by Mark Gillies

In the final weeks of the year, the wise and the experienced book their summer safaris to East Africa, knowing that when January arrives and the masses do the same, availability in the best camps will disappear quickly. This makes the period a good time to judge the health of the region’s tourism industry for the year ahead.

The cost of travelling from the UK to Tanzania is now about 20% more expensive than it was this time last year. The increase is due to the removal of the VAT on certain tourism goods and services in Tanzania in July, plus the weakening of Sterling against both the US dollar and the Euro following the unexpected political events in the UK and the US this year.

The Tanzanian government cannot therefore be blamed solely for the price rises, but the tax increases certainly haven’t helped the Tanzanian tourism industry. While it would take a catastrophe to stop the congregation of large numbers of vehicle in the Ngorongoro Crater, talking to camp owners and operators over the last few weeks does suggest a drop in booking numbers in the smaller, high-end camps.

At the same time, over the border in Kenya, owners and operators, sensing their neighbour’s weakness, have introduced a range of special offers and are reporting a distinct rise in booking numbers. Even the now traditional fear of violent disruption that comes with an election year seems not to be affecting business.

This is the current reality against which news stories concerning Tanzanian tourism and conservation must be considered. Tanzania will always be a fantastic place to visit, but if the ambitious growth targets of 20% year on year identified by the Tanzania Tourism Task Force in 2013 are to be met, then stakeholders and the Tanzanian government must not forget the ‘challenges’ that could prevent the desired growth – or even, in the worst case, cause a contraction of the industry.

Mr Richard Rugimbana, Executive Secretary of the Tanzanian Confederation of Tourism, listed these challenges in The Citizen on 14 July as ‘multiplicity of taxes, levies and fees… …and wanton destruction of natural assets.’

With this last challenge in mind, it is concerning to receive an update from Serengeti Watch reporting that funds have been set aside for the construction on a bitumen (sealed) road between the towns of Natta, Mugumu, and Loliondo, the first phase of the proposed road across the northern Serengeti. The report refers to an unspecified online government document, but if it proves to be accurate then the Serengeti as a complete ecosystem remains under threat.

In August, The Citizen published a timely reminder that Europe and the US is not the only target market for the Tanzanian tourism industry. The newspaper reported Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA) Director General Allan Kijazi describing a recent push to market Tanzania’s natural resources to the Chinese market by hosting 16 senior Chinese journalists from various media houses on a familiarisation trip to Mikumi National Park.

With China previously being more closely associated to the plague of the poaching of Tanzanian’s natural resources, it is interesting to see a more positive connection and to ponder how a growth in the number of Chinese tourists could affect the very make-up of the Tanzanian tourist industry, from the style of accommodation offered to the language skills of field guides. (The Citizen, Serengeti Watch)

In December, just as TA was going to press, the Prime Minister, Kassim Majaliwa, took a personal interest in the fate of “Faru John,” a rare white rhino imported to Ngorongoro from South Africa some years ago. Faru John is reported to have personally sired 70% of the crater’s total white rhino population. “I know that the rhino was taken to Grumeti Reserve in Serengeti under the pretext of having the rare and endangered animal breed in the location,” said the Prime Minister. “But in reality, it is under ownership of a private lodge.” Later, a different story emerged: that the rhino had died after an illness and been buried. The Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Jumanne Maghembe presented the Prime Minister with two horns said to be from John. Details of what exactly took place, including when and why John had been relocated and whether the dead rhino is indeed John, remain unclear and the Prime Minister has formed a probe team to investigate. Rhino horn is gram-for-gram more valuable than either gold or heroin. (Daily News, The Citizen)

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