By Wycliffe Muga
There has been a vigorous debate in the op-ed columns of all major newspapers recently, pitting East African Affairs and Tourism Cabinet Secretary Phyllis Kandie; and an early-Moi-era political heavyweight, former AG Charles Njonjo.
The subject has been the East African Community. Basically, Njonjo thinks that if this regional economic union (which existed in the 1960s, but broke down in the 1970s) is reestablished, Kenyans will live to regret it; while Kandie argues that recreating the EAC to the fullest extent possible, is a crucial step towards national prosperity.
This debate came up against a backdrop of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda having signed an agreement which will allow for a single visa to facilitate travel within those three nations. This is meant to boost tourist visits, given these three countries will from now on be, effectively, a single tourism destination. Now the really notable thing in all this is not that the three countries agreed to have a common visa: rather it is that Tanzania opted out.
And in considering Tanzania’s reasons for staying out – and why Tanzania will never be part of the EAC as currently envisioned – we can appreciate why this EAC project will not be easy to implement.
First, Uganda and Rwanda are not really major players in African tourism in the way that Tanzania and Kenya are. Not for lack of trying; but their key attractions are really more suited to niche markets, than for mass tourism of the kind that Kenya and South Africa, for example, have.
The great attraction that both Uganda and Rwanda hold, is that they are two of the very few African countries where a tourist can travel in safety, and observe gorillas in the wild.
But gorillas – and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park where they are found, for example – are, as I say, a tourism niche market.
Places like Kruger National Park in South Africa; the Maasai Mara in Kenya; and the Serengeti in Tanzania, are the crown jewels of African tourism. And so although Uganda has more than just gorillas in its game parks (Uganda actually has plenty of lions, hippos, buffaloes, elephants, etc) none of these parks has ever risen to the iconic ‘must-see’ status of those other three African parks.
Tourists, who want to see something other than gorillas, are more likely to come to Kenya, if only because there are more (and often cheaper) direct flights to JKIA from the European tourism source markets, than to Kigali or Entebbe airports.
So here is the problem: where Uganda and Rwanda’s tourism attractions complement Kenya’s, Tanzania’s attractions are direct competitors.
Ugandan and Rwandan authorities may welcome the prospect of tourists already in Kenya, flying over to see their gorillas, as this is likely to increase the number of visitors.
But the last thing the Tanzanians want is tens of thousands of European and American tourists using Kenya as a base for visiting their Serengeti National Park – for this is sure to bring in some form of “revenue sharing” between Tanzania and Kenya, for tourists visiting the Serengeti.
Why would Tanzania want to share with us, revenues that they can otherwise keep for themselves? Especially as those visitors were likely to turn up at the Serengeti anyway, irrespective of whether they landed at JKIA or at Moshi International Airport?
We could also mention that Tanzania and Kenya are – unavoidably – bound to be competitors in matters of providing port services, as well as road and rail transport to the hinterland of central Africa, including Rwanda and Uganda. But actually, once DRC Congo and Southern Sudan stabilize, there will be plenty of port and transport business for both Kenya and Tanzania.
What is far more sensitive – and impossible to agree on – is the question of agricultural land.
As I have had occasion to point out before, if you take the total land area of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi combined, you will find that it amounts to more or less the same area as that of Tanzania.
But take the population of these four nations combined, and you find it is double, that of Tanzania. In short, Tanzania is by far the most sparsely populated of the five nations.
So if the East African Community ever attained the same degree of unity as the European Union for example, with a single currency, free movement of goods and labour, single visa, etc, guess which country would find itself suddenly hosting (literally) millions of newly-arrived land-hungry farmers from sister-nations?