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.

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