TANZANIA (eTN) – Tanzania and Kenya are on the brink of a trade war that could catch the multi-million-dollar tourism industry in the crossfire.
It all started as a Christmas surprise when Kenya enforced an order barring Tanzania’s vehicles from either picking or dropping tourists at its airports. The order, which came into force on December 22, last year, triggered an uproar among Tanzania’s tour operators.
It has reliably learned that it emanated from the meeting of the Kenya Airports Authorities (KAA) held on November 20, last year.
The meeting had, among other agenda, deliberated on the 1985 tourism pact between Tanzania and Kenya, according to a document seen by this reporter.
It was noted during the KAA meeting that under the 1985 agreement, commercial businesses such as transfers by visiting Kenyan tour operators were not allowed in Tanzania.
After thoroughly discussing the agenda, the meeting resolved that the provisions of the agreement should similarly be applied in Kenya.
By implication, the resolve meant Tanzanian operators should also be barred from transferring visitors to Kenyan airports.
And on December 22, last year, Kenya authorities started to slap the ban on Tanzania’s vehicles from neither boarding nor offloading passengers at its airports, hitting hard Tanzania’s tourism industry.
It is estimated that nearly 40 percent of 1,000,000 tourists visiting Tanzania annually pass through Jommo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) earning the economy $1.9 billion before crossing overland into the Tanzania national parks.
Tanzanian drivers cried out in their hundreds over the Kenyan sudden order, saying it had inflicted untold anguish and confusion among tourists traveling to Tanzania via JKIA.
“Imagine tourists landed at the JKIA at wee hours only to find their hosts are nowhere to be seen,” lamented Ruben Kiondo, a driver working with Rainbow Shuttle Company.
He added: “We had to hire Kenyan taxis to carry our visitors from where we were allowed to park our vehicles to JKIA, nearly 10 kilometers away.”
Mr. Kiondo said Kenya’s reaction had humiliated them as well as their helpless tourists who had nothing to do with Kenya and Tanzania’s bilateral row.
“As if it was not enough, the JKIA security officials ridiculed us for not letting our visitors fly direct to KIA,” he explained.
Natural Resources and Tourism Minister Lazaro Nyalandu said Kenya would go down in the annals of history as a pioneer in denying its neighbor’s vehicles permission to pick or offload travelers at its airports.
“We have never restricted operators from our northern neighbor to access any area, save for national parks as is stipulated in the 1985 tourism agreement,” Mr. Nyalandu stressed.
The minister promised to travel to Nairobi sometime next week where he will engage his counterpart in his quest to solve the issue diplomatically.
“We in Tanzania [were] shocked by … Kenya’s decision, because airports are not part of the agreements involving the two sister countries,” he said.
“The Kenya ban implies that the JKIA has turned into a tourist attraction instead of an entry point,” wondered Mr. Nyalandu, lamenting that the decision was unnecessarily adding cost on the Tanzanian tour operators.
But analysts believe the ban might be Kenya’s attempt to retaliate on Tanzania’s decision to close the Bolongoja border between its Serengeti National Park and Maasai Mara Game Reserve of Kenya mid-1970s.
It is understood, Tanzania had denied Kenya’s tour operators to access its national parks through Bologonja border for 38 years now.
Bologonja, the border between Tanzania’s flagship Serengeti National Park and Maasai Mara Game Reserve of Kenya, was, until the mid-1970s, a convenient route for tourists yearning to visit the Serengeti-Masai Mara ecosystem.
But following the collapse of the defunct East African Community (EAC) in 1977, Tanzania closed all its border posts with Kenya for nearly seven years.
However, Tanzania changed its mind in the mid-1980s and opened its main entry points to tourist traffic, save for the Bologonja border, which remains closed to date.
The two countries signed the tourism cooperation agreement way back in 1985 after the November 16, 1983 Arusha Summit that had agreed only local operators would access all tourism attractions. Tanzania and Kenya had agreed in Article X (b) that tourists should be transported in and out of each country through designated border posts or regional towns.
Kenya’s entry points to Tanzania have since been Namanga, Sirari, Holili, and Horohoro while Namanga, Isebania, Taveta, and Lungalunga have been Tanzania’s entry points to Kenya.
Tourists had, as a result, to endure nearly a five-hour drive from Maasai Mara via the designated Isebania-Sirari border point to Serengeti National Park.
Others had, in their quest for visiting Serengeti, to drive back from Maasai Mara to Nairobi for an overnight stopover before they proceeded to Arusha via Namanga the following day.
Nairobi-based Nahdy Travel & Tours Ltd. managing director Faraj Abdalla says the border closure adds substantial extra cost on the Serengeti and the Masai Mara packages, as tourists have to backtrack the entire way via Nairobi or Arusha to reach the other side.
“The move to have tourists change vehicles at the borders of Namanga, Sirari, and Taveta does not only humiliate tourists, but is also a window dressing for Tanzania’s policy of keeping competition away through non-tariff barriers,” Mr. Abdalla explains.
With the revival of the EAC and the enforcement of the Common Market protocol that provides for, among other things, free movement of goods, capital, and labor, Kenyans hoped the Bologonja border would be open to tourist traffic after the 38-year closure.
The Kenyan prayers have, however, landed on deaf ears, as Tanzania maintained that it could not sacrifice the fragile ecosystem and the World Heritage site by shortening the route between Maasai Mara and Serengeti.
Tanzania National Parks spokesperson Pascal Shelutete said that different tourism policies of the neighboring countries prompted Tanzania not to open the Bolongonja border.
“Kenya encourages mass tourism contrary to Tanzania which prefers quality tourism – low tourists volume with higher returns.
“Once we open the Bolongonja border, tourist traffic from Kenya will be extremely high at the expense of the fragile Serengeti ecology,” Shelutete explained.