The Wall Grows

The Wall Grows

banlaptoponairlinesThe first bricks of the wall – not just facing Mexico but around all of America – were laid today and neither the courts nor Congress can stop it.

At 3 a.m. this morning Homeland Security banned personal electronics from the airline cabins of 9 Muslim airlines. Last weekend a conference in California for African investment petered out because every African who applied to attend was denied a visa.

Trump is the front man. The engine behind him is slipping into gear with the certainty and finesse of a Benz.

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Too Much Trump

Too Much Trump

lovetrumpAfrican leaders scramble while their citizens shout and scream, terrified that they will be added to Trump’s ban list.

On America’s most watched morning political show today one of the regulars asked why Trump’s travel ban didn’t include “Kenya?” This is a show that we know Trump and much of the Senate watch. The commentator finally brought into the open what everyone is secretly worried about.

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Flying Where?

Flying Where?

tcrwandairEvery country wants an airline, its own airline, and how that airline works characterizes the country as a whole.

In a month Rwandair begins flying a new modern Airbus 330, the ninth modern aircraft in its fleet. Today, the third iteration of Air Tanzania begins as the first of two new turbo prop aircraft are delivered from Canada. I wouldn’t rush to buy tickets on either airline. Here’s why:

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Test for Tanzania

Test for Tanzania

grantprotestwashingtonTanzanian tourism is crashing following the country’s refusal to apologize for wrongly jailing an elderly California couple on trumped-up charges of giraffe poaching.

Thousands of dollars in bribes went to jailors, judges and other officials before Jon and Linda Grant were released from three days in a horrific Dar-es-Salaam lockup last March. Thursday, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier took the couple to Washington “to clear things up,” but Tanzanian officials barred them from entering the embassy.

Tanzanians have a very short time to get this right before suffering enormous losses economically and diplomatically. The details of this incident are going viral.

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Where’s the Beef?

Where’s the Beef?

IsthereacarThe Tanzanian government and safari companies appear to have embarked on suicide missions as they react to Brexit. Consumers beware : African companies raising prices in today’s climate are probably already deeply in debt.

The bottom is falling out of the Tanzanian safari market because the largest single component is the UK traveler. UK travelers are reacting to Brexit like Americans did to 9-11.

According to the British financial website, This is Money, more than 1 in 3 Brits now plans to cut back on planned holidays.

Brits book travel not quite as far in the future as Americans. Americans tend to do so about a year in advance. With Brits it’s about six months. This means that the very important end-of-year holiday season could be a disaster for Tanzania.

This follows several bad years because of ebola, terrorism, the persistent European recession and in the case of South Africa, the plummeting Rand.

One of the most horrible practices of any small business is to live on cash flow, and that’s legend among travel companies in particular. Now in Tanzania, those who have done so may be on the way out.

If you’re a consumer considering traveling to sub-Saharan Africa and Tanzania in particular, I really suggest you beware.

Hardly two days after Brexit, the panic began when the government of Tanzania decided to slap an 18% tax on many tourist products that had not previously carried it, such as transport and guided sightseeing. In Tanzania’s fairy world land, certain government officials claimed they were even slapping the V.A.T. tax on themselves, onto existing taxes!

However the math might eventually be done, government fees are rising and in some cases substantially. The cost for a vehicle headed into Ngorongoro Crater, for example, jumps 25% Friday.

V.A.T. is the value-added-tax of 18% theoretically applied across the board to anything sold in Tanzania. For many years, though, many tourist services have been exempt, an incentive of the sort many governments in the U.S. afford businesses for locating in their town.

Tanzania’s President, John Magufuli, has been crusading ever since being elected last year in a dark-horse contest, slipping incognito into ministries and firing sluggards on the spot. He reduced income taxes earlier this year for the “common man.”

He’s now trying to right the budget, which since time immemorial hasn’t really been one, rather just a siphon of foreign aid. It’s unclear that the huge V.A.T. announcement on tourism was entirely the result of Brexit, but clearly the rush to impose it – even unprecedented in Tanzania – suggests so.

Laudable as Magufuli’s efforts might be, it will have definite negative effects on Tanzanian tourism.

Healthy companies, I think, saw this coming. Particularly the old strongholds, the midmarket chain lodges like Sopa and Serena, have held prices steady or decreased them, trimmed staff without a noticeable trim in service, and moved towards dynamic website pricing.

Unhealthy companies, particularly some of the upmarket ones like Asilia, are doing just the reverse. In fact, they are using the current situation to raise prices higher than to just cover tax increases.

The upmarket could be the most effected under the current situation. Upmarket trends have been moderating or declining recently, stressing the health of those companies.

Three of Asilia’s main competitors in Tanzania, Nomads, Sanctuary Retreats and &Beyond, have either announced no increases or agreed to guarantee current rates on existing reservations for which deposits have been paid. Wannabe upmarketer, Elewana, has even announced new specials that essentially lowers its prices.

This will not be a fun year for a safari company working in Tanzania. But tricking the consumer goes too far. Consumers should exercise exceptional due diligence before planning to sip a gin and tonic on the veld at sunset.

Safari Favorites

Safari Favorites

SafariAfricaWhat were my favorites in the two-month safari I just completed in Africa?

I guided 40 different people on six different itineraries into the part of the continent I call “Safari-Africa.” It was my 40th year guiding and nothing we did was new to me. In fact for quite a few of these very special clients, it wasn’t entirely new to them, either.

That gives me a special edge critiquing safari choices because I can meld my own lengthy experience with the reviews expressed by my own experienced clients.

One thing struck me as it never had before: Air schedules and regional airlines have improved so dramatically that I’m dropping my long-expressed recommendation that you not mix and match widely separated areas.

Of course any time you step onto an airline – even the best of them – you risk delay and disruption, but no longer as certainly in Safari-Africa as only ten years ago.

And any time you step onto an airline your cost goes up.

So if you accept the added risk and cost, then visiting Victoria Falls and the Serengeti in the same trip is as reasonable as visiting the Grand Canyon and New York city in the same trip.

My personal preference continues not to do so, since I know despite protestations from potential clients that this is “likely the only trip they’ll ever take to Africa,” statistics don’t bear them out. The majority of safari travelers from America take multiple trips to Africa.

I also prefer slower, more extended visits wherever I go in the world to “if it’s Tuesday it’s Brussels.” Yet I concede that “if it’s Tuesday it’s VicFalls” now fits into reasonable travel planning.

Several of my long-held views about where you should go on safari were confirmed:

(1) For the most wildlife, it’s East Africa over southern Africa.

(2) For the more varied experience go to southern Africa. Most every day game viewing can be substituted with great cities and fascinating history or trains, spas, museums, good dining and entertainment.

(3) If accommodation and service — overall stressless touring is very important, stick to southern Africa. Don’t get me wrong: Stressless touring is a lot more likely in East Africa than most travelers expect, and from time to time it even exceeds the norm in southern Africa. But as a general rule southern Africa is more reliable and provides better services.

(4) It’s expensive. I wish this weren’t the case, and it wasn’t in the past. But today a safari is one of the most expensive vacations you can take. Like any expensive destination there are cheap offers, but avoid them. They get you little more than being able to say, “I’ve been there.”

If you can’t afford $500 per person per night, don’t try. That’s the minimum. Most game viewing safaris today approach $1000 per person per night.

(5) Finally need I say it? A well-organized holiday to any part of Safari-Africa is today as safe as traveling to Europe. In fact given the tragedies in Paris and Brussels, it’s fair to say right now it’s safer.

Below is where I’ve been and what I’ve just done. I’ve shown my own favorites, but they might not be yours! Every traveler and trip is different. My favorites might change at a different season for a different set of clients.

Email and I’ll be happy to help you design your perfect safari!

Favorite Places:
1. Serengeti
2. Samburu
3. Kalahari

Best Game Viewing Countries:
1. Tanzania
2. Kenya
3. Botswana

Best Game Viewing Parks:
1. Serengeti
2. Ngorongoro
3. Maasai Mara

Best Wilderness Properties:
1. Ndutu Lodge
2. Saruni Samburu
3. Governor’s Camp

Best non-Wilderness Properties:
1. Gibb’s Farm
2. Lanzerac
3. Tongabezi

Least Stressful/Most Comfortable:
1. South Africa
2. Botswana
3. Kenya

Most Friendly Countries:
1. Botswana
2. Kenya
3. Tanzania


February & March 2016 Safari:

KENYA
Nairobi/Karen: Norfolk Hotel, House of Waine
Amboseli: Tortilis Camp
Tsavo West & East: Galdessa Camp
Aberdares: Aberdare Country Club, The Ark
Samburu: Saruni Lodge
Maasai Mara: Governor’s Camp

TANZANIA
Arusha: Rivertrees Country Inn
Taranagire: Oliver’s Camp
Manyara: Gibb’s Farm
Ngorongoro: Sanctuary Camp
Serengeti: Ndutu Lodge, Angata Camp
Kili Airport: KIA Lodge

SOUTH AFRICA
Johannesburg/Sandton: Michelangelo Hotel
Blue Train: Pretoria to Cape Town
Cape Town: Victoria & Alfred Hotel
Stellenbosch: Lanzerac Hotel

BOTSWANA
Kalahari: Tau Pan Camp
Okavango/Moremi: Camp Moremi
Chobe: Savute Safari Lodge

ZAMBIA
VicFalls (Livingstone): Tongabezi

The Business of Safaris

The Business of Safaris

Business of SafarisMy 30-day safari convinced me that Kenya’s tourism has been reborn and that Tanzania better look out, but that they both might be in trouble.

For a month I guided nonstop 17 enthusiastic travelers – almost all veterans – through my favorite wildernesses in Kenya and Tanzania. All my objectives including finding the great migration and showing off the new dynamic Nairobi were met.

My clients have all vowed to return yet again!

But such enthusiasm needs stoking, and the East African tourism industry is sorely failing in this regard.

Today think of Kenya as a splendid adventure with extraordinary comfort, and think of Tanzania as wilder but more difficult. The distinction is just what an investor needs to create imaginative programs for a wide market.

But both Kenya and Tanzania are not doing so, in fact, they may be doing just the opposite: destroying their own precious industry.

Kenya’s ability to maintain its wonderful wildernesses is extraordinary, given the contemporary pressures of its unbelievably rapid development. That development will leave Tanzania in a deep wake, but it will be meaningless if Kenya can’t get under control a number of destructive political pressures.

These include nearly laughable mismanagement of the Mara (separated from the Kenyan Wildlife Service-KWS) and the unfettered development projects like the new railway through Tsavo or the planned labyrinth of national highways built with little concern for the wilderness.

Tanzania on the other hand needn’t worry for the time being that its great northern wildernesses are jeopardized by development: Global success stopping the Serengeti highway three years ago more or less proved this.

Tanzania’s disadvantage vis-a-vis Kenya lies mostly with its very dysfunctional and corrupt management of its wildernesses. TANAPA and TAWIRA look like expelled primary school dropouts compared to Kenya’s fabulous KWS.

Both countries suffer from corruption and both country’s executives and legislatures are implementing admirable policies to stem it. But I think Tanzania’s considerably worse off in this regards:

Poor implementation of the national park Smart Card program, seriously deteriorating park road maintenance, summary ending of long-time research efforts (particularly with lions) in the Serengeti, and seemingly random allocation of land leases in wilderness territory are just a few of Tanzania’s most serious problems, all rooted in corruption.

Tanzania’s greatest asset is it wildness. Kenya’s most popular parks, Amboseli and The Mara, are over developed, a legacy of years of corrupt allocation of land leases and a dysfunctional multi-tier system of wilderness management. The animals that have survived this congested development have become extremely habituated to tourists, and that’s not all that bad.

But it means that as Kenya’s tourism increases, so will the number of cars. It’s taking increasingly imaginative itineraries to avoid the crowds even now during a tourism decline. The payback to the tolerant tourist is that at the end of the day accommodations at every market level are considerably better than in Tanzania.

Kenya’s accommodations, food, customer service and reliability are much better than Tanzania’s.

Still, the tourist who like myself is more interested in the wilderness, can hardly discard Tanzania for these shortcomings. The much less crowded parks (Ngorongoro being a singular and notable exception) means that the animals are wilder, the landscapes less scarred and – from my point of view – results in a much more exciting trip.

Both countries, though, have what could be an insurmountable obstacle to healthy tourism growth: escalating prices.

Global resellers of East Africa are either conceding market share to Asia and South America, or they are so shaving their itineraries (like OATS or Road Scholar) that all that’s left is but a skeleton of the landscape, people and animal contrasts that distinguishes a classic safari.

Wilderness travel in particular is booming in places like the Amazon jungle and Alaska where prices have actually fallen over the last decade. African safaris now vie with Antarctica as the most expensive destination in the world.

Both the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments take some of the blame for slapping high taxes and escalating entry fees on tourists, relative to other wilderness destinations. But the bulk of the blame rests with poorly schooled investors who have never bet on the medium or long term.

Short term investing requires a high return, and believe me, they’re getting it in East Africa. It also leads to knee-jerk increases in price when demand falls. I can’t think of another place in the tourism world where this is the case. No one is prepared in East Africa to “weather the storm” or “restructure” or “look to the future” when the ‘future’ is hardly more than tomorrow.

The Serengeti remains my favorite place in the world, and the myriad of almost just as exciting places in both Kenya and Tanzania can still provide the traveler with the most unique and exciting vacation on earth.

But that will not depend upon the market, but upon the East Africans who can exploit it if they want to. It’s up to the politicians to stem corruption and infuse real professionalism onto the industry; Up to the business people to begin treating the place as a home they plan on building for future generations, rather than a foreign lark easily disinvested.

I think you know what I’m hoping for.
– Johannesburg

Vitriolic Visa

Vitriolic Visa

visapprejectOnline visa applications are being rushed to operation by countries all over the world, including India and Kenya.

Most of these new sites are very difficult to use. Many countries like Kenya have inadequate servers to process even the fewest simultaneous requests. While it’s unlikely this new impediment to a vacation will impede tourism growth, it’s a horrible blemish on the country’s image as a holiday destination.

Kenyan officials justified the new process when their site went live last July as providing a better level of security.

Kenya, in particular, has dramatically turned around its level of security in just the last 18 months. That country’s incidence of terrorism is now lower than the U.S.’

I’m also sure of another benefit: less corruption. Immigration officials were notorious at extracting bribes from incoming travelers. This occurred most often when the agent claimed there was no change when a visitor used a large note (like $100) to pay for a less expensive ($50) visa.

So I think without question this benefits the countries instituting the procedures, at least in the short run. They really have to improve their processes, though, or it will begin to take its toll on future tourism:

Of the couple sites I reviewed India’s is the worse, and that seems incredibly ironic given the technological level of the country. But their difficulty was in building a site without adequate foreign culture input.

Like all cultures whose principal script is not letters but images, the transliteration into a language like English tends to get very wordy and organization is often in color rather than structure.

Kenya, on the other hand, has a wonderfully intelligible site. Problem is, it’s ridiculously slow and often crashes. It’s the same problem I presume that Obamacare went through, only the Kenyans have not remedied this problem after six months.

Kenyans deal with this every day, and so to them, it’s no big deal. Everything from their home electricity to the turn signals on their cars will frequently stop working … but it always comes back. Kenyans must understand that isn’t good! It doesn’t take much for a visitor to wonder if the small aircraft taking them to the Mara might lose power as easily!

In all cases the bugaboo to most applicants is the uploading of images of their passport pictures and the front sections of their passports.

The majority of leisure travelers to India and Kenya are retired and have not mastered image manipulation. Many aren’t capable of scanning at all. And for those who can scan, the restrictions to the size, resolution and shape of the images that these sites impose are too difficult for the visitor to manipulate.

It seems to me that as a simple courtesy these countries ought simply accept whatever legible image is presented, and then develop their own technology to manipulate it however they wish.

That hasn’t happened, and so this is the point which stymies most travelers. The remedy requires finding someone or some business that will manipulate the images to the required parameters.

Many travelers have previously used visa application services, and I expect in due course these agencies will learn to process these applications in a way that overcomes a liability issue for them, now:

Currently they aren’t allowed to setup the initial account online or fill in the particulars on the pages that accept what is tantamount to a digital signature from the applicant. Although these steps aren’t the difficult online ones, it reduces the visa agency’s assistance to nothing more than what a local Kinkos or nephew must do to manipulate image structure.

All travelers must applaud efforts to enhance the security of their vacation. We’ve spent years now complaining about TSA but we’ve come to accept it, and to its credit TSA has also improved.

Let’s hope these countries’ online sites also do. For the time being, though, if you’re a typical traveler accustomed to little time getting your visa, better think twice and set aside a week or two!

Rainy Days Are Here Again!

Rainy Days Are Here Again!

tsavoeasteleEl-Nino’s coming! This means I’m carefully reviewing all the safari itineraries for next year.

We’ve known that El-Nino was on its way, but the extent of it is only now being understood better. For safari guides like me, it’s going to be a challenge.

El-Nino effects different places differently. In my home in the Midwest of the U.S., temperatures will be mild and there will be lots less snow than normal.
RainySeason15-16
On the California coasts and the south of the country, heavy rains … some which have already begun.

And that’s the prediction for East Africa where most of my safaris occur. The chart to the right was taken yesterday from the Climate Prediction Center of NOAA.

It shows the “precipitation anomaly” for three-month periods, starting from the top: Sep-Nov; Dec-Feb; and Feb-Apr. The bluer the shading, the greater the added precipitation expected.

Heavy rain is generally good for the animals. It just causes us guides some transport difficulties.

I realize, now, for example, that my penchant for traveling into the backside of Lake Manyara National Park is likely going to be impossible, as there are two river washes likely to be too high.

It means that multiple vehicle safaris only will be allowed into off-road areas of the NCAA, where black cotton soil, some quicksand and marsh turf, could become saturated. We space our vehicles out a bit further from one another so that multiple vehicles don’t get stuck at the same time in the same place.

On the other hand, there should be some impressively good news for the Kenyan portion of the my safaris, including Samburu, the Mara and Tsavo East.

These normally dry areas will likely get some water. In fact as shown by the picture above presumably taken in the last week, the rains have already greened up Tsavo East, a good month or two before normal.

That’s good. It will increase the survivability of animal births, pretty up the veld and reduce the horrible dust we normally have to endure in these areas.

So don’t change your plans! Just make sure that your safari operator is prepared! In fact, it’s usually been in years of unusually high rains that I’ve had the best experiences with the Great Migration!

Egypt No-Go

Egypt No-Go

Four-wheel drive cars cross the Egyptian western desert and the Bahariya Oasis, southwest of CairoLast week EWT promoted an Egyptian trip. The killing of a tour group by Egyptian security forces Sunday mandates that we now withdraw that offer.

Tourists deaths, kidnappings and violent injuries are way down in Egypt compared to the “good ole days.” A decade ago 12-15 million people annually visited Egypt and about 250 were killed or violently injured each year.

Many of these were horrible terrorist attacks but no one seemed to care or report about it.

Last year ten million people visited Egypt and less than 20 were killed, kidnapped or violently injured.

Sometimes, though, the numbers don’t speak for themselves.

The attack occurred about 220 miles southwest of Cairo in the Western Desert near an oasis called Bahariya (in some reports, shortened to “Bahyira.”) This is an adventure tourism area popular with backpacking tourists.

The Wall Street Journal reported that four tourist vehicles “clearly marked” with “tourists luggage on roof racks” had stopped for a lunch break.

The Journal further reported that there were 21 people in the convoy, including 14 Mexicans, an American, four Egyptian drivers, an Egyptian guide and a police officer along to guarantee that “The convoy was on the route agreed upon with the authorities.”

London’s Guardian newspaper also reported that the group had permits in their passports which were displayed on Facebook.

Al-Jazeera said helicopter gunships fired on the convoy.

It seems clear to me the Egyptian military made a mistake and that the government is now trying to cover for it.

ISIS and offshoot rebel groups are active in the Egyptian deserts, especially after the catastrophe in Libya and the current Cairo crackdown on Muslim extremists.

Ten years ago in the literal carnage that occurred to tourists in Egypt in its heyday, when everyone was going to Egypt carefree and seemingly unconcerned with the mass political killings of tourists that were regularly occurring, it was the bad guys against the tourists.

Now the problem is we won’t know who the bad guy is.

ISIS, for sure, and one way of avoiding them is to not go into the desert. Most tourists should know this.

But now what about the Egyptian government itself? So paranoid that it presumes any four-wheel drive vehicle is an insurgent?

The uncertainty and reactionary paranoia of the Egyptian government radically alters the prospect of tourism in the country. Remember, it’s not just the facts, it’s how people perceive the facts.

And I for one perceive Egypt at the moment like an over zealous fanatic with too much caffeine holding weapons that are far too dangerous for protecting me.

Disappointment follows Delay

Disappointment follows Delay

americanstravelagainIf you’re planning a vacation next year, you better get your reservations now. Americans are back on the road!

The number of Americans traveling overseas has finally exceeded the peak in 2006 before the Great Recession. And it did so with a bang in 2014, with 10% more foreign vacations taken by Americans than in 2013.

The Great Recession clobbered foreign travel to certain destinations like Africa, but it didn’t clobber overall foreign travel. What seems to have happened is that individuals and families that would normally have taken an exotic vacation scaled back, perhaps to Europe or the Caribbean, but they didn’t stop vacationing outright.
20150729_US_International_Destinations_IncreasedNotable was that there were no new travelers entering the market. Although there were millions of new wage earners from 2006 to 2013, very few of those actually took vacations.

Last year that changed with a bang.

Here are the destinations that grew the most: the ones that really require you to now book early if you don’t want to be disappointed:

Mexico. By far! Increasing almost 22% per year, with more than 25 million Americans traveling there last year, one in three Americans who travels abroad now travels to Mexico.

You’ll be surprised at Number 2: The Middle East. 1.8 million Americans traveled there last year, an annual increase of nearly 13%.

This doesn’t mean vacations in Syria, to be sure. Even Israel had a slowdown. What it indicates is the growing travel through major Middle East hubs like Dubai and Qatar, plus the significant increase in vacation travel to Egypt.

Number 3 is the Caribbean and Number 4 is Central America.

There were palsy increases to exotic destinations like Africa (only 1.7%), but nonetheless increases for the first time following a number of years of decreases.

Places like Africa will continue to struggle until Europe gets out of its recession. Africa’s largest market has always been from Europe. Were it not for a steady and sizable increase in Asian and eastern Europeans vacationers to Africa over the last 5 years, the tourism situation there would be dire.

If Europe rebounds, Africa could be in a very tight booking situation. Chinese, South American and eastern Europeans are increasing their travel to Africa substantially.

Europe rebounding depends upon how quickly the European movement to embrace stimulus is successful. Austerity has not worked, stimulus has worked in the U.S. and China, and a growing number of European politicians now recognize their error.

I’d give it three years.

But for you Americans who’ve enjoyed booking anything you want at the last minute, beware. Disappointment follows delay!

Which to Visit? Kenya or Tanzania?

Which to Visit? Kenya or Tanzania?

KenyaOrTanzaniaMy five months in Africa ended this week. If you’re trying to decide between visiting Tanzania or Kenya, I’ve got the answer.

My answer, if you’ve got the cash and time, is both. But if you’re watching your vacation dollars and have limited time, the answer is Kenya.

Here’s why.

First of all why does it take more time and money to visit both countries? The two countries share almost a 500 mile-long border with quite a few border posts, and much of the border actually goes right through abundant game controlled areas.

This isn’t just an issue of the additional costs of visas or shots.

The answer is because the two countries have intentionally made it difficult for tourists to visit them both on the same trip. Both countries believe if they force you into an all-or-nothing situation, they’ll be better off.

Since 1979 the border posts that fall in game controlled areas have been closed to tourist traffic. So, for example, the most important one, the border between Kenya’s Maasai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti, isn’t just closed, it’s now grown over with jungle.

The Sand River bridge which used to deliver tourists between the two countries is ready to collapse. I wouldn’t use if I could. (Click here for my blog that explains why this happened in 1979 and has never changed since.)

So to travel from one game park in one country to another game park in the other country, you have to go back to a border post which allows tourist crossings, and this usually means traveling backwards a lot.

The cost, for example, to travel from a camp on the southern bank of the Sand River in Tanzania, to one you can see across that same river in Kenya, is about $600 per person and at least 8 hours if you fly the whole way.

It will take at least the entire day, and that often doesn’t make sense, because if you try to do it in a day, you’ll have to leave at the break of dawn and won’t arrive in the other country until late in the afternoon/early evening, yet you’ll be paying full game viewing fees (twice!) for each country on a day that you won’t have any time to do game viewing!

So die-hards wanting to see both countries recognize that it’s better to do something else in between, breaking up the long circuitous journey, if that’s nothing more than just seeing a city like Nairobi. And that’s where the concept of needing more time starts.

And then you get into the problem of having to whittle away principal attractions in each of the countries to make enough time to see them both, or if accepting only the very prime attractions in each country, you’re looking at a safari of more than two weeks.

Add to this that “open-jawing” your international air fare (flying into one country but returning from another) is considerably more expensive than simply roundtripping one.

As a general rule, you’ll need 20-25% more time and money for the same amount of sightseeing and game viewing if you visit both countries instead of only one.

Both Kenya and Tanzania have a superb list of incredible attractions, game viewing and otherwise. If they opened their borders a tourist could approach them both as a single country, East Africa.

But they haven’t, and they won’t in my opinion. So I’m beginning to think that most travelers conscious of their travel budget and holiday time ought to choose one or the other and might do so realizing they’ll return another year to see the other one!

The same strategy that most Americans apply now to Europe’s many diverse nations ought to be applied to East Africa.

So if you’re contemplating a “first time safari” for next year – which country should it be?

Kenya.

Here’s why.

1. Kenya is growing more stable than Tanzania.
Safety, and even more importantly, the perception of safety is probably the single-most important factor when people choose an exotic destination to visit.

Last month, President Obama visited Kenya. Last month, the British government removed its travel warnings from Kenya’s most vulnerable area to Islamic terrorists, the beautiful Indian ocean coast.

2. Travel is cheaper and easier to Kenya than Tanzania.
Nairobi’s new airport is astoundingly modern and efficient. You’ll think you’re in Europe. Tanzania’s two airports, Kilimanjaro and Dar-es-Salaam, are losing not only service from Europe and beyond, but they’re losing electricity!

In my many visits in the last five months to Kilimanjaro airport, there were no less than a dozen power outages as I waited for my clients to arrive!

There is much more service to choose from flying into Kenya than Tanzania, and it looks now like Delta will be flying directly to Nairobi starting early next year.

3. Tanzania’s October election could be troublesome.
On the negative side and as I’ve written several times in the last few weeks, Tanzanian politics are heating up. It could be very good for the country, and there are many reasons to think that Tanzania will not go through the troublesome period of political change that Kenya did about ten years ago.

But there are also many reasons to think otherwise. A very contentious national election is scheduled for October 24, and I worry that the main candidates in both factions are talking less about the issues than “keeping the election peaceful.”

Even China — normally an aggressive side liner that never interferes with foreign elections – cautioned Tanzanians Wednesday about violence in the October elections.

4. Kenya is more aggressively conservationist than Tanzania.
Then there are gnawing conservation issues becoming toxic in Tanzania, beginning with the lax enforcement of ivory poaching, the relocation of Maasai just outside the northeastern Serengeti to increase a private Arab hunting reserve, and totally rebuffing conservationists’ attempts to slow down the planned dam and mine in The Selous.

None of these is serious enough for you to cancel a Tanzanian safari, but Kenya in contrast has high positive points on all of these named measures, and so if having to choose one over the other, I think it’s now a slam dunk.

Remember who’s writing this. The Serengeti remains my favorite place in the world, and that’s in Tanzania. My great migration experience these last 8 months in both countries convinces me it’s best in Tanzania.

But the time … money … and safety perception components of creating a great safari are now all tilting towards Kenya.

OnSafari: Lost Bags

OnSafari: Lost Bags

baglostThe family I’ll be guiding for the next ten days arrived cheerful and ready to go!

The McGraths/Bumsteads/Farahs come from Washington and Providence, two families with 4 teenagers and grandma McGrath leading the pack! The kids are 13-18, so older than my typical family safaris and I’m looking forward to fewer video games and more conversations!

We’ll see. Stay tuned.

Practically every safari spends the first night in Arusha, and we’ll be at the Lake Duluti Lodge. There are a dozen decent places to stay in the Arusha area, and a second EWT safari led by Steve Taylor is currently down the road at the Serena Lake Duluti Lodge.

Yep, a names travesty, and the excellent company Serena is completely at fault. For years their lodge was named Mountain Village, and I continue to call it that. But some marketing whizz decided lakes are more important than mountains, and the enormous confusion began.

It hurts this very nice Lake Duluti Lodge much more, because this is a stand-alone property and Serena is a chain.

It seems like this year a lot of people have lost luggage, including me. My bag was lost for 3 days before it arrived with a bagtag that included a transfer in Moscow. I didn’t fly to Moscow. I hope it had a good time.

Poor Audrey from Dallas, the sweetest southern belle you can image, was finally reduced to tears in frustration this afternoon because of the extraordinary bureaucratic confusion that attends some baggage transfers, and as a result, she and her daughter are without their bags.

The devil of the internet led Audrey down a primrose path that ended in Hades. She got her frequent flyer ticket on Aadvantage all the way to Nairobi, and then as any of us, booked a connecting flight from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro on some service like Expedia.

Only BA didn’t arrive in time. Her safari company here signed off on a bad combination of airlines, since the connecting airline has no baggage agreement with BA. So she was forced into a late night after an around the world journey last minute decision: make her connecting flight and hope the bags would make it, or miss her connecting flight and try to retrieve the bags in Nairobi.

She made the right decision and lost her bags. It was the last connecting flight of the day.

From my point of view, the woes of travel are often self-inflicted, but because of the awful allure of the internet that you can do everything yourself. Audrey has learned her lesson the hard way, and perhaps the rest of you can learn from Audrey.

My family arrived fully in tact. KLM arrives at night, and it’s nearly an hour’s drive from the airport to the lodge, and that was followed by dinner. The first night on safari ended probably among its latest, but they all seem in excellent spirits!

Stay tuned! We head tomorrow into Tarangire!

OnSafari: Hit The Road Jack!

OnSafari: Hit The Road Jack!

horrible plane rideWhat’s the best way to start a vacation? Come early and “power down” or jump right in?

The main reason most travelers give for wanting to “power down” for a couple days before “heading out” is that they consider the travel of getting to the start of their vacation so difficult. The second most important reason is “to adjust to the time zone.” The third most important reason is to pad the trip in case the travel is delayed.

Absolutely ridiculous for the first two. Sensible for the third, but too conservative.

First of all, we’ve all had those horrible, disastrous flights and be real, they are not the norm. The norm is not good, but it’s a known quantity. If you choose the right flights and dedicate a bit more of your precious vacation budget to the flights and better seats, there’ll be no need to compensate for anticipated misery.

Consider a typical safari: In Tanzania the average daily rate today is $500 per day per person and my type of safaris are closer to $1000. So what’s the point in working so hard to save a few hundred dollars on your flights by making additional connections or taking inferior airlines or seats when it will cost you four times that to recover?

Wouldn’t it be better to have an easier journey and be able to start off right away with something unique and memorable, rather than paying for a hammock and wide-screen TV in a hotel that could just as easily be outside Newark?

I have numerous examples, but the best is Nairobi. I love Nairobi. Just as I love New York. I love the excitement, the snarling traffic, the putrefying smells, the stultifying noise, bumping into angry pedestrians, pissing off over-tired hotel clerks, biting into over-cooked fish! That’s the city! Because in between these negative memories is music, art, science and youth that is among the most engaging and inspiring in the world!

But … if you arrive Nairobi during the day on any day but Sunday it will likely take you 90 minutes through stop-and-go traffic to get to a downtown hotel. Now in about that same time you can board another airplane, fly over some of the most serene and dramatic scenery on earth, and be in your open-air villa on a plateau overlooking the endless Laikipia desert landscape, a horizon of warm breezes and immeasurable silence.

Soaking in your footed bathtub. Sipping a Tusker.

Here’s a less dramatic example. Where I am outside Arusha, Tanzania, is far less congested than Nairobi, and it’s about an hour from the airport in northern Tanzania where most travelers arrive.

Why not continue another hour or two (or take a flight of a half hour or less) to some idyllic spot like Gibb’s Farm or Chem Chem Lodge or Little Oliver’s Camp rather than dead-head it here?

To be sure where I am now, Rivertrees Country Inn, is one of the most pleasant of the Arusha area accommodations I know. That’s why I’m here. But it’s only with luck that the few monkeys in the trees will show themselves, the birdlife is modest by Tanzanian standards, and the lamb ragout while very good can’t compete with Fritz & Frites in Galena where I live.

Whereas nothing can compete with the absolute relaxation of a Gibb’s Farm massage, of sundowners at Chem Chem overlooking Lake Manyara or the symphony of early morning bird song floating in from Tarangire at Little Oliver’s.

Power down? Hardly. You’re Power Pausing.

Second Reason: Adjust to the time zone.

“Factor in one day of recovery for every time zone shifted,” according to Travel Tips of USA Today.

Sounds reasonable. So the American’s average 11.1 days on safari will be spent thusly: the first nine days in a Ramada near the airport and the next two point one days on safari.

There are too many suggestions on the internet for dealing with time zone change. Mine? Sleep when you want to. When you wake, read. You won’t want to sleep when on safari, and it won’t kill you to be a little tired.

Third. Pad out the beautifully organized trip in case you’re late.

We’ve got stats for this: A quarter of all flights are late or canceled and this is as true for domestic as international flights. Using such free internet tools as flightstats.com you can survey your potential airlines for their level of reliability.

One in 8 flights results in a serious delay that will disrupt your journey.

So as I see it you can look at this in one of two ways:

First, obsessive American you are with wanting the most out of everything, come a day early: protect yourself.

I prefer the second: play the odds. If only one of your eight vacations is disrupted that means seven go without delay, and that means playing the odds got you a week more vacation for the same investment.

As a professional tour planner, I can assure we better designers save the best for last, anyway. A trip with sequential experiences begins with the least rewarding and ends with the most rewarding. It fits nicely – although is definitely not founded on – the possibility of a disrupted beginning.

I’m not doing a very good job selling this lovely estate where I’m staying, anxious myself to get into the bush. But them’s the facts, Jack:

If you arrive in the day in time to get going, get going!

OnSafari: You Need an Agent

OnSafari: You Need an Agent

AirportFor years I’ve derided travel agents as unnecessary middle persons. I’m rethinking some of this.

So is Lufthansa, and probably soon Delta. Once completely dependent upon travel agents, these two mega airlines are soon going to charge you if you use an agent or consumer website like Expedia.

I’m in Vienna, half way through my journey back to Africa. Vienna has no flights to Africa, but Austrian Airlines is part of the Star Alliance. I connect here to Istanbul and then to Kilimanjaro.

This is not a routing that United’s MileagePlus originally offered me. I had to tell them. (It’s a regular schedule offering, now, but when I first booked nearly a year ago, it wasn’t shown.)

My own travel agent skills, and the SABRE GDS booking system that we have in the office is what led me to this option.

A normal consumer without access to a GDS couldn’t do this.

GDS’s are children of the original private airline computer systems. In the late 1970s airlines were among the first companies to use computers. The larger airlines leased their computer systems to scores of other airlines and travel agents and they were called GDS (Global Distribution Systems).

For example, SABRE was the American Airlines’ system. AMADEUS was the system founded by the main European airlines.

GDS are much less user friendly but much more powerful than say, Expedia. They can be quite costly to.

GDS can duplicate Expedia methodology: give me the options for flights and costs for where are you going to from where, but their power is greatly reduced by doing so.

Rather, the savvy user must know before beginning a session what the likely “routing” will be. The GDS is most powerful when asked step-by-step to display every possible option.

The professional using a GDS day-in and day-out discovers the tricks and shortcuts and learns the complex fare building that were Expedia to attempt would result in too many options for its users. So consumer sites like Expedia hewn these options down by algorithms based mostly on expected consumer price points.

By doing so, they often miss the boat. There are easily several hundred different connecting possibilities when traveling from Chicago to Kilimanjaro. Neither Expedia nor MileagePlus would have presented me with the journey I’m currently taking, which I constructed myself using a GDS.

Here’s another excellent example:

At last look, there were 281 different “through fares” between Chicago and Kilimanjaro. That means a single ticket, a single fare on some airline or another starting in Chicago roundtrip Kilimanjaro.

But if you build an air fare say with two fares: one to Europe then a second one to Kilimanjaro, the options are enormously greater. Just to London, for example, there are 650 fares published today, and then 362 fares from London to Kilimanjaro.

Delta in correct conjunction with three other airlines produces what I think is the best fare and best schedule to fly from the U.S. to Kilimanjaro … where I’m going.

But to arrive at this “correct conjunction” you must start with a Delta non-code-share to Paris, then pickup Kenya Airways to Nairobi, then PrecisionAir to Kilimanjaro. On the return you can use either KLM to Amsterdam or reverse the PrecisionAir/Kenya Airways/Delta outbound.

There is no existing consumer booking system that will create this itinerary. You can call an Expedia agent, for example, and tell them what you want, but they won’t be able to find this possibility.

Not even the Delta site will generate this Delta fared itinerary. I have no idea why. It could be that the GDS is capable of finding the loopholes in the complicated airline “fare ladders” constructed by complex agreements between different airline companies. It might also be that Delta just doesn’t want you to pay that cheap a fare.

Keep in mind, though, that this isn’t just to get a cheaper ticket, the obsession of the American consumer. It’s also to discover the best schedules.

I’m a safari guide, a poor travel agent by default. But a good travel agent who understands flights to more of the world than just Africa can be very valuable today. Their problem is that airlines no longer give commissions, and their professional service isn’t free.

One of the awful hazards of the internet is that it empowers the consumer to think she’s as good as the professional.

Not if you want the cheapest and the best schedule from Chicago to Kilimanjaro!