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With no tourists, wild animals take over luxury camps as planes and tour vans grounded

WORK LIFE
By Peter Muiruri | June 14th 2020

As the Covid-19 pandemic keeps local and international tourists at bay, tour and travel operators in Kenya continue to count losses as wild animals take over some of the deserted leisure facilities.

From world-renowned plains of Masai Mara to the sandy beaches of the Indian ocean, hospitality industry staff have been sent home as expensive equipment including planes and tour vehicles left to the vagaries of the elements.

Masai Mara, for instance, would be sprucing up in readiness for the annual wildebeest migration, one of the wonders of the world.

This year though, the wildebeests will cross the dreaded Mara River without the traditional thousands of prying human eyes, if current travel restrictions remain in place.

Jackson Looseyia, a safari operator who shot to fame after his exploits with BBC Big Cat Diaries, has never seen the eerie situation in his 30 years as a wildlife guide and tour operator.

His Tangulia Mara Camp, a 16-bed tented camp in the heart of the Mara, is popular with Western tourists who are attracted by his vast knowledge of Africa’s wildlife.

They have all vanished and he had no choice but close the camp in March and send his staff of 20 home.

With no humans in sight, the camp has become a resting place for vast herds of elephants and a maternity area  for lions.

“Animals have taken over our camp. I recently went to survey the camp and met a big bull elephant between my tent and the public mess.

“The jumbos are now sleeping around the tents. Lions, too, are giving birth and raising their cubs within the camp,” he says.

But wild animals camping inside his camp are the least of his worries.

The economic slump brought about by the collapse of international travel worries him more.

Between April and August this year, a period characterised by high volume of guests in the Mara, Looseyia will be Sh11 million poorer as tourists stay away.

Multiplied by the myriad of camps within the Mara, the loss will run into billions of shillings.

“I have never seen such a situation in my life,” he says. “The closest we came to this was during the 2007-08 post-election violence, but tourists were back as soon as things got back to normal.

“Even when there were terror attacks, we had some prior warnings and some parts of the country remained open. But nobody knows when this Covid-19 thing will end.”

Foreign guests

Laikipia hosts what are arguably Kenya’s most exclusive lodges patronised by members of United Kingdom’s royal family including Prince William who proposed to his wife Kate Middleton in a log cabin here.

Take the Lewa-based Sirikoi Lodge for instance. The nine-roomed lodge was voted as best resort in the world during the 2019 Condé Nast Readers’ Choice Awards.  

To enjoy the luxuries within the three-bedroomed house, foreign guests have to part with Sh500,000 (yes, half a million) for a night!

But according to the general manager, Maria Pipelides, hyenas and baboons have become constant ‘guests’ within the lodge.

“We have had no guest since mid-March yet we still have to pay for licences, land leases, and insurance not to mention loss of funds for conservation,” she said.

Things are especially hard for some operators who had already paid for their guest’s accommodation in hotels and lodges.

Ben Mugambi, for example, was in the middle of a 17-day Safari with some foreign tourists last March when a call came from their home countries that they terminate the trip. He had to forgo the payments made to hotels for the guests’ accommodation.

Cancelled bookings

With Kenya’s key source markets under travel restrictions and Kenya’s airspace still closed to passenger flights, local air operators who rely heavily on cascading business from global carriers, have grounded their planes.

Safarilink Aviation for instance, operates 15 daily flights ferrying visitors to various holiday destinations in Kenya. Close to 80 per cent of business comes from Europe and North America, the two regions with the most cases of coronavirus.

“We had hoped to resume our flights towards the end of May. But there are no commercial flights to Kenya. Even if they start coming, there is a 14-day quarantine period set by the government.

“How will you convince a visitor to fly here, undergo a 14-day mandatory quarantine just to go to Masai Mara or elsewhere for a two-week holiday?” poses Alex Avedi, the company’s chief executive.

The travel operators hope the government can come up with a system of opening up the country while taking necessary precautions to keep the virus at bay.

Mike Macharia, head of Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers reckons hotels have lost close to Sh50 billion between March and May, money that is shared between hotel owners and operators, travel agencies, bars and restaurants, beach operators and suppliers. 

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