OnSafari: Kenya or Tanzania?

OnSafari: Kenya or Tanzania?

Original photo by Bill Banzhaf.
Original photo by Bill Banzhaf.
Conditions in tourism can change as fast as political and economic conditions. The question for many potential safari travelers is where should I go? If wildlife is the primary goal, then the choice is between Kenya or Tanzania.

I’ve just completed my 40th year of guiding in sub-Saharan Africa. In March I guided veteran travelers on a 30-day Kenya/Tanzania trip, and I just ended with a wonderful family from San Diego on an 18-day Kenya/Tanzania. Most Americans take 10-12 days for safari.

So my gigs this year gave me an excellent chance to answer the question, Kenya or Tanzania? – not just from my own experience, but that of my clients.

There’s no right answer for everyone. So let’s start with the things which are the same:

Until two years ago, there was little doubt that Tanzania’s security for tourists was better than Kenya’s, but that’s no longer the case. Multiple tourist incidents in Zanzibar and virtually none in Kenya for more than 18 months has for right now leveled the security in both countries.
      Kenya’s upcoming national elections and the increasingly unstable situation in Zanzibar are the two single-most situations that could potentially change the current good security situations in both countries.
      But recent terrorism in popular destinations like Paris and Brussels has forced travelers to recognize that insecurity is, unfortunately, a growing component of traveling virtually anywhere. Viewed in this context, both Tanzania and Kenya appear to me a better bet when planning a future vacation than many, many other parts of world, including those like Europe which previously were considered completely safe.

Both countries offer a wide range of tourist products. There’s no significant difference in prices for the same sort of accommodations and activities.
      Kenya’s economy is performing better than Tanzania’s. Normally when a country’s economy underperforms (such as today in Britain) it creates a buy for tourism: vendor costs decline relative to world prices. This has happened in Tanzania, but unfortunately the government’s reaction in part was to significantly increase tourist taxes erasing what would have otherwise been an advantage in costs.

Both countries have all the great wild beasts that attract folks to a safari. Tanzania has an edge with elephants and other herbivores, Kenya with cats, but they are subtle and unlikely to be noticed on an ordinary safari. Tanzania is a bigger place with more wildlife overall, but you’re not going to travel everywhere and Kenya’s density of wildlife in places like the Mara is higher than Tanzania’s.
      Kenya has a greater number of species, in part because of its Great Northern Frontier, the last real wilderness before Africa’s great deserts. There are several big animals like the reticulated giraffe and a number of smaller animals like unusual duikers found in northern Kenya that don’t exist in Tanzania. This unique ecosystem – somewhat like America’s southwest – also gives Kenya an edge with birds.
      But Tanzania’s sheer quantity of game is greater than Kenya’s. So while Kenya has more kinds of animals and birds, Tanzania has more animals and birds. But Kenya’s quantity of animals wows most travelers anyway, and few travelers have the biological training to appreciate Kenya’s greater number of species.

Many differences are subtle and often radically adjusted by season. Traveling during the northern hemisphere’s summer flips, for example, where the great migration is normally found from Tanzania to Kenya.
      But even that can be quickly altered by unusual weather, which is quickly becoming the new norm.
      So please recognize I’m making generalizations that might not apply to your own dates and needs:

As opposed to “wildlife” there is much more pristine, undeveloped “wilderness” in Tanzania that you can include on a typical safari than in Kenya. That often doesn’t correlate with animal viewing, by the way, because it often means that wild animals are more easily spooked. It’s also the reason that there’s greater poaching in Tanzania, because the areas are more difficult to police.
      Kenya’s stunningly rapid economic development compared to Tanzania’s has pressured its wilderness in a way not seen yet in Tanzania. Kenyans are very sensitive to this, by the way, and I also think Kenyans as a whole are much more conservation oriented than Tanzanians.
      But for the “great open country” often associated with a safari, Tanzania is the choice.

Both countries offer exceptional beach resorts, and note that half of all travelers to both countries never see an animal! They go strictly for the wonderful beaches and resorts.
      Tanzania’s early man sites like Olduvai Gorge have no comparable venues as easy to visit in Kenya. Both countries offer adventure climbing, but Kilimanjaro in Tanzania attracts 5-7 times more people than Kenya’s comparable hiking.
      Beyond that, though, Kenya offers much more than Tanzania, starting with the innumerable attractions of Nairobi. Nairobi is a real cosmopolitan city, replete with entertainment, museums and historical attractions available nowhere in Tanzania.

Airports, roads, wifi, security stations, immigration and customs, taxis, charter air flights, stores and shops, medical care, access to daily essentials like toothpaste and sunblock – all are much better in Kenya than Tanzania. It’s a simple reflection of one country developing much more quickly than the other.
      One important caveat to this is the traffic congestion of Nairobi. If properly designed, you can avoid this, but most of the time you can’t. Tanzania’s second main airport, Kilimanjaro, allows incoming visitors to avoid the similar congestion of Dar-es-Salaam. Nairobi has no such alternative. (Mombasa is actually a larger airport than Kilimanjaro, but it serves almost exclusively the beaches, like Zanzibar in Tanzania.)

There are outstanding accommodations in both countries. With proper care a safari in Tanzania can enjoy just as complete and comfortable accommodations as in Kenya. In general, though, Kenyan accommodations through all market levels are superior to Tanzania’s.

There is a great difference between Tanzania and Kenya in this regards. Kenyans are friendlier, kinder, less officious, better educated and trained, and much more willing to help a foreign visitor. Bribing remains terrible in Tanzania and seems under control in Kenya. The likelihood of you being asked on entry, for example, for a bribe is much greater in Tanzania than Kenya.

You can see from the above that Kenya is in a much better long-term position for attracting visitors if it can conserve its pressured wildernesses. Tanzania is still the place for a wild and wooly wilderness experience, something increasingly precious in today’s rapidly developing world.

No one right answer fits everyone and these generalities easily fall apart through different seasons and types of experiences. Never rely just on your friends’ recommendations, although that’s important. Single or even twice-enjoyed experiences often miss the nuances of season and market level. It’s the reason reviews on such places as TripAdvisor can be so misleading.

Never judge a book by its cover, or a safari company or property by its website alone.

Many decisions you should not make alone. Consider an experienced travel professional that can prove his actual experience and who can command your trust, just as you would when purchasing a home or making any other type of investment.

In the end ridiculously few first-time safari travelers are anything but totally satisfied with their safari, usually considering it among the best vacations of their lives!