Wildebeest spectacle at its peak, but Covid-19 has halted visitors, cash

Wildebeests cross the Sand River from Serengeti National Reserve in Tanzania to Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya on Wednesday. PHOTO | GEORGE SAYAGIE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Behind this most sought after experience between Kenya and Tanzania are tour guides, hotel owners and bead makers who wish things were different.
  • Mara Hoteliers Forum chairman Fairman Muhingi says the tourism industry has a lot of optimism in the Mara this season, coming at a time when international visitor flights are resuming.

  • Keekorok Lodge cut its prices from Sh34, 500 for a double room and Sh24, 000 (single) to Sh18, 500 and Sh14, 500, respectively.

From a distance, the column of beasts dot the grasslands moving into the sandy river like ants. One after another, they dip their massive bodies into the crocodile-infested river. The Mara is roaring with life, five months after an invisible virus kept visitors away.

The dramatic migration that captures the wildebeests’ organised collaboration with zebras in the age-old route, their not-so pleasant encounter with crocodiles, new births, the hurdling, and their movement in a circular motion presents a breath-taking spectacle to nature enthusiasts, documentary makers, scientists and  a huge number of those who just want to behold.

Mara Hoteliers Forum chairman Fairman Muhingi says the tourism industry has a lot of optimism in the Mara this season, coming at a time when international visitor flights are resuming.

By Sunday, 13,500 private vehicles had entered the Mara at through the Sikinani gate, the main entrance to the reserve. There are also visitors who take tour vans from tour companies. The tally keeps rising as the days go by.

HOTEL RATES REDUCED

Behind this most sought after experience between Kenya and her neighbour Tanzania, however, is a legion of tour guides, hotel owners, bead makers and tented camp owners who wish things were different. Although the spectacle spelled hope for the tourism sector, individual businessmen admit that it has not been lucrative to them.

They claim that the cost of business is becoming high because of the measures put in place to counter the spread of the coronavirus, yet they have had to drastically reduce the hotel rates in order to attract more local tourists.

This year presents a good opportunity for business since the migration has happened at a time when the weather is conducive for tourists, when hotels have renovated and the roads are somewhat passable, but restrictions occasioned by the Covid-19 crisis have kept away international tourists, who have over the years paid handsomely for accommodation and services.

The virus did not only rob them of their clients — international tourists. It has also led them to incur huge business costs.

Every two weeks, each employee of the hotels and tented camps in the Mara, have to undergo a Covid-19 test, which costs at least Sh7,000 and is borne by the employer.

Small Boutique Luxury Tented Camp owner Alfred Korir says it has been costly to comply with requirements by the Health ministry, including buying infrared thermometers, installing sanitising booths, buying masks and gloves for all staff as well as testing them fortnightly.

EXPENSIVE TESTS

“It is expensive to operate the camp with all the set guidelines. We are required to test our staff every 14 days, but the tests are expensive. Since we have no public hospitals around here, we are using Lancet Laboratories and it costs me Sh9, 000 to test just one staff. In a month, I spend a total of Sh72, 000,” he disclosed.

Hotels have also had to drastically reduce their rates to accommodate local tourists trooping into the Mara.

Camp managers said they reduced their rates to accommodate the local tourists, with consideration that the wildebeest migration, listed as one of one of the Wonders of the World, is happening at a time when individuals have greatly been affected financially by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Matira Bush Camp directors Antony ole Tira and Monica Brown said they had rolled out an exclusive package of Sh9, 500 for local tourists as a measure to tap into the domestic market.

“We have been charging Sh28,000 during the high peak season,” Mr Tira said.

Fig Tree acting manager George ole Kuluo said they lowered their rates by Sh30,500 to offer local visitors a Sh18,000 per night package.

Keekorok Lodge cut its prices from Sh34, 500 for a double room and Sh24, 000 (single) to Sh18, 500 and Sh14, 500, respectively.

Wildebeests run across a sandy riverbed of the Sand River as they arrive into Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve from Tanzania's Serengeti National Park during the start of the annual migration July 18, 2020. PHOTO | TONY KARUMBA | AFP

Some tourists have been conducting game drives and seeking alternative accommodation in cheaper hotels and lodgings in neigbouring Sikinani and Talek, where rooms go for as less as Sh2,000 per night.

Talek’s Loita Planes Hotel and Riverside Camps proprietor, Kipeen ole Sayialel said his accommodation facilities have also reduced rates.

BEAD MAKERS

Bead makers and sellers also said that the year has not been good for them because local buyers are no longer intrigued with beadwork. “International tourists always want to buy souvenirs to take back home. But local tourists get them from Kariokor. Some even know how to make them. Kenyans can never buy sandals here for Sh1, 500 for example, yet they can get them at Sh500 in Nairobi streets,” Ms Salome Silantoi Leina, a local trader, said.

Even food and snacks hawkers said they have not been making a kill from the spectacle like they have been doing in previous years, because many visitors were being extremely careful and carried their own food.

The Ministry of Health granted permits to the tourism facilities after inspection to assess their compliance with protocols put in place to enable them operate while at the same time, ensuring that they contain the spread of the contagion.

“They had to conduct staff testing, fumigation of premises, have running water and sanitizing points, and many other measures before they could be allowed to operate,” Narok Governor Samuel Tunai said, adding that officials from the ministry are still doing constant and regular inspections.

By August 1, the day international flights were resuming, business was still slow, but some tour operators were impressed that local tourists had made their way to the camp. The World Health Organization and the International Air Transport Association issued health guidelines for operating passenger planes.

“I actually never thought that we would have this number of visitors this year. The year started on a low key. With the kind of tension over Covid-19 infections, the closure of borders and the stringent restrictions, we thought we would have no business at all. But I am impressed,” Mr Justus ole Kipindoi, a tour operator, told the Nation.

“The opening up of the airspace will definitely also bring in more guests although their numbers may not be as high as the other years. Most of the guests at the moment are local tourists,” Mr Tunai told the Nation.

LOCAL TOURISTS

Most local tourists interviewed by the Nation said they visited the Mara because they wanted to experience life outside their homes and towns since the coronavirus pandemic had restricted their movement for a long time and they wanted a change.

“We have stayed at home for too long and it can really be depressing. That is why I decided to come here with my children to experience the spectacle. It is a tour activity that is safer because we do not get to get out of our car. We just drive around and go back to Nairobi,” Mrs Jenniffer Koi Mwamba, said at the Sikinani gate.

“We carried our own food so that we do not have to worry about the virus. Unless we need to go to the toilet, my children and I do not have to actually get out of the car,” she added.

Mrs Mwamba said her family had enjoyed watching the great migration, saying that before Friday, she had only watched it on television.

“It is massive, impressive and breath-taking. It is intriguing. After this, I will go research how these animals organise themselves so well and move in their millions,” Mrs Mwamba said.

She encouraged more Kenyans to visit the Mara, saying this is the best time, as the rates were affordable, and that it was a good time to bond with children, who are currently out of school.

Tour companies, including Somak, Mario, Big Foot, African Safaris and Pollmans have started taking guests on game drives in the reserve as they also adhere to protocols presented to them by the Health ministry.

At Olkiombo Airstrip, the Nation witnessed landing of four local airlines — Safarilink, Air Kenya, Mombasa Air Safari and Fly SAX, with local tourists bringing the much-needed shot in the arm to the industry.

There were also chartered flights and light aircraft that landed in the reserve with visitors.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the six airstrips in both the reserve and conservancies used to be a beehive of activity with both domestic and international flights.


NUTRITIOUS GRASS

Every year, at least 1.3 million wildebeest accompanied by an estimated 300, 000 zebras and gazelles move through the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in search of nutritious grass and water, guided by survival instincts researchers are yet to unravel.

Asili Africa says rainfall over 50 kilometres away can trigger the start of the mass movement – perhaps through smell or the recognition of thunder and lightning on the horizon.

“It is unclear how the wildebeest know which way to go, but it is generally believed that their journey is dictated primarily by their response to the weather; they follow the rains and the growth of new grass. While there is no scientific proof of it, some experts believe that the animals react to lightning and thunderstorms in the distance,” the tourism experts say.

Visitors to the Mara have been increasing annually with the Economic Survey 2020 indicating that last year, there were 286,000 visitors compared to 291,200 in 2018.

Records at the Narok County Government, which manages the reserve, show 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.

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

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