by Paul Harrison
Tanzanian tourist industry cautiously optimistic after the shock of Covid pandemic
Tanzania has not escaped the global downturn in the tourism and travel sector, with visitor numbers dropping considerably. Tourist numbers have at least halved compared to pre pandemic projections, with indications of up to 900,000 visitors in 2020 compared to the two million tourists planned for: a loss of over a billion dollars of revenue to the country.
The country was not able to take advantage of the usual peaks in demand during the northern hemisphere summer or winter seasons as would-be international travellers stayed put or closer to home. Despite ongoing efforts to diversify international markets and expand domestic and regional markets, the majority of tourists still come from north America and western Europe, notably countries which have faced repeated Covid-related lockdowns and travel restrictions. Rising numbers of Russian, Chinese and Middle Eastern tourists have helped boost numbers, but there has, overall, been a damaging loss to the tourism sector. Retrenchments have been common in the larger tour operator businesses whilst many small-scale operators have gone out of business. Camps have remained closed, aircraft in hangers and safari vehicles parked up.
With the northern hemisphere summer season is in sight, industry confidence is picking up, cautiously. Just prior to Christmas, the Citizen reported a wary optimism to recovering tourism prospects from the Tanzania Association of Tour Operators given the ongoing pandemic, travel restrictions and tightened purse strings. The Hotel Association of Tanzania is cautiously optimistic, noting many operators are at reduced capacity or closed, according to the Citizen. There is a hope that pandemic-weary travellers will look for tropical summer holidays, bolstered by the likely roll-out of vaccination programmes before summer. This offers some confidence that numbers will soon move back towards previous levels – and potentially beyond. In the meantime, the industry is biding its time.
The government is looking at how new markets and potentially direct flights will attract greater numbers post pandemic restrictions. There are also calls for lowering costs, though it is not clear whether this would entail the government giving way in terms of reduced taxes or an already-weakened industry would take the burden. In the meantime, foreign levies for entrance into national parks will rise from 1st July 2021, with a new fee structure that includes entrance and concession fees. The Serengeti will cost USD $70 per day.
In Zanzibar, diversifying tourism in Unguja helps maintain numbers after a lull
In Zanzibar, a new Ministry of Blue Economy and Fisheries separates fisheries from livestock and illustrates an increasing recognition by the Zanzibar government of the wealth of the sea – including from tourism. According to the Daily News, tourist numbers to Zanzibar doubled from September to October 2020 to around 12,000 visitors. This was a welcome signal of renewed interest in visiting the archipelago after the slump caused by the Covid pandemic. Whilst western Europe remains the primary source for tourist visitors, the Zanzibar administration have concentrated on diversifying their markets, with a particular focus on Russia. Thrice-weekly Russian charters bring beach tourists for short stays on Unguja Island and Russian tourists accounted for at least 15% of all international visitors in late 2020. On Pemba Island, tourism remains focused on high end, low volume and the diving markets, with operators largely waiting out the pandemic storm.
President Nyerere’s former home to be opened for tourists
In October 2020, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism announced that Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s former home in Dar es Salaam – where he lived during the run up to independence in the 1950s – would open for visitors. Following refurbishment by Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA), the house will be marketed as part of Tanzania’s increasing effort to boost cultural tourism from both domestic and international markets. The site will allow visitors to get a sense of the context of Mwalimu’s life and thinking – keeping the late President Nyerere’s legacy alive physically.
Boost to promote domestic tourism and jobs
Efforts to counter the loss of revenue from international tourist receipts by focusing on domestic tourism have continued. In December, the Daily News reported a new memorandum of understanding between the Tanzania Tourism Board and CI Group, a service provider promoting local tourism through a ‘Mama Africa’ circus exhibition. The campaign is expected to include engagement of Tanzanian celebrities, companies, colleges and schools. Promotion of domestic tourism remains a challenge due to the pricing structure of the tourism sector as well as the products available. Whilst city-dwellers are often happy to return to rural homes and origins, the domestic market has interests that are not currently served to the same extent, especially in parks and reserves. Wildlife areas that are developed to include infrastructure like boardwalks or visitor centres may have more local appeal. However, they risk putting off international tourists seeking the simplicity of wild nature. The country must achieve a sensitive balance in meeting needs of both the domestic and international tourist markets in its diversification of the tourism sector.
Successes and challenges ahead for conservation
In terms of conservation, parks are well protected with poaching appearing to decrease overall. TANAPA’s shift towards a paramilitary approach appears to be paying off in the national park estate. Conservation has become a serious matter. Unofficial reports of poaching that surface outside of the parks suggest a possible poaching revival in the Ruvuma area potentially linked to the Mozambican insurgency across the border which may also be linked to reports of increased illegal logging in the south of the country. The decrease in tourism, and associated decreases in income for tourist-dependent communities, presents latent risks for a resurgence in the illegal wildlife trade, particularly when economies revive in consumer countries. Close attention to mitigate these risks is needed. However, at the same time, donor investment into conservation has slumped, in part due to the inability of donors to programme and the squeeze on finances at home due to the coronavirus pandemic but exacerbated by sometimes strained relationships between government and development partners.
A WWF report in November flagged ongoing concerns on how illegal fishing, farming, deforestation and resource extraction business, have led to significant depletion of freshwater fish and crustaceans in the Mara River. This exacerbates ongoing concerns of conservationists that the Mara Basin will less effectively sustain the ecosystem on which so many depend for life and livelihoods.
In October 2020, there was a brief panic as fire broke out on Kilimanjaro with risks to communities and hikers alike. TANAPA and stakeholders reacted quickly to quench the fire.