BY PROF. WOLFGANG H. THOME, PH.D., ETN AFRICA CORRESPONDENT
The hastily arranged meeting of the two ministers responsible for tourism of Kenya and Tanzania, aimed to discuss and resolve the denial of access of Tanzanian-registered commercial vehicles, such as safari 4x4s and transfer buses to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), has yielded no instant result.
The two delegations which met yesterday in Nairobi, however, agreed to meet in three weeks’ time, giving each side the time and opportunity to draw up a fuller agenda of grievances they have been harboring.
In December, following what is understood to be due notice by the Kenyan side, transfer buses and safari vehicles with Tanzanian registration were stopped from accessing Nairobi’s international airport, dealing a heavy blow to Tanzania’s tourism sector, as at least 40 percent of all arrivals for Tanzania safaris arrive at JKIA, down from some 70+ percent two decades ago.
In a 1985 agreement, following the re-opening of the borders which Tanzania had unilaterally closed after the breakdown of the first East African Community, certain rules were agreed regarding access, or non-access, to parks; border crossings; and drop-off points. Kenyan sources, irked by the continued closure of the Bologonja border point, claimed that access into Kenya did not include Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, even though for a period of time it was granted in error.
This, however, for someone observing from the outside, very much resembled a tit-for-tat reaction by Kenya, after being needled once too often by their Tanzanian counterparts.
For the next three weeks, therefore, Tanzanian shuttle buses and safari vehicles will find a Kenyan operator to take their clients to the airport or pick them up from there. After driving outside the airport perimeter, they can arrange for an exchange. This involves added cost and is clearly inconveniencing tourists, an observation dismissed by a regular Kenyan source when he wrote: “How much are our clients inconvenienced when they continue from Kenya to visit Tanzanian parks? They have to leave behind their guide, their driver, and why? Tanzania’s safari sector is now as developed as ours, so there is no more advantage or disadvantage in numbers. It is time to once and for all sort out the Bologonja access, and let us drop the pretense that border crossings are not possible because of an environmental impact. That is plain bulls***, and they know it. It was a protectionist measure. If they cannot accept the rules of the EAC, let them say so and leave. Then at least we know where we all stand.”
A Tanzanian source from Arusha in turn commented: “The blocking of our cars to JKIA came out of the blue. We were not told, no matter what the Kenyans told you. This just happened one day in December, and it caused tourists to almost miss their flight, while others were literally stranded for hours at the airport terminal waiting to be picked up. We had to hire taxis to bring them and their luggage out to meet our cars where the airport road branches off to the Mombasa highway. It was not safe; it was in fact dangerous, but there you are. The Kenyans did only care to inflict some retaliation on us. Whatever prompted it, and in part I blame our border officials in Namanga, too, they are a bad lot; we know it, but their shenanigans with Kenyan cars and tour operators should not justify what the Kenyans then did to us. I hope that we can sit down soon and talk this over and find a solution, or otherwise I fear this will escalate even more.”
Sources in the wider region, both in Uganda and Rwanda, have expressed their horror over the escalation of spats and tit-for-tat between Kenya and Tanzania, saying it was violating the spirit of the East African Community and was “absolutely not helpful for our efforts to promote East Africa as one regional destination with many attractions.” Added one very senior source from Kigali: “We stand by and watch this with incredulity. It seems they are ready to cut off their noses to spite their faces. How much worse can it get? When this hits the international media, it will be another nail in our coffin after dealing with the Ebola crisis which affected us all and the security issues Kenya has. This is bad for us all in East Africa, and we for once will make efforts through Arusha [the headquarters of the East African Community and seat of the secretariat] to help and solve pending problems between the two. Taking three weeks to meet again is also, of course, an insult to our intelligence. This could and should have been resolved yesterday. Over that delay, Kenya will be blamed, and it will be remembered how their aviation regulators are stopping Fastjet from flying from Dar to Nairobi and how they behaved even towards RawndAir for flights out of Entebbe. They are doing all the wrong things right now, and meanwhile is tourism to Kenya suffering instead of recovering. Not good at all!”
A Ugandan source, when asked to comment, was curt in his response: “We better not get involved in that. It is for them to sort out. Why are you asking me for a comment? Ask the Kenyans and Tanzanians. It is their problem, not ours. If they want neutral ground to meet, let them come to Munyonyo [Kampala’s lakeside conference and resort center], and we host them. But otherwise, if anyone should or could get involved, it is the EAC, not us as a country.”
Sentiments galore and opinions galore, too, while all eyes are now on Tanzania to see if any additional retaliatory measures will be employed between now and the meeting in three weeks’ time.