Overland border crossings between Kenya and Tanzania have been restricted since the late 1970s. Are things about to change?
While in the Mara for the last three days I talked with a border policeman at the Sand River Gate. He said that in the last week, Kenyan customs and immigration officials have arrived with new vehicles, housing materials and new radios.
He claimed that the Sand River Gate, which links Kenya’s Mara with Tanzania’s Serengeti, is about to reopen after more than 30 years.
This corresponds with COMESA’s (the organization of East African states) announcement last month that trade in many industries, including tourism, was going to be facilitated by reduced tariffs and import/export regulations.
This would be fantastic. We could again accomplish our circle tour of both countries, without encountering the huge local air costs now associated with doing so.
My family safari, for example, was at Ngorongoro Crater before ending in the Mara. The Mara is about 160 miles north of where we were, through the Serengeti. But instead of this obvious direction, we had to double-back to Manyara, fly to Kilimanjaro Airport, then fly to Nairobi, and then take a third flight into the Mara. This was not only time-consuming, but very expensive.
The history of the closed border goes back to a dispute in the late 1970s. That dispute no longer exists, but Tanzania discovered that by closing the border it could accelerate its own tourist development by excluding the dominant local Kenyan companies from monopolizing the market.
That was a very reasonable position to take, particularly 30 years ago when Kenya was the economic giant in the area and Tanzania was a crippled, failed socialist republic. And the strategy worked. But now that Tanzania is becoming its own powerhouse economy in the area, with agriculture and mining much more important than tourism, the jumpstart could be over.
The economic downturn demands these types of radical reorientations. Stay tuned. We’ve all got our fingers crossed!