Trade Warring

Trade Warring

tradewarsadtvlThe developing global trade war has already reversed a downwards trend in the price of African vacations and will likely spurn increases.

Unilateral tariffs of the sort imposed by Trump always stifle international trade. When international trade declines leisure travel declines. Sectors with relatively small volumes of business – such as adventure and exotic travel like African safaris – react to these sudden declines with price increases.

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TAN versus KEN

TAN versus KEN

braveeafjournalistsWithin the last few days Tanzania has restricted free speech and Kenya has loosened it. It’s one of several ongoing political trends separating the once inseparable neighbors showcasing Kenya as the more attractive destination for foreign visitors and investors.

Will it continue? If it does Tanzania will certainly become the poor, impoverished cousin.

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Travel Tanks

Travel Tanks

Passengers walk through a terminal at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., last mont

It’s time you really think about travel, really. Because, it’s tanking.

The figures I know best are for Africa, and they’re stunningly clear. Beware of the elated travel reporting which always finds the trend is up … even when it’s down and recognize that most media stories are about the present, not the future. I’m talking about 8-10 months from now.

African lodges and hotels and safari companies are slashing prices, offering extraordinary deals, reducing contract rates. The last time this happened was in 2008.

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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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Not Surprising

Not Surprising

metroTourists have been slaughtered in Egypt for a long time. It’s crazy the way the media paints Metrojet as something new.

In fact as tourist numbers increased in Egypt in the last 30 years so did terrorist killings: The period of greatest growth in Egyptian tourism, 2006-2008, also saw the largest number of tourists killed and attacked, nearly 500.

We retrieve memories of terrorism very selectively, often for political reasons. No one should be surprised by the terrorist bombing last week in Sharm el-Sheik.

Below is a quick summary hardly exhaustive. My point is that terrorism is a way of life for all of us, now, and it has been for some time.

Traveling on a vacation to an exotic destination is today similar to taking your kids on an interstate road trip. You do everything in your power to be safe, but you know that the statistics are chilling and that it’s possible that through no fault whatever of your own, tragedy can strike.

But you also know that the statistics are in your favor … as they are in Egypt, or London or Kenya or New York, and that road trip’s value to you and your family outweighs the risk.

The more exotic or unusual the adventure, usually that means the greater the risk. But I believe without this desire to travel to the far corners of the world, we’re doomed to a worse future than terrorism can create, one that secularizes the world and makes it even riper for even more terrorism.

All this doesn’t mean that the Sharm el-Sheik tragedy isn’t worthy of news, or isn’t shocking. But let’s keep it in context. Egypt is in the center of the Muslim/Christian – Democracy/Autocracy conflict, today. It’s horrible what happened, but it’s not surprising.

And if you haven’t visited Egypt yet, you must!

* * *
egyptattacksvstouristsTerrorism in Egypt has been happening for millennia. Many of us believe in the current era the attack that began a continued escalation of terrorism against tourists was on on April 18, 1974, when 100 rebels stormed a military college trying to assassinate President Anwar Sadat.

Sadat’s overtures to Israel and ultimate peace treaty galvanized Muslim militants. They’ve never stopped protesting that in Egypt. Virtually every year since has seen violent attacks on tourists.

The Luxor Massacre took place on November 17, 1997, in front of the famous Hatshepsut temple. Six terrorists disguised as security forces simply gunned down the tourists as they filed from their bus.

The fact that the horrible Luxor Massacre was followed by years of increasing tourist growth to Egypt means either that quite a few tourists understand the risks and consider them worth taking, or that they don’t care.

I think it’s the former.

It was in the period of 2004 – 2006 that the numbers of tourist deaths and injuries really escalated, and it was not because of any any single large events like the Luxor Massacre, but rather numerous tourist killings at places like a tea house in Cairo or a beach on the Sinai. Yet this period in particular was the beginning of the fastest growth in tourism Egypt has ever seen.

No Lions in the Horizon

No Lions in the Horizon

watching cruise shipWhy are more Americans traveling than ever, but many fewer to Africa?

American tourism to Africa continues to decline (third year in a row), while overall vacation travel oversees is booming: up 5% over last year, which was up 13% over the year before! That’s amazing.

Worldwide tourism is much weaker than America’s but still growing slightly: Most of this is travel to Asia and America. Worldwide tourism to Africa’s on a tailspin.

North American travel to Mexico is off the charts. Europe is up 7%. Even the Middle East is up 6% (which has to be explained given the extraordinary crises, there. Ethiad, Emirates and Qatar airlines are massively growing and are exceptionally good. Even for American travelers going, say, to Russia, there is now a greater likelihood that they will be traveling through the Middle East and counted as visitors there.)

African tourism has always been based on European business, and that’s nearly dried up because of Europe’s mess politically and economically. The last decade’s surge of Asian visitors to Africa, mostly from China, is slowing because China’s economy is slowing.

South Africa has always commanded the largest number of tourists into sub-Saharan Africa, but this year tourism shrunk 23% from Europe and 27% from North America, despite the Rand being at historical lows.

Statistics for East Africa are always hard to get and not available until the end of the year, but the indications are that Kenya is holding its own while its neighbors are all decreasing.

“Indications” include the habit of governments like Tanzania to announce aggressive tourism initiatives when the numbers become dreadful. The numbers must be dreadful:

Last week the Tanzanian government announced plans to build an “online portal” for tourists, which like past initiatives will probably never be funded and is a terrible idea anyway.

The mystery of why American travel has declined 13% this year to Africa while overall American travel is increasing so much is revealed when we examine where other American travel is also declining.

American travel to Central America is flat and to South America is down 12%, only a percent less than Africa.

Travel to much of South America and Africa has always been classified, somewhat wrongly, as “adventure travel.” There is, in fact, more outdoorsy travel within the U.S. than for U.S. travelers abroad. What “adventure travel” really means is “more risky” travel.

Add to this cost. The cost of adventure travel has increased much faster than the cost for conventional vacations. There are all sorts of reasons for this, and none of them is easily reversed.

We’re stuck for the time being with a very expensive safari versus a very economical cruise on the Rhine.

The older American I believe is the one boosting current travel statistics as retirees and soon-to-be-retirees recover their pensions and savings. They have always represented the penny pinching, cautious part of the American traveler market.

American travel companies to Africa are mostly, too, in a tailspin … except for OAT, a frequent advertiser on public radio whose audience is preponderantly older.

That reveals all: The OAT itineraries to Africa are cheap. They are also incredibly scaled down. Shorter than their competitors’ trips, in several cases in East Africa they offer hardly a fifth as much game viewing (the expensive part of a safari).

But they offer some game viewing and they are … affordable: Perfect for retirees just regaining their financial footing.

Younger Americans are still finding their footing. Provided we don’t elect a Republican who starts another war, I think they will start effecting travel in the next five years. Then, “adventure travel” and cost will have less of a negative impact.

Until then, buckle your seat belts. Viking River Cruises will sail into more and more horizons and there ain’t any lions in those horizons.

Dangerous Plays

Dangerous Plays

stupidtouristwithlionAs access to Africa’s wildernesses develops and improves, visitors are becoming less respectful and careful. This puts everything in jeopardy.

The photo above of a self-drive tourist in Kenya’s Maasai Mara game reserve last Sunday “posing” in front of a pair of lions was taken by a film crew at some distance from the tourist. Presumably the tourist didn’t notice the film crew.

The series of photos was first published in London’s Daily Mail. Click here for the full sequence.

The tourist spots the lions, which seem to be about 15-20 meters away. He stops the car then exits the passenger’s side (right side) which is the opposite side to the lions.

He then races around the car to place himself between the car and the lions, leans back with a thumb’s up obviously posing for another person in the car who probably takes a picture. He then runs back around the car and gets back in.

The photos capture no reaction from the lions other than an occasional glance at the tourist.

These are certainly wild lions, and why they didn’t react is impossible to say. They appear to be a mating pair as it is unlikely to see only one male and one female alone together.

Lion mating is pretty routine: It lasts about three days during which time the pair often can’t be roused by anything, not even hunger. But not always, and it’s impossible when first encountering them to determine at what stage in the three-day mating process they are.

I’ve encountered a mating pair when the male charged our vehicle. There is often a vicious fight between males for the right to mate prior to the mating commencing, so it was possible we arrived just as that altercation had ended.

I’ve also seen mating lion break apart to join a kill. Once again such an anecdotal encounter could be nothing more than having happened to arrive just at the end of the mating process.

I don’t think it’s possible to conclude why these lions were so passive in this case. I suppose an equally cogent argument to my own anecdotal experience is the clear fact that more and more tourists are seen by lions, now. Generations of lions in places like Kenya’s Maasai Mara are becoming more used to people and learn that they aren’t threatening.

That, of course, is a degradation of the wilderness but one that I can hardly oppose. Without tourists — at least in Kenya — there would be little wilderness left.

We are at an interesting crossroads in the development of African wilderness for tourism. As so clearly illustrated in this example, wilderness is taking on the characteristics of a theme park, one that definitely has elements of danger in the experience which seem precisely to be one of the main attractions.

And at least in this case flirting with that danger is apparently one of the selling points.

There are dozens of stories of tourists going too far and paying the price. Just google “tourist killed by lion” or “tourist killed by buffalo” for a tidy wrap-up.

Many of these tragedies aren’t quite as wanton stupidity as evidenced in the photo above, but many are.

What concerns me most is that as more and more of these incidents occur, lions and other wildlife will grow more and more accustomed to man and his peculiarities. This seriously jeopardizes their own wild behavior.

There are many people in Africa who consider lion in the same regards as Montana ranchers consider wolf. A tamer lion is much easier to kill.

And there will be more and more tourists injuries and deaths as well. These two ends of the stick will burn right through to the middle, and tourist parks like Kenya’s Maasai Mara will either have to become far more restrictive or will simply be sold to wheat farmers, or both.

The result is that there will be less wilderness for us all to enjoy.

Zanzibar Darkens

Zanzibar Darkens

znzconflictYesterday’s coordinated and mostly ineffectual home-made bomb attacks on tourist sites in Zanzibar’s Stone Town is a certain indication that trouble is on the rise in paradise.

Two to four small, home-made bombs were thrown at tourist targets around 1 p.m. Only two relatively small explosions caused any damage, resulting in minor injuries to three or four Tanzanians.

No tourists were hurt.

Notably, I couldn’t find the news reported anywhere in the main stream Tanzanian media, and it was buried deep in Kenyan media. The story was first reported nine hours after it happened by Reuters, then by AFP, then published throughout the European and Chinese media.

A huge hunk of Tanzanian tourism revenue is generated by beautiful Zanzibar beach resorts. The largest single growing market is Chinese.

Initial reports by Reuters were that there were four attacks of small, home-made bombs, all around the same time at 1 p.m. Reuters identified the targets as the Anglican Church/Slave Museum, the Mercury restaurant and bar, and two at “the beach” but that the beach bombs didn’t detonate.

Reports this morning have completely dropped the references to any beach attacks. Reuters reports one person was injured; local reports carried into AFP by a reporter from Tanzania’s often shut-down Guardian newspaper claimed there were four injured and gave the names of three who were hospitalized, none seriously.

The local report suggested that at least one of those injured had picked up an undetonated home-made bomb and only then did it go off.

So I think the important facts are known, and while the character of the home-made bombs seems just a small step above errant teenagers fiddling with giant firecrackers or little rockets, the coordination of the attacks is troublesome.

The Anglican Church is an UNESCO heritage site and Stone Town’s main tourist attraction. One p.m. when the attack occurred usually represents a lull in the day’s constant stream of tourists, since it’s the hottest time of the day on this hot and humid equatorial island, and the primary attraction at the location is the underground and poorly ventilated old holding area for the slave market.

It’s also likely the time that the very poor security is even poorer or altogether absent and asleep.

On the other hand, one p.m. is the main lunch hour at the Mercury restaurant and bar, and there were undoubtedly tourists there yet to come forward.

Zanzibar has had a long and troubled history, and since the federation with then mainland Tanganyika in 1964, there has always been some political turmoil. The mainland is considered Christian and Zanzibar is completely Muslim.

Ever since 9/11 places like Zanzibar around the world have heated up. And particularly since the western world’s last few years of successfully combating world jihadism, youthful movements in these trouble spots have reemerged.

Zanzibar and the Kenyan coast are further aggravated by being near Somalia, where so much of the War Against Terror has played out in the last few years, advantage West. Click on “Somalia” and “Terrorism” to the right to read the many posts I’ve written about this.

My advice to clients to stay away from Zanzibar came in October, 2012, but that didn’t last long. Negotiations with the mainland and much increased police action quieted the island considerably during most of 2013.

There were two serious attacks in 2013, unrelated and at different times, and neither targeted tourists per se. Both were acid attacks, one thrown at a priest, and the other thrown at two teenage girls who were volunteering on the island.

The priest attack was similar to other attacks throughout the world where visible Christian clerics have publicly placed themselves in Muslim areas. I felt that the attacks on the two British teenagers in Stone Town was likely provoked by their not heeding advice to not dress scantily.

Note that yesterday the British Government’s new advice to its many travelers to Zanzibar was NOT not to go, but just increase vigilance.

At this point I think the best thing for tourists to do is avoid Stone Town. Stone Town is on the west side of the island where the bulk of the Zanzibar population is concentrated. This is where the incidents have occurred.

The better beach resorts on the east side of the island have good security. There has not been a reported incident in these eastern areas ever.

But it is a certain blow to tourism in the region, and it’s a continuing reminder that the global ideological wars between Right & Left, Christian & Muslim, Rich & Poor, are long from over.

Ready, Set, Twende!

Ready, Set, Twende!

lionbinocGet ready Africa! This looks to be a boon year for safaris, as next looks ready To Crater, pun intended.

Bookings are solid, better than in years, and some chain lodges are oversold. This is because of three reasons.

First, rich people have gotten a lot richer as the Great Recession sets in the horizon.

Second, the northern hemisphere’s lousy weather for the last few years continues this winter. Either it’s Europe or the U.S. that the polar vortex falls onto like a tipped over Scottish cap, and Africa is associated with heat!

Third, extraordinary taxes that go into full force this July are seriously increasing next year’s prices really motivating last minute and individual travelers who are filling every single free bed left.

February is traditionally the time the safari season really gets going, anyway. After the lull that always follows the high year-end holiday season in East Africa, February is “snowbird season” the nickname for northern hemisphere residents who just have to leave home when it’s cold.

It’s always intrigued me how tourist seasons have evolved. It makes perfect sense, for instance, that some living in the cold winter northern hemisphere wants to visit Africa in the depth of his winter. Or how people who can only take their vacation in the traditional season, summer when school’s out, travel then.

touristgiraffeSo nothing unusual about that.

But what is striking is how the industry has then completely lied by insisting the time that tourists want to travel is also the best time to go, too!

It’s usually not.

East Africa’s on the equator, so temperatures don’t change much over the course of the year. The amount of daylight, time for scheduled activities, doesn’t really change. That doesn’t mean, though, that there isn’t a better time and worst time to for the “perfect safari.” But it does mitigate any gross difference.

Not so in southern Africa, where there is more of a distinct winter and distinct summer. South Africa is the same distance south of the equator as Georgia is north of the equator. And we all know how hot Atlanta can become in the summer and how cold, snow cold, parts of Georgia become in the winter.

Yet because summer is most American’s vacation season, many think the best time to visit southern Africa is during southern Africa’s winter!

Of course “best” and “worst” are terribly relative terms. My very personal best time to visit southern Africa is as much into their summer (our winter) as my tolerance of heat and humidity allows me.

Temperatures in the Okavango Delta and the adjacent pans areas are regularly above 100F with frequent thunderstorms when the game viewing is best! Well, that’s kind of tough, although if you can handle that, February is probably “the best time to go.”

(As I age I’ve been sliding a bit further down the season.)

But from my point of view July and August are absolutely not the best time to safari in the south, but it’s one of the highest seasons for Americans to travel there!

It’s a drab and dull landscape, then. The leaves have all fallen to the ground, it’s dust dry and bitter cold in the morning. Although some crazy camps take 6 a.m. game drives, the sun doesn’t appear until around 730a, and it’s dark before 6 p.m.

And believe me, the animals don’t like it, either. You know what a bear does in the winter. Well, it’s not exactly that bad, but there aren’t any babies, there’s a definite lull in activity and I once wanted to put a coat over an impala it was so immoveable.

Now keep in mind that fortunately for the south, there’s much more going on than just safari activities. Cape Town is exquisitely beautiful year-round. Coastal wildernesses like the Tsitsikama Coastal Forest and St. Lucia wetlands are beautiful in the south’s winter! And with very tolerable temperatures that are moderated by the cooling of the great oceans, they’re near ideal in the summer, too!

Festivals, out door concerts, peaks in sports matches, and all the other touristy stuff you’d expect from city planners soliciting your buck are at their peak in the south’s summer (our winter). Of course the great historical spots of southern Africa, particularly throughout Zululand, are the same and fascinating at any time of the year!

There’s been unusual amounts of rain in all of sub-Saharan Africa over the last few rainy seasons, but I have to stop saying this, because it seems like every year in recent memory this has been the case. And if not too much wet, then a drought. Nothing in between.

So a truer statement is that everyone is getting used to unusual weather. Unusual wet. Unusual hot and unusual cold. Itineraries are adjusted to avoid places like Tarangire and Manyara in Tanzania which are getting routinely flooded out. And camps and lodges that are bucking the trend are investing in better tracks.

Regional and local marketing is developing aggressively. African tourism is a volatile market. It’s always had extreme ups and downs.

This year is a definite UP. Next year, especially as price squeezes budget and trips get shorter many worry that only the highlights are certain survive. It might just be a 3-day safari of nothing but the [Ngorongoro] crater!

Kenya Tourist Attack

Kenya Tourist Attack

barelyavertedContinued terrorism in Kenya and more public attacks against tourists is resulting in draconian laws that are turning Kenya into an autocratic state.

Kenya’s average of three terrorists attacks monthly continue. Yesterday, ten tourists escaped death when a grenade thrown at them bounced unexploded off their minibus window.

Prior to the Westgate Mall attack foreign investment was growing seemingly undeterred by the increasing terrorist attacks in Kenya. It’s not clear yet if that has changed.

But clearly tourism is down, and tourism remains a fundamental part of the Kenyan economy. Many operators are turning to local and regional tourism. In something that appears desperate to me, the Kenyan Tourist Board is spending considerable funds to lure Nigerian tourists, where terrorism is as bad if not worse than in Kenya.

And not surprisingly, some of Kenya’s most respected tourism companies are now concentrating more of their investment in Tanzania.

Cheli & Peacock, a landmark Kenyan tourist company, announced this week it was opening new offices in Arusha, Tanzania.

The Kenyan government is not an ostrich with its head in the sand. With a string of negative press reports starting with terrorism and extending unendingly to the country’s leaders trials in The Hague, president Kenyatta is growing increasingly authoritarian.

And Parliament seems willing to go along with him.

Increased police powers and a reversal of the decentralization of the police was the most imposing move. Clearly directed against terrorism, there was limited opposition to this fall’s moves, until the courts got in the way.

The Kenyan constitution is a good one, and the government more or less reversed itself on new police laws before an expected challenge in the court. Using Obama’s techniques but for bad ideas, Kenyatta is quietly using his executive powers to take more control over the police and make them less publicly accountable.

Simultaneously, the government wants to muffle the press, and once again Parliament seems ready to go along. I guess the idea is if you can’t wield the power to stop terrorism, perhaps you can stop the reporting of it.

The two laws Parliament may pass next week “seriously restrict the work of journalists and independent media in Kenya and give the government enormous space for censorship,” according to Kenya’s main online newspaper, The Star.

These laws, too, will be challenged in court if passed.

But while we know that tourism is suffering, because the industry is so public and necessarily transparent, we haven’t learned yet that foreign investment may also now be under attack. And if that’s true, Parliamentarians are likely freaking out.

The answer to the end of Kenya’s terrorism begins with leaving Somalia. I’ve been saying this literally since Kenya invaded Somalia in October, 2011. But that’s not in the cards.

Kenya is America and Britain’s proxy in Somalia, and from that point of view, things are going pretty well. If Kenyan troops were to leave, it’s likely the warlords and terrorist would regain control.

So Kenya continues to suffer so that Americans can enjoy their holidays… but not on safari.

A Flowering Relationship

A Flowering Relationship

ProteaMeetRoseLast week America’s Marriott announced it was acquiring South Africa’s Protea, a fireworks signal of how tourism is changing in Africa: Fewer groups, fewer inclusive guided trips for individuals, and much more opportunity for the independent traveler.

It’s no surprise and continues the long-term trend powered by the internet that brings consumers closer to their travel product, slowly but surely reducing the use of a travel agent.

It further reflects the shortening span of a vacation in America, and the near hysterical price competition Americans bring onto the world market. Marriot will become the largest single hotel player on the continent, a revered market position that will be able to control price with manipulations of capacity.

Protea Hotels in its current form began in 1984. In those days, still deeply shackled by apartheid, South Africa’s hospitality market to survive had to develop a home-grown component rather than strictly relying on foreign visitors.

The growth of foreign visitors to South Africa in the 1980s was inhibited by apartheid, not just by the policy which many travelers found distasteful, but by a growing number of sanctions which, for example, excluded South African Airways from easily refueling anywhere on the continent.

Ronald Regan’s sanctions on much of South Africa’s businesses extended to its hotel and hospitality industry as well.

Protea was a creative solution. In the beginning it marketed strictly to South Africans. The famous and then ingenious Protea Hotel Pass, which would later be adopted and expanded in such places as New Zealand, allowed frugal travelers to buy a certain number of nights, then use them anywhere throughout the chain.

South Africa had a vibrant internal domestic tourism, as well as considerable business travel especially between the main cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. The Protea chain exploited what was then the South African business culture: hell with the rest of the world, we can go it alone.

And they did it quite well. The hotels were simple but much more attractive and comfortable than a comparable American motel chain like Holiday Inn at the time. The rooms were more colorful, more completely furnished, more individualized, but smaller and more compact than a traditional hotel’s.

Restaurants and bars were functional and well priced but served much more fresh food, for example, than an American motel restaurant. All told, it was a very pleasant, warm and inviting environment.

Most importantly, though, was Protea’s direct marketing. Even back in the 80s, when practically every tour and hospitality vendor gave handsome commissions to travel agents and tour operators, Protea was stingy. Its business plan didn’t allow for a large margin, so it was clear the hotel had to hook the customer directly.

That isn’t to say it didn’t partner with other components of the industry, like at the time large local tour operators such as Springbok Atlas, but it did so with hesitation.

When EWT was a very large wholesaler in the 1980s, sending several thousands of Americans annually into Africa, and when I had a personal office in Johannesburg preparing for the end of apartheid, one of my main tasks was to find a South African hotel partner.

Protea just wasn’t interested. Or I should say more honestly, not interested in serious commissions. At first I felt we were positioning ourselves incorrectly, but then I learned from my colleagues that it was the same across the board.

It seemed very strange at the time: And it was a bad idea for the eighties and nineties and was probably the reason the company’s growth stalled with the end of apartheid.

But the business model that relied nearly exclusively on cutting out the middle man is now the way of the world, and whether Protea was prescient or just enjoyed a lot of dumb luck really doesn’t matter, anymore.

Protea succeeded. In some ways you can argue that Protea anticipated the internet.

When apartheid ended Protea snuck into neighboring countries. It never blossomed anywhere outside South Africa, and I think that’s because direct consumer transactions in places like East Africa simply didn’t exist until recently.

So in places like Nairobi, Arusha and Dar-es-Salaam Protea staked its fortune on South Africans traveling there, and that was never a large enough market for sustained growth. Nevertheless, Protea has stayed in East Africa, and the new endorsement by Marriott is a certain affirmation that both companies believe that even in these less developed parts of Africa, direct consumer sales are coming.

Most hotel bookings, today in America, are done directly by the consumer, and so in that sense Marriott isn’t changing its game plan. But the earthquake statement Marriott is making is that American consumers are now ready to use that style when traveling to Africa. Anywhere in Africa.

And there’s no better quick way to reap that market than acquire Protea. They’ve been doing it for years.

Blame Reigns

Blame Reigns

EscapeFromKenyaConfusion, (global) stupidity and pure intrigue surround three U.S. medical students who just escaped from a hotel in western Kenya that had imprisoned them. Where are they, now?

Logan Key, Brooke Weiser and Ilya Frid, students on a work-study project with the questionably reliable Medics to Africa program, had been locked inside the little Gilly Hotel in Migori, Kenya.

Kenya media reported that the kids refused to pay a hotel bill when presented to them at checkout. They told the hotel manager that they had paid Medics to Africa before coming to Kenya for all the services they had used, including the hotel accommodations.

So the hotel manager … locked them up!

The weekend brouhaha made national Kenyan news and prompted local police in western Kenya to arrest the Kenyan agent who had booked the kids’ program.

But – absolutely remarkably – the police refused to free the kids from the hotel!

It’s unbelievable. Client/hotel disputes are not uncommon throughout the world, and particularly when a middleman or agent is involved. I can’t remember, though, a single case where the dispute involved locking up the patrons.

Then, this morning NewsKenya reported that the students had escaped! Much of their luggage had been left behind in their room, and the news source reported that they had escaped over a fence while guards slept.

Normally, documentation presented by the client showing that payment has been made is sufficient for the hotel to send them off with a smile. The hotel may know from the getgo that they haven’t been paid, but the risk of bad PR from abroad is too compelling for them to start a fight.

The hotel is essentially accepting blame for having itself made a bad decision: extending credit to the agent that was supposed to pay.

Dozens of times I’ve been hired as a consultant by African tour companies to collect these bad debts from intermediaries. I’d say my success rate has been less than 20%, and then only after some serious negotiations that recovers far less than half that’s due.

And I’ve always approached these jobs with full disclosure of such, berating the African companies from the beginning for extending credit to questionable agents. And then continuing to extend credit when the account falls into arrears.

That’s the main problem. I remember, in fact, tracking down an Ohio zoo group at Ngorongoro Crater and telling them that the vehicles they were using wouldn’t continue on if my client, an African tour company, weren’t immediately paid.

Of course, I was bluffing somewhat, but I was furious. And we gathered enough credit cards that I managed to recover about 30% of what was due.

I was furious at everyone, as I am with this story. Of course I was furious with the zoo officials who had not completed due diligence with their American operator (the real culprit who had collected the individuals’ money and bagged it away), but I was equally furious with my African client for having driven them out of Arusha to Ngorongoro without having been paid!

I can’t stand incompetence, but I explode at fraud. And I go bonkers at abject stupidity.

In this case it’s so clear what happened: Medics to Africa, despite one of the kids claiming to the Kenyan media that it was recommended by the American Embassy, which is not true, is not a reputable company.

The owner is currently in jail for having absconded with a far greater amount of money than these three kids’ hotel bill. When you drill down beneath the so-called testimonials shown on its brilliant website, and make all but a few calls to Kenya, you’ll discover that the man is a crook and known to be throughout the community of Migori.

The naivete of believing a website is absolutely incredible.

But the owner of the Gilly Hotel is equally incredible. Under Kenyan law, he is kidnaping. Under Kenyan law, if he felt the kids were ripping him off, he could get an arrest warrant from the local police.

But wait! In this case, even that would be going too far. The hotel owner claims that Medics to Africa had a huge unpaid bill. So why did he even check the kids in without getting at least their payment? He could have refused accommodation when they tried to check-in… that would have been legal.

But wait, wait! Why did the police not free the kids?

My goodness, this story is incomplete, and I’ll try to run it down for you as the ending unfolds. Meanwhile, help these naive kids learn their lesson.

Be careful when you travel. Just like your third grader, crooks know how to make pretty websites, too.

In-Depth Tourism

In-Depth Tourism

Death, destruction, despair and poverty … all for an attractive price! For less than $30 per person you can be guided into Kenya’s most famous slum! Kibera Tours dot com. “Experience a part of Kenya unseen by most tourists: KIBERA The friendliest slum in the world!”

The half-day sightseeing trip in Nairobi promises to visit an orphanage and school, a bead factor and a typical Kibera house before the piece de resistance: the biogas center: “a fantastic view over Kibera and picture-point. You can see that also human waste is not wasted here.”

This is disgusting. Tourism at its worst and most exploitive, revealing the basest inclinations of ourselves and reenforcing ridiculous notions that poverty doesn’t exist at home.

Kibera is the largest of Nairobi’s 7 or 8 slums, which slip around the city in endless tin and fumes. Not even the Kenyan government census can estimate the size, but the best guesses I’ve seen put the slums at several million people compared to the residents in the city at around 3½ million. The slums are a dissimulating fraction of greater Nairobi and would be an incessant inferno in the developed world.

But in Africa they maintain an unusual tranquility. To be sure crime is endemic (see the film, Nairobi Half Life) and ethnic feuds that plague Kenya from top to bottom can produce particularly vicious moments here, but unlike slums in the developed world there is no boiling cauldron of the poor ready to murder the rich.

Nairobi slums are often stepping stones from poverty, completely unlike the imprisonment of slums in the developed world. Emigrants from impoverished rural areas without proper education or training live for a few years in the slums and develop the minimal skills needed to work in the modern world.

Then they move up and out. Not yet has Kibera fashioned a whole class of people forever imprisoned like the old Harlem or Cabrini Green in the U.S., or the Cape Verde barreos of Lisbon. Kibera will indeed become another Cabrini Green if something isn’t done this generation. But for the moment, the slums are relatively too young to have become a blighted institution.

Nevertheless, they look the same. And the nuance I argue above is not something that can be seen on a short visit. But slum tourists don’t come looking for hope.

What do they come looking for? Why does a tourist pay to come here?

I’ve asked myself the same question time and again. It’s identical with the wish to “see a village.” That quoted remark, of course, is an euphemism for seeing dirty bomas with mud huts and animal excrement. Fortunately, by the way, such villages are rare to find, anymore, at least along East Africa’s normal tourist circuit. What has replaced them are sedentary replications intended to make money from tourists.

Why do tourists pay to see them, even though they are clearly not authentic?

Even though outstanding African economic growth and potential is in fact a topic often found on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, I still hear from parents, “I want my children to see the way the other side lives.” Or “I think it’s important we see how fortunate we are.”

You don’t have to come to Africa to “see how the other side lives.” In some places like southwest Wisconsin near where I live, or the Ozarks or Appalachia, or the residual slums of our urban cities, real poverty and its resultant despair and destruction is no less than Kibera’s.

America’s “Kiberas” are not as widespread or large as Kenya’s, that’s true. But this is not a fortune of chance. It’s the result of a human civilization that wants to give everyone a modicum of happiness, that cherishes human rights.

That’s what America was mostly about, and it’s now what the world is mostly about. Kibera’s existence is our failing, just as Cabrini Green was and Appalachia still is.

Poverty is so complicated that it easily befuddles, and I think that’s part of the tourists’ desire to see Kibera or “a village.” They want to simplify the complicated. They don’t want to see poverty as something relative, but clearly defined and for sure, Kibera is.

But there is the same, absolutely identical misery, disease and angst in the unemployed, castaway homeless veteran on the streets of New York as any child walking the mud paths of Kibera.

Kibera, or the imagined dirty African village, or the homeless veteran need not exist. In a world where you and I assumed our basic human responsibility to our neighbor, there would be no Kibera.

So I believe the single-most important reason tourists want to “experience poverty” in Africa is to believe the same identical thing doesn’t exist at home. Or isn’t as bad. Or isn’t as extensive.

If one child is poor; if one veteran is homeless, it’s wrong.

And finally — possibly even worse — the delusional tourist wants to find a smiling child who is dying, so that they can believe that poor is OK, that homeless can also be happy, that death smiles.

It’s OK to live in a multi-million dollar mansion and it’s OK to dab yourself with Chanel. But it’s not OK to live a world that allows Kiberas to exist. Kibera’s existence is our fault; the collective fault of an unjust world order. The children of Kibera can just as easily be the children of Trenton.

It’s not OK to go through life with the fantasy that Africa is besmirched and cursed and that Kiberas exist only in Nairobi and Shaker Heights exist only in Cleveland.

And it’s not OK to think that poor is OK, anywhere. There is no happiness in being poor or homeless, whether in Kibera or 49th Street.

Don’t come to Africa to validate your own fantasies.

Better the Beast You Know

Better the Beast You Know

"Gorilla Taxes": original construct by pborgbarthet at
The second greatest conservation success story in my lifetime may be out of control. Mountain gorilla populations may be prospering because so are bribes and corruption.

The first mountain gorilla trek I brokered was in June, 1979. At the time Dian Fossey reigned on Karisoke volcano with no aplomb and great madness. But science had arrived and the population count was reliably put at 285.

That is a dangerously low number for any life form.

Last week a consortium of field biologists announced the current mountain gorilla count is right around 800. “Right around” is the euphemistic scientific phrase that means “we can’t get an exact count in The DRC Congo because there’s a war there.”

Nevertheless, the number is fabulous. The population of this awesome beast is not going extinct, at least not right now. And really the sole reason is tourism.

Mountain gorillas live in two places near to one another: Bwindi Forest almost entirely within Uganda, and the much larger Virunga Mountains (which is actually the highland forests connecting seven dormant volcanoes) which is mostly in Rwanda but a bit in Uganda and a bit more also in The DRC Congo.

Bwindi is separated from the Virungas by a 50 kilometer long forest corridor that gorillas likely could use to migrate, although little field science has confirmed this.

Three years ago when guiding a prominent American zoo group I experienced first-hand how a large portion of Bwindi “tourism” works: illegally. It had been often reported before, but this was my first personal experience. Years before, when Uganda tourism was not yet mature, I had a similar experience with my daughter that was actually far more dangerous. This zoo experience was not dangerous, it was simply corrupt.

I knew what we were doing from the getgo. Most tourists do not. A blog I found posted by an enthusiastic traveler last March is a perfect example of a tourist who doesn’t realize she’s engaging in the black market, and it’s a perfect blow-by-blow description of just such an experience.

I’m not want to extol the virtues of capitalism, but the dynamic is a perfect indicator in this case. In Rwanda’s Parc de Volcans, where mountain gorilla trekking has merged art, science and commerce to near perfection, the cost of seeing a mountain gorilla for an hour is $750. In Uganda’s Bwindi, permits are currently going for under $350.

It happens usually with “walk-in” tourists or tourists who have booked too late for a legitimate permit. Real gorilla permits are controlled in Uganda in a very nepotistic way: a mix of officials playing strictly by the rules and demanding full nonrefundable payment at the time of reserving, or by holding a few residual permits in reserve that are allocated to relatives and friends in the tourist industry.

This means that if you book your trek through a reputable local ground handler far enough in advance, you’re probably playing by the rules. In my case three years ago, my choice of a “reputable operator” was flawed.

For a number of years I had relied on a small but extremely dignified man who had deep connections with the Ugandan government which gave me singular but above-board benefits. He had a heart attack only weeks before we arrived, long after we had fully paid him, and his tourist company fell into the control of his far less reputable nephew.

What the disreputable operators do is bribe soldiers or rangers to “guide” tourists to gorilla families that are not yet fully habituated, so to gorilla families that are not yet “on the list” to be visited. At a serious discount to the official permit price.

There are eight habituated gorilla families in Bwindi and nine (soon ten) in Rwanda’s Parc de volcans. With a maximum of 6-8 tourists allowed per family visit, that caps legal permits at right around 125 daily. The demand is far greater than this. It also means that only a fraction of the mountain gorillas alive today are a part of habituated groups. Most are wild animals ripe for exploitation.

Legitimate permits are usually sold out a year in advance. Walk-in tourists usually don’t have the funds, they are generally savvy on the internet, and they know that someone in Kampala will sell them a permit for much less. That wasn’t my unique situation of course, three years ago, but it’s the case most of the time.

There is danger in any black market, and in this one it’s physical as well as the risk that you won’t see gorillas at all. The physical danger comes from approaching a powerful wild animal before it wants you to. “Charging” very rarely happens with habituated gorillas, but you’ll note in the blog I’ve chosen above that this was central to her tourist experience. It’s not a good thing.

But missing the experience altogether is as great a risk. The chance of not encountering a gorilla family on a legitimate non-black market experience is today next to nil. But trekking to non-habituated families usually means it’s much longer, more difficult and easily aborted if weather turns bad. It also means the so-called “guide” probably knows how to shoot better than commune with a gorilla.

Ugandan society at large is much more corrupt than Rwanda, and the shenanigans in Bwindi is pretty typical of the whole range of Ugandan society from permits required to starting a business to parading in public.

The iron fist government in Rwanda, for which I have an equal tome of criticism of a different kind, is insurance that black marketeering of gorilla permits there won’t happen.

Nuff said? Almost, but there’s more. I can’t figure out if the Ugandan official response to the black marketeering was good or bad. That government response was to lower the official permit price to what the black market was commanding, $350.

(In my personal experience three years ago with eight other people, I discovered that the “guide” was given only $150 per person. We had of course paid $500 – the official rate at the time – so there was quite a profit in the capitalist chain that one morning.)

Lowering the price to the black market level is creative, but my assumption is that the black marketers will simply go lower still. Whatever the case, official Uganda is now considering raising the official price back to $500. This remains $250 below the Rwandan level.

What we have happening with mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda is a dangerously unregulated market, because official Ugandan control of Bwindi has been lost to racketeers and corrupt rangers. And I don’t think official fiddling with the price will stop it.

The free-for-all capitalism of Bwindi has led to all sorts of tourist attractions linked directly to less and less good science and wildlife management. Gorillas regularly wander into tourist lodge areas there, for example, something the Rwandans understand is neither good or safe.

Yet the fact is that the mountain gorilla population in Bwindi seems to be increasing faster than in the Virungas. Is ecology linked to an unfettered free market?

According to Uganda’s Minister of tourism, “’This result confirms beyond reasonable doubt that Uganda’s conservation efforts are paying off.”

Or something else.