The border between Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Maasai Mara has been closed since 1977. Despite hopeful signs earlier this year, it won’t be opening, soon.
Yesterday, the Tanzania Tourist Board (TBT) announced forcefully in Dar-es-Salaam that the rumors of a Balanganjwe border crossing reopening after more than 30 years were incorrect.
As I reported in June, I spoke with newly redeployed Kenyan border officials at Balanganjwe who had just arrived from Nakuru. The old post and buildings were being refurbished.
The much publicized East African free-trade agreement was signed, sealed and delivered to all the East African countries involved several weeks ago. Tourism was an important part of this agreement, and KATO, the influential association of Kenyan Tour Operators, hosted a news conference with Kenyan Government Tourism Minister Najib Balala, Monday, who “confirmed” that the border would open, soon.
No, says Tanzania. Worried that Balala went way too far the TBT broadcast emails all over the world — to embassies and consulates, to every operator they could find in Africa and elsewhere — saying this just wasn’t true.
“Esteemed clients,” the circular begins, the border will remain closed for “environmental reasons.” The TBT went on to explain that the “fragile ecosystem of the area… cannot be sacrificed for the purpose of shortening the route between Maasai Mara and Serengeti National Park.”
What a joke.
Read my blog of September 17. The Tanzanians, and the TBT in particular, are doing everything possible to avoid environmental concerns in new development plans for the Serengeti.
The business plan of the multimillion dollar new airport and new roads and many new lodges would be seriously undermined if access to the Mara was made easy.
The border originally closed in 1977 during an historic dispute over the ownership of the then East African Airways, which later became Kenya Airways. In the seventies, Kenya was the only prosperous country of the three Britain had hoped would become a single confederated East Africa: Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.
Uganda was in the bowels of Idi Amin. Tanzania’s socialist experiment while doing wonders for education was not producing a very good bottom line. The seven aircraft of East African Airlines that flew between Nairobi and Europe were jointly owned by the three countries, but only Kenya had the resources to maintain them.
In a lightning quick move the Kenyan government in cahoots with then British Petroleum confiscated the planes when (remarkably) they were all together on the tarmac in Nairobi (not a very wise way to use aircraft). In less than an hour, the Kenyan Supreme Court bankrupt the airline, then let the Kenyan government buy it for what amounted to the debit on the books owed by Tanzania and Uganda (which, of course, Kenya had already covered to keep the airline going).
In retaliation Tanzania closed all borders with Kenya and confiscated all the Kenyan tourists equipment in the country: Landrovers, minibuses, charter aircraft… and tourists. More than 130 tourists were held hostage for several days until Pan Am flew a mercy flight into the country to evacuate them.
Tanzania and Kenya are the best of friends, now. But the move in 1977 provoked a development of a real Tanzania tourist industry, which until that point had been completely dominated by Kenya.
As time passed there just was no reason for Tanzania to give up growing advantages. Tanzania’s wilderness is generally considered better and more exciting than Kenya’s wildernesses, and certainly less crowded.
Kenya gets the heads up for better service and facilities, but Tanzania so far has managed to have the upper hand with lions and wildebeest.
What is so ironic about this is that by invoking “environmental concern” Tanzanian officials are actually paving the way to over development in the Serengeti as I explained in the September 17 blog.
Opening the border would all but kill many of the new expansion plans set for the Serengeti, truly a move consistent with greater “environmental concern.” This sort of sounds like the health insurance industry claiming concern for the health of the U.S.