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Will virtual tourism save our national parks?

By Peter Theuri | August 23rd 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Wildebeest crossing a section of the road at Maasai Mara National Game reserve in Narok County. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Not long ago, James Matindi enjoyed the incessant camera clicks when tourists he accompanied on safari to various game parks in the country snapped a marvel in the wild.

He joined in when they giggled, and it felt new to him every time he had to showcase the beauty of his country to awe-stricken visitors.

He enjoyed the thrill of the jungle, his budding company providing tourists access to destinations across East Africa.

Then, it all came grinding to an unfortunate halt early this year.

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When cessation of movement into the country was announced, which coincided with closure of international skies almost everywhere in the world, the tourism sector collapsed in a heap. 

“There were suddenly no international tourists. We had to think outside the box as tourists still wanted the experience of touring the Kenyan jungle," says Mr Matindi, Chief Executive of Sensational Adventures.

And think outside the box he did. Within no time, he was cruising through the dusty roads of Nairobi National Park with a cameraman, a Zoom connection and a livestream to tourists around the globe.

One door had shut and another was just opening. And good business is all about adaptability.

As international visitors remained largely locked up in their countries, domestic tourists also took a break. People were avoiding close interaction and social gatherings.

Covid-19's icy hand froze earnings, and the cessation of movement into and out of select counties in Kenya meant that people could not commute at will.

Further, a dusk to dawn curfew, which was later revised to seven hours, meant that tours could not proceed as was the norm.

On June 2, Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala officially launched a virtual safari livestream campaign. This was in an effort to showcase some of the country's most picturesque game across its national parks and reserves.

“Our international tourism business is completely cut off and we have to still share destination memories with travellers, and that is why we are unveiling a virtual tour safari to connect visitors with the destination,” he said. 

"It begins here at the Nairobi National Park and will allow us to document our diverse wildlife in the national parks and game reserves, thrilling adventures, beautiful lodges, and unique cultures and conservation projects that Kenya has become world-famous for."

“We shall be live streaming and sharing this content every week to bring Kenya to Kenyans and to the world at large,” added Mr Balala.

Live virtual tours were to be streamed live through Magical Kenya social media platforms.

Virtual tourism will be the trend in the near future, if it is not already, Nobody really seems to know how long the pandemic will hang around and as such, predicting when tourists will be back in the parks in their numbers is a tall order.

And nobody will be waiting until then to try resuscitate the tourism sector.

But in its infancy, challenges abound for virtual tourism. 

“The network in most of the parks is the greatest challenge. Like in the Mara, the connection is so poor, which means that you cannot transmit your stream live,” says Matindi.

“When we tried with Nairobi National Park, it worked well. If the tourism sector liaises with all relevant agencies to ensure destinations such as the Mara have good network connections, we could embrace this as part of the future.”

In a classical case of desperate times calling for desperate measures, tourists who enjoy the sounds of the jungle and the adrenaline-inducing moments atop tour vans now sit on couches and pay for a livestream.

Perhaps the experience is not quite as remarkable, but it is the only way to experience the magic of Kenya without breaking rules and risking lives.

The Mara, which is the main attraction this time of the year courtesy of the Wildebeest Migration, has been affected negatively over the years as tourists come in their numbers to witness a phenomenon that remains largely unexplained.

But in 2020, courtesy of Covid-19, those monstrous numbers have tanked

The reduction in number of tourists might be a good thing, Kenya Tourism Federation Chairman Mohammed Hersi says, with the park ecosystems often affected by uncontrolled visitor numbers.

"We have overcommercialised, thus oversold, the Mara wildebeest migration. We let so many tourists come into the park at the peak and it ends up hurting the park ecosystem,” he said.

Lobby groups have also complained that tourists push the animals away, litter the parks, and some disregard basic rules that would favour coexistence of animals and people.

The fewer the numbers, the better, they say.

The resident human population around the Mara is increasing with lodges proliferating. Little is seen to be done to have money collected from tourism filter down to improve the livelihoods of the Maasai community.

One of Kenya’s most important wildlife habitats is under real threat of complete decimation.

Conservationists have always warned that the wildebeest population is declining across the East Africa region.

"Their dispersal areas and migratory corridors are being lost due to high human population densities, increasing urbanisation, expanding agriculture and fences,” said Dickson Kaelo, chief executive of Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association in a past interview with The Standard.

"Their loss would contribute to biodiversity decline, and jeopardise tourism and other ecosystem services. Urgent efforts need to be made to protect wildebeest migratory corridors and dispersal areas to ensure these great migrations for the future."

The World Travel and Tourism Council earlier in the year warned that the Covid-19 pandemic could cost an estimated 50 million jobs in the travel and tourism sector worldwide.

And that once the pandemic ends, it could take up to 10 months for the industry to recover.

Virtual tourism might be the only way out. Once embraced, it will greatly reduce traffic in the parks but is not the panacea to the troubles that have been degrading the sanctuaries of our wildlife.

Sprouting of more commercial industries, which include cement manufacturing, horticulture, steelworks and export processing zones will be the final nail in the coffin for Nairobi National Park, the only park within a city in the world.

As they grow, towns such as Athi River, Kitengela and Machakos are also getting bigger to accommodate the increasing population of people who work in these industries and institutions, according to the 2017 Kenya Vision 2030 report on Wildlife Corridors and Dispersal Areas.

Virtual tourism will, however, go a long way into righting some of the wrongs that have occurred due to the avarice that governs collection of fees levied on tourists, which leads to uncontrolled invasion of the country’s wildlife habitats by tourists.

Perhaps, technology’s will take us to places where our physical appearance could do more harm than good to the environment.

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