OnSafari: Crowds

OnSafari: Crowds

2ZWhat will Ngorongoro or the Mara look like in 20 years? We ended 12 days exploring the southwest at America’s most heavily used park, Zion, for an answer.

A ranger told me that while July is normally the most crowded month in Zion, “This year every month has 20,000 (visitors). I had a wonderful time, but the African guide in me couldn’t shake annoyance with so many other people around. Both Kathleen and I were laughing hysterically as we watched 7 people on a trail taking a picture of a squirrel!

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Nairobi Cholera

Nairobi Cholera

slumtohotelWhen Kathleen and I first went to Africa in the early 1970s we were warned about mosquito-born diseases like malaria, but there were few other dreaded diseases. AIDS wasn’t yet known. Cholera seemed to be confined to the slums of Asia and South America.

Cholera has broken out in Nairobi. The first 30 or so cases were not found where you would expect to find a hard-to-transmit but deadly disease: in the slums. More than 400 cases have been confirmed and many in two of the most upscale areas of the city, Karen and Westlands. What’s going on?

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Rich & Richer

Rich & Richer

rich safarisAfrican governments thumb their noses at tourists and tourists flounder in the irony of their wealth. What a story!

Safari fees are increasing fast and furiously, and the blame has begun to fly. Following Rwanda’s decision to double a mountain gorilla fee from $750 to $1500 per hour, Tanzania nearly doubled tourist fees Friday night.

Social media is aghast. Tourist platforms like TripAdvisor are fanning the flames as distorted facts are amplified. Let’s try to sort it all out:

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OnSafari: with the flow

OnSafari: with the flow

luangwaWell, we aren’t where we’re supposed to be! We’re supposed to be in Zambia, heading to the great South Luangwa National Park shown in the picture. But our flight from Nairobi was canceled. And the next flight was canceled, and it makes me worry that something bad is happening in Zimbabwe, where both flights were supposed to make a stop, first.

So we’re finally booked tomorrow on a nonstop flight right into Lusaka, with just exactly enough time to jump onto the domestic flight to the far east of the country to the national park. Hope we make it! If we do, I’ll be out of touch for a while. But I promise to post as soon as possible!

OnSafari: Andasibe

OnSafari: Andasibe

I’m in Madagascar with very bad wifi. No photos possible today, but my account follows. Note that starting tomorrow we may be out of touch for a week!

There is nothing comparable to Madagascar in the wild. Isolation for millions of years has created an ecology unique to earth. It’s an absolutely essential trip for anyone who truly wants to understand the wilderness of our planet.

But Madagascar isn’t easy to do. Accommodations are poor. Urban areas are congested, impoverished and polluted. Roads are horrible. Especially important for tourism, its airlines are notoriously inadequate and unreliable. And to fully appreciate what it’s all about, considerable physical exertion is required.

So it’s an ideal destination for young, adventurous people deeply curious about our nature world. It’s not friendly to a 60+-year old veteran of African safaris. Yet almost all visitors to Madagascar are exactly that, older safari veterans. Why?

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OnSafari: Airport Anger

OnSafari: Airport Anger

airportrageAir Rage grows fueled by the increasing difficulty of flying anywhere. Last month American Airlines reported 6800 passengers missed their flights because of incompetent airport security.

USA TSA Security is a joke that’s working for exactly the wrong reasons. So stepping into an airplane, today, in the US is like walking into a bawdy bar outside a Carolina industrial park where executives have just announced the closing of factories that are moving to Mexico. Beware!

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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:

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

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

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

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

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.
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!