Mara reopens amidst uncertainty, spiralling running expenses

Thursday, July 16th, 2020 00:00 |
Tourists on a boat watching elephants crossing a river.

With new strict  measures to guide operations of the tourism sector in place, and to identify Kenya as a safe destination, hoteliers say rules will make holidaying expensive.

Harriet James @harriet86jim

Hotels in Masai Mara Game Reserve reopened their doors to visitors yesterday amidst uncertainty of whether guests will come calling and at the backdrop of surging operational costs occasioned by travel new protocols. 

The Magical Kenya Tourism Health and Safety Protocols stipulate service provision in the industry that meets World Health Organisation guidelines and Kenya’s Ministry of Health measures aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19.

Workers who trooped back to their respective lodges and tented camps on Saturday underwent the mandatory coronavirus tests undertaken by medics from the Ministry of Health sent from Nairobi.

This comes four months after tourism facilities at the game reserve closed doors after the first case of Covid-19 was reported in the country

Hoteliers operating in the reserve said health protocols  were applied to protect visitors from the transmission of the virus.

Among the rules are the restriction of number of visitors, physical distancing and examining of health conditions of tourists and other people coming into the reserve. 

“None of the workers who reported to work on Saturday tested positive for the disease,” said a senior manager at Sarova Mara Game Camp, adding,

“We have been given a clean bill of health and it’s now all systems go. Although it will take long before we go back to where we were.

Business resumption has taken place when the annual wildebeests’ migration is on.”

The migration from Serengeti in Tanzania to the reserve through Mara River and Sand River, which kicks off the annual tourism peak season began last month and is expected to continue until early next month.

Establishments are banking on local tourism, but are hopeful that business will stabilise with international passenger flights resuming next month.

“We expect business to start picking up by mid next month when the airspace is opened up.

Most high-end facilities have started receiving bookings albeit in small numbers,” said James Koileken, the Mara Simba Lodge manager.

Massive losses

Mara Managers Forum, an umbrella body representing heads of about 180 lodges and tented camps in the Mara, say during the four-months closure, they lost over Sh10 billion in revenue, adding that sprucing up dilapidated buildings will force proprietors to incur big expenses.

Ben Kipeno, an official of the forum told Travelwise that they closed before the Easter holidays when foreign arrivals were still on, leading to heavy losses.

Most insurance companies, he said, refused to take liability because the pandemic was unforeseen and did not fall within their contractual obligations.

“The closure was sudden and haphazard. Those who had booked for Easter weekend in April were forced to cancel,” he said.

Lilly Waddington, the proprietor of the exclusive 20-bed capacity Osero Camp said charges for Covid-19 tests were high, claiming that the ministry should give hoteliers a discount for bulk testing.

During the closure, she says she lost about Sh100 million in business volumes, adding that six high-end hotels in the Mara have cumulatively lost about Sh1.5 billion during the period.

Waddington’s sentiments have been echoed by many other industry players who decried high cost of operations that will arise from the new protocols.

The protocols require facilities to have a valid Covid-19 certification that is not more than 14 days old and from a recognised government-approved facility.

They are also required to conform to Covid-19 preventive guidelines prescribed by the Ministry of Health, including providing staff with appropriate, quality and sufficient approved Personal Protective Equipment such as masks or face shields, gloves, gowns/aprons, caps and boots or boot covers and also maintaining a physical distance of 1.5 metres from guests at all times. 

Damine Davis, the general manager at Turtle Bay in Watamu, Kilifi county, says adhering to the protocols will come at huge costs for the hotel industry. 

“Covid-19 testing of my entire staff alone will cost the establishment Sh375,000 fortnightly.

The stickers on notice boards and training have cost us another Sh250,000 and all this is at a time when have not had a single guest since March. It is going to make operations expensive.

“I am not sure how relevant many of us will be in the long term,” said Davis.

Slow Covid-19 testing

Isaac Kasura, the general manager, Entumoto Camp, said workers at the facility will report to work next week, a week late, because of delays in testing.

He said the ministry did not deploy enough staff and testing kits to carry out testing for about 4,500 workers in the sprawling reserve.

“We will be banking on a few locals to witness the wildebeest migration as the effects of the disease continue to take its toll on the savings of most Kenyans,” he noted.

Records at Narok County Government which manages the park shows more than 500,000 tourists visited the reserve in 2017 and 2018.

Annually, the county earns about Sh3 billion in collections from its four gates and other tariffs.

It projected to collect Sh2.9 billion in the last fiscal year, but the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted tourism activities, dealt it a severe blow.

A survey of the reserve over the weekend showed bushes have taken over what used to be game-viewing roads as well as most lodges and camps.

Temporary tents, which operate during peak seasons will not be in operation this year because of the new protocols thus low business volume is expected.

“Charges for testing among other requirements for reopening and the fact that most facilities will lie empty for a long time due to absence of visitors has forced us to adopt a wait and see attitude,” said Patrick Wanjohi of Into Africa Eco Lodges Limited.

Cost at every level

East Africa Tour guides and Drivers Association secretary general Felix Migoya also agrees that the cost of business will bulge owing to extra costs. 

“There is a cost at every level; from transport to accommodation and eating. Remember safari vehicles incur the costs of adding safety equipment such as sanitisers, masks, public address systems and disposable headrests, and so do hotels,” said Migoya.

Lead adventurer and founder of Hike Maniak, Gitonga Wandai challenged the ministry to come up with innovative ways to cut back on these costs.“Testing costs between Sh3,000 and Sh10,000.

In hospitals where it is free, it takes a whole day if not days to access the testing services.

It also must be done every 14 days, making it an unavoidable recurring cost,” said Wandai.

Neighbouring Serengeti and Ngorongoro national parks in Tanzania have been in business for about two months now, albeit sluggishly.

Two Tanzanian ecologists told Travelwise yesterday that hotels have been receiving mainly locals and tourists from South Africa. 

“Though not in big numbers, hotels such as Serena, Serengeti Lodge and Kirawara Lodge Serengeti have been receiving visitors.

Most visitors are South Africans who come by train using the Tazara railway line,” says Nick Murero, the Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem Coordinator for Lake Victoria Basin Initiative.

Arusha International Airport is playing a big role in keeping hotels in business.

Norvati Kassy, the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) Manager based in Serengeti, says visitors have been visiting the sprawling park to watch wildebeests migrating northwards towards Masai Mara.

“When you visit hotels here, you find visitors. Most rushed to watch land migration towards the Mara at the time when Kenya had not opened its airspace,” he said.

Kassy said a few visitors from Europe, China and Russia have been been in hotels and putting bed occupancy for international chains at between 45 per cent and 65 per cent.

“Apart from South Africans and locals who are enjoying subsided rates, a few Germans, Chinese and Russians are common,” he said.

Tanzania’s President John Magufuli opened the country’s economy and airspace to give tourism a boost in late May.

Meanwhile, Emirates Airline plans to restore services to a further six destinations from 15 July to 15 August, bringing the carrier’s network to 58 cities, among them Dar es Salaam from August 1.

“We’ve seen an uptick in customer interest and demand since the announcement of Dubai’s reopening, and also with the increased travel options that we offer as we gradually re-establish our network connectivity,” says chief commercial officer Adnan Kazim.

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