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Capping visitors to key parks: Invaluable lessons for State

Zebras crossing the road as tourists enjoy the view during the Kenya wildlife service familiarisation tour for media journalists to have a deeper insight of the park ahead of the 75th-anniversary celebration of the Nairobi National park. [David Gichuru, Standard]

The Tourism and Wildlife Ministry has proposed capping the number of visitors to some national parks.

But does this make economic sense? The parks where capping could apply include Nakuru, Maasai Mara, Nairobi and Amboseli. They are among the most popular with both local and foreign tourists. The ministry probably has two objectives: to reduce environmental degradation due to the high number of visitors and also raise revenues.

Will that work? Capping the numbers should naturally reduce the revenue because visiting parks is a luxury and price sensitive. In economic speak, the demand is elastic.

The alternative is to cap the numbers and raise the entry fees to compensate for the loss in numbers. For the high-end visitors, a higher entry fee might not make a big difference.

We can raise the entry fees but leave them low for children, students, senior citizens and those with disabilities.

It is possible that by raising the entry fees, there will be no loss of revenue. Kenyans love paying more if it means putting them into a higher socio-economic class.  They would love to say: “I visited the Nakuru National Park” if it charges more, rather than “I visited a park.” We are a class-conscious society.

It is also possible that high charges in these popular parks will distribute the visitors to other parks. Price is good in rationing goods and services.

Price is, however, not the only factor that determines which park to visit. Proximity, amenities (like hotels) and reputation are other factors. 

Parks could learn from the hotel star system. High prices in five-star hotels attract class-conscious people, except during Covid-19. The high prices also ensure the hotels are not crowded, which raises their attractiveness.  We can even auction the slots available in the popular parks. This will help the parks get the best price and the highest revenue.

It is not hard to design an auction system like the one on eBay. Some governments have made a lot of money through auctioning scarce resources like the spectrum. How else would we get the best price, one that maximises the entry fees revenue? One of the highlighted concerns is that buyers of the few high rate tickets will resell them in the secondary market.

If we can sell stocks and shares in the secondary market, why not parks visits?

If there are many tickets on sale in the secondary market, it simply means we have underpriced the tickets. Some hotels are located in these parks.

Will they be exempted? What happens if I book a hotel and find no park entry ticket? Are hotel and entry fees bundled? On my last visit to London, I found that hotels charge you depending on supply and demand.

You could pay a different price on Monday compared with Friday. Why can’t parks do the same? Hotels have low and high seasons. So far, it seems parks are classified as public goods, available to as many citizens as possible. 

Airlines also charge depending on the demand. Another model to adopt for parks would be like the one employed in football, where tickets are sold in advance. This just like parks makes it easy to manage the crowds, security and other services. 

Parks are the last to adopt this market-based pricing system. With roads being paid for through tolls, we should not be surprised to see the market system creeping into parks.

Capping the number of visitors brings out another issue. We have a limited number of parks, and we are not creating new ones; when was the last national park built in Kenya? 

Could the high entry fees attract investors to this business? Will big landowners turn their land into parks?

That would be worth trying. In parks, we get a chance to experience nature as it was on creation day. We conserve flora and fauna. And lest we forget, water catchment areas. What if we extend the entry fee business model and breed the animals for business?

Going by the seizures of games and trophies in the airports, we could make a lot of money selling live animals or even their meat, skins and horns. 

Think of a regular auction for wild animals in the parks (both private and public). Think of bidding for an elephant, a hyena or cheetah once we breed enough of them?

There is a big market for exotic animals to keep as pets. Such animals are also demanded as trophies. Africa has a comparative advantage in such exotics. 

Why can’t we diversify into such a business? Think of the jobs created. Unlike irreplaceable minerals, animals can be bred. Our wildlife should not just be for seeing. They can be a real business with their meat or pets. Why not try?

After all, through most of history, we got our meat from game animals.

Why not diversity our domestic food sources. Why can’t I keep a deer in my small shamba instead of goats or sheep? Let’s think outside the box.