Tanzania's tourism policy rests on the twin planks of protecting its wild animals and promoting the country's diversity but first it has to psychologically reclaim its land.
Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain, is not in Kenya. It is firmly on the Tanzanian side of the border, but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Disingenuous Kenyan promotions emphasizing that you can see Kilimanjaro from Kenya, plus the fact that in the past it was easier to fly into Nairobi than Dar Es Salaam, have all contributed to a widespread misconception.
But this looks set to change as the frequency of direct flights into Tanzania picks up. Dutch carrier KLM, which code-shares with Northwest, now flies daily into Tanzania, stopping first at Kilimanjaro International Airport and then flying on to the country's commercial capital, Dar es Salaam; British Airways is also increasing its flights, which pass via Nairobi. Tanzania was the first country in Africa to sign an Open Skies agreement with the U.S., a vote of confidence in the country that is now stimulating business, although direct flights from the U.S. are a long way off.
With more flights come more tourists, a segment of the economy that has already been growing at an average rate of 20 percent for the last couple of years. In 1999, the last year for which there are figures, 627,000 people visited the country, spent $733 million and made up 14 percent of gross domestic product. However, there has been some doubt over the validity of the figures and with the sector forecast to comprise a quarter of the economy by the end of the decade, the central bank has stepped in to conduct a comprehensive study of tourist numbers and spending patterns.
Despite the growing numbers, Tanzania is sticking to a low-volume, high-spending strategy, in conscious comparison to Kenya's mass-market approach. Although it doesn't sound like it, one of the best examples of low-impact tourism is hunting, which provides millions of dollars towards maintaining game reserves. Hunters, many of them American, pay about $40,000 for a three-week hunting permit, though giraffes, Tanzania's national animal, wild dogs and of course the endangered rhino are safe from their rifles.
The Tanzanians are very serious about protecting their natural heritage. Together, all the national parks, game reserves and controlled zones comprise about 35 percent of the nation's territory. It has the largest area of wilderness in Africa in the Selous Game Reserve, named after one of the most famous turn-of-the-century game hunters who was a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, and a United Nations World Heritage Site in the remarkable Ngorongoro crater where Masai herdsman share use of the land with the wildlife.
"We want the animals to be at peace in the wilderness so we have to deliberately maintain a low number of visitors into the parks," says Lota Melamari, director general of Tanzania National Parks (Tanapa), charged with managing the country's 12 national parks, which are set aside solely for animal use.
Both in the Serengeti national park and at the Ngorongoro Crater, there is a moratorium on new building, making existing properties all the more valuable. Hotel & Lodges Ltd., a sister company of regional energy player Gapco, is in the final stages of acquiring the Wildlife Lodge at Ngorongoro, a state-owned hotel at the crater, as well as a number of other government hotels, which it plans to extensively refurbish.
At the crater, which comes under a different authority than Tanapa because of the multiple use of the land, authorities are looking at further ways of reducing the environmental impact by restricting the number of vehicles that can go onto the crater floor. It is also the only place where you can see rhinos in Tanzania.
Ngorongoro, the Serengeti and Kilimanjaro are highlights of what is known as the northern circuit, a well-trodden route close to the Kenyan border. But policymakers are also trying to develop less well-known areas of the country, such as at Ruaha, Tarangire and the Selous, where it is still possible to build new lodges. These are no less impressive than parks in the north. Straddling the Rufiji river, the Selous offers close contact with thousands of hippos; Tarangire is noted for huge herds of elephants and in the west, at the Gombe Stream national park, tourists can see families of chimps, where the British scientist, Dr. Jane Goodall, made her famous behavioral studies, which have run now for four decades.
Entrance fees to the parks generate income for Tanapa it costs from $15 to $25 for a 24-hour pass into the parks which pays for rangers, guides and maintains the roads in the parks. Yet, at present, Lota Melamari says that the high receipts from the most popular parks such as the Serengeti simply subsidize operations at those less accessible.
For access is the main issue for outer-lying parks; the physical infrastructure does not exist to support high volumes into these areas. Japanese donors are building an asphalt road from Arusha close to the Ngorongoro Crater, to give better road access to Mayanara, Ngorongoro and Serengeti. But for Gombe or the Selous, the only option is to fly in small aircraft, which can be expensive.
For all the financial pain, it is worth just gritting your teeth and accepting that a safari, which means "travel" or "journey" in Swahili, is not a cheap vacation most come in at the region of $200 per person per day. In Tanzania, though, every cent is worth it. Seeing herds of giraffes gallop away on a walking safari in the Selous, or watching a group of chimps playing in Gombe, what you are witnessing is unique.
Apart from the wildlife, one of the country's powerful draws is the ability to combine a safari trip, which can be arduous as you jolt along dirt tracks, with the relaxation of a beach vacation in the Zanzibar islands. Indeed, this is how the slogan of the Tanzania tourist board runs the land of Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar. With its spice island heritage and evocative name, the culture and beaches of Zanzibar are an invaluable addition to the Tanzania "package".
In this way the Tanzanians are wising up to what they have to offer. "Tanzania is the most undersold vacation destination in East Africa, but the potential for growth is enormous when you have such a breathtaking, natural country," underlines Jan Palmer at KLM in Dar es Salaam. Not only are the Tanzanians busy reclaiming their national assets but they are also making them pay in a sustainable fashion and thus providing an increasingly valuable stimulus to the economy. So there's less chance of altitude sickness for Tanzanian tour operators fed up with the Kenyans hijacking Kilimanjaro and more a recognition of the great advantages they do have in an unspoilt and incredibly diverse country.
(Tanzania Tourist Board)
Going on safari can be a very different experience depending on your tastes and your wallet: anything from sleeping rough in the Serengeti to living it up in luxury at a lodge in the mighty Selous. But even camping can be pretty glamorous: expect tablecloths and ice in the bush from many of the higher-end operators. Prices vary accordingly, from $90 to $450 per person per night in peak season, which runs from July to October and is the coolest time of year to visit. There can be good deals on offer in low season, from March to June in the main rainy season, although many lodges close, and to a lesser extent in November and December, when there is another shorter rainy period. February and March are very hot and with air-conditioning in short supply in the bush, it is wise to choose the month you visit with care.
www.sandrivers.com (homely luxury in the Selous game reserve, the largest in Africa)
www.serenahotels.com (mid- to high-priced lodges throughout East Africa)
www.vuma.org (an uncrowded, reasonably priced lodge close to Dar es Salaam)
www.ccafrica.com/destinations/tanzania/ (unbelievable extravagance in the bush)
Other recommendations: the Seronera Wildlife Lodge: built around an enormous rock in the heart of the Serengeti, perfect for tracking the wildebeest migration (N.B. the time frame for the migration varies year from year).