Is Kenya losing Safari allure to Tanzania?

High park entry fees and terms have become a major concern for industry players.

In Summary

•Kenya's main competitors are Tanzania, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia.

•Four out of seven of Africa’s top Safari destinations offer beach and safari packages, which have been Kenya’s top selling products over decades.

President William Ruto enjoying a game drive at Sekenani, Maasai Mara on August 22, 2023
President William Ruto enjoying a game drive at Sekenani, Maasai Mara on August 22, 2023
Image: PCS

Kenya's decision to increase park entry fees has now rattled the international market, as buyers and agents struggle to convince travellers on Kenya as a preferred affordable Safari destination.

Latest industry trends indicate travellers are now worried Kenya is becoming an expensive destination, opting for other countries offering similar products including neighbouring Tanzania.

Four out of seven of Africa’s top Safari destinations, offer beach and safari packages, which have been Kenya’s top selling products over decades.

Kenya's main competitors are Tanzania, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia.

Park entry fees for instance at the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya’s top selling Safari destination, had been increased to $ 100 (Sh13,550 at current exchange rate) per non-resident adult per day effective January this year to June, a move that has been challenged in court.

They are meant to go up to $ 200 (Sh27,100) starting July while children will pay $50 (Sh6,775).

The park fees are for 12 hours (6am-6pm), with guests who arrive in the Mara as late as 4pm paying the full amount, despite having barely two hours for Safari.

Neighbouring Tanzania is charging $82 (Sh11,111) inclusive of VAT at the Serengeti National Park, making it cheaper compared to Kenya.

South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia range between $25 (Sh3,387 ) to $30 (Sh4,065) per day for adults.

The Narok County government has also increased bed-night levies among other charges, which players say has made Maasai Mara “too expensive” to most travellers.

A section of buyers and agents in Europe (companies that book travelers in destinations around the world), have since raised alarm over disquiet among travellers.

Individuals and families who made bookings as early as last year are being forced to top-up on their travel packages which have been pushed up by the new rates, amid fears many will not be able to travel this year.

Trends also indicate travellers are looking for options apart from Kenya.

“We recently received notification about yet another fee being levied on visitors to the Maasai Mara, on top of the significant increase in park fees for 2024. While the implementation of this particular fee has been paused due to a lawsuit in Kenya, I am growing increasingly concerned about the rapid escalation of park fees and taxes in Kenya,” a buyer from a leading UK tour operator said.

 “ particular the retrospective application to existing bookings, which has always seemed less than fair,”  the buyer continued, noting charges currently being levied  by the county government.

As an example, the recent park fee increases have taken the cost for a family of four during high season from $220 (Sh29, 810) per day to $600 (Sh81,300 ) per day for park fees alone, the buyer noted.

 For three nights in the Mara, this is an additional cost of $1,200 (Sh162,600 ).

“Narok County wants to add another $80 per adult  and $40 per child per night, which would take the cost for a family of four to a frankly astronomical and unsustainable $840 per day, solely in taxes and fees,” the buyer noted.

Another buyer said: “Our clients are generally people for whom the actual cost is unlikely to be an issue. However, the rapid increase in and particularly the retrospective application of these fees has led to some pushback. These are people who booked their trips 12-18 months ago, and now feel like they are being taken advantage of as they are already committed to Kenya and have no choice but to pay whatever is asked.”

Buyers are wondering if the Tourism Ministry understands how damaging the decisions are, both on reputation and long-term prospects.

“Instead of telling their friends and family about how excited they are to be going to Kenya, they are telling them about feeling that they are constantly being asked for more and more fees,” a travel agent said.

“Moreover, the comparison with Tanzania is becoming ever more stark, we have clients choosing where to go for their 2025 safaris and constantly revising their Kenyan quotes upwards is not incentivising them to choose Kenya,” the key industry player said.

While majority are not particularly against an increase in park fees, mainly to fund conservation initiatives, they are against the retrospective application of these fees to  bookings already confirmed and deposited, and against the rapid and continual escalation.

“We as an industry need more notice of these increases and a more considered implementation thereof, existing bookings should be exempted, and there should be ample notice of fee increases,” *Jean told the Star.

The Kenya Association of Tour Operators (KATO) is also concerned that spiraling effects coming from the county government’s decisions, including operating terms for properties and park levies, will catch up with its members, which will hit businesses and affect tourist numbers to the Mara.

Tourism stakeholders have warned that Maasai Mara risks losing out to Tanzania’s Serengeti, in the wake of the changes in park fee terms.

 “We have started receiving cancellations with guests opting for Tanzania,” a reservations manager at one of the facilities told the Star.

Tourism lobby groups have since moved to court to protest the park entry fees and terms.

“We are in court so I wouldn’t want to discuss this, but what is the intention? We don’t think it is is too much. We should sit down and address the concerns of the industry,” KATO chief executive Fred Kaigua told the Star on the telephone.

The Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers and Caterers (KAHC) said it has sought the audience of the county government to address sector players’ concerns, including the county’s Finance Act, but has been ignored..

Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) last year proposed to raise park fees at all facilities, which will see entry charges for some park triple. It said the review is aimed at raising more funds for conservation.

It plans to more than triple park entry fees to Sh2,000 from January 2024, from Sh430 for Nairobi National Park.

Adults from the rest of Africa, as well as those from international destinations, will part with $50 and $100 respectively, during the high season.

Visitors will part with at least $100 to access Lake Nakuru and Amboseli, while entry fee to Tsavo is meant to jump to $80 from $52.

KWA also intends to make adjustments on charges at other installments, including marine parks.

According to KWS, the proposed adjustments are a result of an analysis of feedback gathered during forums conducted between January 30, and February 23, 2023.

Camping, conference facilities and vehicle entering the parks are also targeted.

According to Pollmans Tours and Safaris Group Director of Operations, Mohamed Hersi the park entry fee review will also affect Tembea Kenya campaign, which is aimed at promoting domestic tourism.

 “We are not against park fees increase but doubling park fees for the Mara from $100 to $200 will certainly outprice ourselves,” Hersi said, even as he acknowledged the costs that come with conservation.

He said for the wildebeest migration in the Mara, Kenya could lose to Serengeti in Tanzania, hence the need to for KWS to carefully make a good decision on how it chooses to hike rates.

KAHC termed the plan as a “wrong move and wrong timing.”

This is on the back of reduced disposable incomes in the wake of tough economic times, which has made it difficult to spend on leisure.

“This move will suffocate tourism earnings in the long run. Post covid, the government should have allocated more for conservation and only consider reviewing rates after significant recovery is attained,” KAHC told the Star.

The Tourism Research Institute has projected international arrivals this year will hit a new high of 2.3 million.

The  government has insisted that Kenya remains an affordable Safari destination in Africa, with Wildlife Principal Secretary Silvia Museiya recently allaying concerns that the country will lose out to its neighbours if park fees are raised. 

 “We will still remain one of the cheapest destinations,” she told the Star, noting the increase has been necessitated by inflation and other factors, which have affected prices across the different sectors.

Kenya has also not reviewed parks in recent years, despite the cost of operations and conservation more than doubling.

“It was time we reviewed the fees to reflect current economic times. Conservation is also not cheap. With climate change, threat to wildlife and other challenges….nothing is coming cheap. For too long, we have undervalued our wildlife resources,” Museiya told the Star in a recent interview.

Safari remains among Kenya’s tourism selling points where in 2022, visitor numbers to KWS installments (both domestic and international), grew to 2.2 million, up 913, 052, as the tourism industry rebounded.

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