Barring any unforeseen circumstances that might happen between now and in the near future, the tourism industry is in an upward trend. It is now the second week of February and some of the lodges in the Mara are fully booked for the high season. I refer to the lodges that take in more than 100 clients – the mass tourist handlers. As an industry that trickles its blessing down to the very bottom, there is a general sense of ease and even the banks are less rigid in preparing loans for the tourist operators who wish to secure some funds.
Policy wise, the central operation section which is handled by the Cabinet Secretary looks well set to handle the upsurge of the business. Many things have been made easy by the emerging digital environment and e-business. The drivers can now get their licences through the Internet; they no longer need to waste time queuing at the KRA offices or face the menace of bribing the authorities for fast delivery as it used to be the case. Visas can be bought online and airline bookings, and indeed all hotels' reservations are done online. It is amazing how the world can change within such a short time. Barely five years ago we still had to employ office messengers to take booking vouchers to different hotels for reservations and delivering the payment cheques. A tour office had to have many employees to handle costings for itineraries from different travel agents. Now, one only needs a computer software to do all the costings at the click of a mouse. Good progress indeed.
While all the preparations are going on in different sectors in anticipation of a busy season, the core area that handles the tourists seem to have been forgotten. I refer to the general wildlife viewing experience in places like mara. As it is, the Mara may be the single most visited park during the year, with most tourists arriving during the high season which coincides with the annual wildebeests migration. As the industry grows with the number of tourists increasing rapidly, the area of the Mara remains the same. As the number of hotels and lodges increase, the area which serves the animals keeps decreasing alarmingly. We had several dispersal areas like Aitong, Loita Plains and Mara Rienda areas that were used by wildlife to ease pressure inside the Mara. Now all those areas have been subdivided into small privately owned holdings. They have been fenced up to keep off the animals. So most of the animals in the Mara have been forced to concentrate in areas that are dwindling by the day.
Since most of the lodges and hotels are built around the most wildlife concentrated areas like natural salt lick areas or along riverine forests, game drives are also concentrated around the same areas. Within very little time, overuse is evident. It is now very possible to see more than 20 vehicles at a single sighting of an important animal like a lion or a cheetah. The rules that prohibit such gathering of tour vehicles around a cat cannot be implemented without creating tension within the community of driver guides and their guests. Where do you send the rest of the vehicles and keep the mandatory five vehicles for five minutes? The clients claim they have paid a hefty fee to come to see the animals and they have the right to complain. I have seen some overwhelmed game rangers give up and let the drivers organise themselves at a sighting; to fit as many as they can, basically because there is nowhere else to go.
I am currently in the Mara and I can’t help noticing areas that require simply modifications to ease pressure on game drive areas. Take for example the areas around Rekero Camp. That is an area frequented by the three camps closest and the large Ashnil Mara Camp. Opposite the Talek River, there is no camp or lodge there. If a simple bridge were to be built on the Talek River at Rekero, it would open up game drive on the opposite bank of the Rekero area.
Similarly, building an all-weather drift at the doublecrossing would ease pressure around Olkiombo and Musiara areas. A bridge over the greater Mara River at Genche Camp would connect the Serena conservancy and the main Mara, which will completely ease up and spread vehicles during the high season. But who would listen?