Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The visa fee is staying put at $25

Good news if you're planning ahead, the visa fee that was cut by 50% in April 2009 is set to stay at its reduced level indefinitely. If you're getting a visa in advance, it will cost $25 plus any passport mail/handling charges (or £20 or €20 if you're getting it in the UK or in the Euro zone). If you wait to get your visa on arrival, the price is $25, usually in US dollars cash only. Under 16s are exempt. There's no real disadvantage to waiting to get your visa until arrival, especially if you download your form from an embassy or high commission website in advance – for example in London – and fill it in in before you join the queue at Nairobi or Mombasa. Visas on arrival don't require photos, either.

Kenya High Commission, London

Kenyan Embassy, Washington DC

Monday, March 15, 2010

Have any Maasai Mara camps or lodges closed yet?

Monday 15th March was supposed to be the first day of a "crackdown" on unlicensed camps and lodges in the Mara, as the Nation reminded readers the following day. The offensive, first announced in mid-February, is supposedly being led by the tourism minister Najib Balala, but he has very vocal support from Hassan ole Kamwaro, the former chairman of Narok County Council (who presumably knows a thing or two about how to license Mara properties properly). Kamwaro, who happens to own the formerly wooded site inside the reserve where Somak's controversial new Ashnil Mara lodge has either just opened or remains un-opened (confirmation welcome, whichever it is) asserts:

"Most of the unlicensed lodges and camps belong to foreigners whose aim is to make money without paying revenue to the government. They also pollute the reserve eco-system posing a threat to the bio-diversity in the area.”

If he's basing his views on the so-called "inter-ministerial audit", then his own interest is safe, since the rambling spreadsheet I've seen looks to be about a year out of date, and is contradictory and only partly complete. Somak's new lodge isn't even included.

Anyone who cares about responsible tourism, community development and environmental stewardship would welcome a new era of CSR in Kenya's safari parks. But we'll only get that from impartial judgements given by a credible regulatory body. And one thing is certain: closing a lodge or camp while tourists were staying would be a BA-strike-sized disaster for Kenyan tourism.

Good news for fans of Kenyan music


A new Kenyan music download site, Pewahewa, has just launched. If you have a mobile payment account with Safaricom (M-Pesa) or Zain (Zap), it seems easy to use (I haven't tried it), but for potential users outside Kenya, the only credit card payment system offered is through 2checkout, which I haven't heard of before. It's still not possible to use PayPal for making payments to Kenya.

Meanwhile, a site called KenTanzaVinyl has quietly appeared offering a 7-inch take on East African music - everything from way back when to the arrival of cassettes and CDs. Although it's not a place to buy music, this is a true aficionado's site, with track listings and background on more than 2500 singles, A-Zs of bands and labels, and excellent links.

Seven taxi drivers shot dead by police in Nairobi

"Integrity and justice", the motto of Kenya's administration police, doesn't sit comfortably with the killing on Wednesday night of seven unarmed taxi drivers. According to one driver who escaped, far from threatening the police, the drivers were ordered to lie down and executed in cold blood. The true details of what happened may never come out. There are reports that a feud between taxi drivers and boda-boda operators (motorcycle taxi drivers) turned violent. Matatu (shared taxi) drivers in Nairobi are often accused by the police of being controlled by the outlawed Mungiki gang. The local response on Thursday morning was street protests, and there has been an unusual amount of press coverage (newspaper reports that police have shot "suspected gangsters" are usually dealt with in one small paragraph, as if they were covering a domestic tragedy). The letter I sent to the Nation was printed, albeit somewhat mangled by a copyeditor. My point was not that Kenya's violent reputation might deter "hundreds" of tourists from visiting, but "hundreds of thousands". And in any case, what needs emphasising is that extra-judicial killings like these take place on a daily basis and go barely investigated. The undermining of Kenya's tourist industry, bad as that is, is a secondary issue.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Samburu floods

Although there are mercifully no reports of any deaths or serious injuries, it looks like the Ewaso Nyiro floods of March 4th have completely swamped all the riverbank lodges and camps in Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba National Reserves, leaving just Samburu Sopa and Saruni to the north of the river, the new Buffalo Springs Simba Lodge on its slightly higher ground and Joy's Camp way over in the southeast in Shaba. I wouldn't forsee any of the following re-opening before the middle of the year, and some may wait to reopen until the next high season, giving them time to make significant repairs and upgrades:

Ashnil Samburu
Elephant Bedroom Camp (Atua Enkop)
Elephant Watch Camp
Samburu Intrepids
Samburu Game Lodge
Samburu Serena

Some may have to relocate - I doubt many owners would want to risk a repeat of these floods, which are the highest ever recorded.

It's good to see the government being more proactive than usual and they say they're going to post further updates here.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

"Unlicensed" Maasai Mara lodges to be closed

Kenya's tourism minister Najib Balala has promised a "crackdown" on dodgy lodges in and around the Maasai Mara National Reserve, starting on March 15th. This follows the international furore over Somak's almost finished lodge inside the reserve, in an area of prime, wooded black rhino habitat. Following a petition, signed by conservationists, including Jonathan Scott and Simon King, Somak have stopped selling stays at the lodge (Ashnil Mara Lodge), which was due to have opened about now, and the future of the buildings is uncertain.

A so-called "inter-ministerial audit" (a huge Excel spreadsheet), covering everything from whether the property is licensed to what its buildings are constructed of, where it gets its water and how it genrates its electricity, indicates that of more than 100 lodges and camps in the Mara region, only a small percentage are fully compliant with legal requirements, with all their boxes literally ticked. The problem with the document is the high volume of inconsistencies, contradictions and missing information, so that highly regarded camps with impeccable credentials appear tarred with the same brush as badly managed properties for which "environmental responsibility" means sweeping rubbish into a heap before burning it.

Crucially, what is missing from the document is how many staff are qualified guides, certified by the Kenya Professional Safari Guide Association. That's the sort of information on which to judge where to spend your money if you're a first-time visitor to the Mara. But that data is missing.

Balala's decision to go public on the issue of irregular camps and lodges is encouraging. But the Ministry of Tourism needs to double-check their information with property owners, rather than moving in waving the audit in one hand and closure orders in the other. March 15th is a convenient date, though, as many camps and lodges have an annual low season closure for a month or two during the long rainy season in March/April/May.