapa creeks.

Safari Njema and Karibu Sana for those who travel.