Stakeholders say exorbitant park entry fees to drive away tourists

A van carrying tourists at Masai Mara Game Reserve. [File, Standard]

Stakeholders in the tourism sector have protested the exorbitant park entry fees at the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and other Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) managed parks.

Tour operators, guides, hotel owners and marketing companies warned that the country risks losing tourists to competing safari destinations.

Speaking in Narok after observing guests' arrivals over the Christmas and New Year festivities, the group accused the county and KWS of ignoring the competing destinations when it comes to increasing charges for safaris.

This comes after the Narok county government in December last year doubled park fees for the Mara from Sh1,5713 to Sh3,1425 ($100 to $200) and KWS announced that in January it would increase entry fees for Nairobi National Park, Lake Nakuru, and Amboseli to $100 from $80 and Tsavo National Park is meant to jump to $100 from $52.

In an interview at the Sarova Mara camp on Monday, East Africa Tour Drivers and Guides Association Chairman Felix Migoya said the arbitrary increase of the park entry fees was done at a time when the industry is still recovering from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The Covid pandemic brought Kenya’s tourism to its knees just like any other destination and we have been busy rebuilding since 2021. It had been predicted that we shall hit pre-Covid numbers in 2024 but it looks like we may have already achieved in 2023 because we had what is termed ‘Revenge Travel' where tourists flocked to all tourism destinations,” said Migoya.

He expressed fears that the Masai Mara would lose many tourists to the neighbouring Serengeti in Tanzania or South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, or Namibia.

Diani Hospitality Owners Association Chairman Mohammed Hersi, argued that if the charges were implemented this month, Kenya would be out-pricing itself and protests against the charges would scare away tourists to cheaper destinations like Serengeti.

Lake Nakuru National Park gate. [Boniface Thuku, Standard]

Hersi said the triple hike for Kenyans and the domestic market will equally shock the system and undermine the Tembea Kenya campaign that has taken the industry a long time to build.

“Looking at the highest would be Tanzania which is in the $100 mark per day while South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia all charge between $20 to $35 a day. If it is migration please keep in mind that we share that experience with Serengeti hence we should be very careful how and when we choose to hike our rates,” Hersi said.

For the Maasai Mara for example where the charges will start taking effect this month, at $200 a night from July to January it means a couple will be expected to pay Sh 6,285 ($400) a day.

A spot-check by The Standard revealed that Narok county would be the only one implementing the new rule of 12 hours to enter the Maasai Mara since all competing destinations offer the traditional 24 hours.

It simply means that what visitors to Mara will be paying to access the park will be comparable to or even higher than what they will be paying to stay at some of the camps and lodges.

“New rates require ample notice in the international market. Anything less than 18 months’ notice is always a problem, consumers laws in most source markets do not allow price changes once a package has been bought and paid for. It means a local operator will have to top up and most of the tour operators operate on margin and very small margins for that matter,” said Hersi.

Entumoto Luxury camp founder Karl Von Heland warned that that if Masai Mara management goes ahead and doubles park fees or even a 50 per cent hike operators in Kenya will be disadvantaged.

Heland said that the Mara is the magnet that attracts tourists’ numbers and Lake Nakuru National Park, Amboseli and Laikipia would always ride on the Mara goodwill.

"Once the park fees go too high then it means fewer numbers and the worst hit will be lodges and camps located in Mara and KWS parks since numbers will reduce and even for those who make it they will reduce the number of nights," he said.

Maasai Mara National Reserve. [Robert Kiplagat, Standard]

“Many of our confirmed bookings will happily switch to other safari destinations and immediately Serengeti next door will be the biggest beneficiary of this fallout," Heland said.

"What does this mean to our economy? Less numbers visiting Kenya and hotels like in Nairobi and Mombasa will also miss out since they always host the transiting safari visitors to and from the parks, small camps in the Maasai Mara will be shut down by the end of the year due to lack of tourists,” he added.

A tourist, F. Schramm reacted to the increase in park fees through a post on Facebook saying; “The combination of landscape and wildlife makes Kenya worth visiting for tourists. But if a safari with 3 nights costs as much as a 2-week hotel, something is wrong. For the people in Kenyan tourism, there are no alternatives. They exist for tourists. Tanzania, Namibia or Thailand. The greedy officials should think about that. Kenya is sawing off the branch it is sitting on."

During a recent validation forum held at the Nairobi National Park where tourism and conservation stakeholders discussed the proposed fees, KWS Director General, Erustus Kanga emphasized that the fees play a vital role in sustaining Kenya’s wildlife resources.

“The new fees are in alignment with the government’s Bottom Up Economic Transformation Agenda, as KWS strives to intertwine its objectives with Kenya’s broader developmental aspirations,” he said.

Narok Governor Patrick Ole Ntutu defended the move by the county government to increase park fees inside the Mara saying it was meant to improve service delivery for all stakeholders.

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