Proposed park entry fees to dent tourist numbers
The recent proposal by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to increase park entry fees has been received with mixed reactions from park lovers and stakeholders in the tourism industry. The proposal meant that tourists will pay more than tripple the usual amounts paid to visit national parks in the country, starting from January 2024 to December 2025.
During a recent validation forum held recently at the Nairobi National Park where tourism and conservation stakeholder shared insightful views on the proposed fees, KWS Director General, Erustus Kanga emphasised that the fees plays a vital role in sustaining Kenya’s wildlife resources.
“The new fees is 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.
While undertaking their work, he said KWS faces a lot of challenges, including climate change, habitat degradation and loss, forest depletion, tourism market volatility, human wildlife conflict brought on by population growth and changing land use habits of communities that co-exist with wildlife, as well as wildlife crime. Therefore, finances are required to resolve all these challenges and their main source of revenue is tourism.
However, following public outcry on the new changes, he noted that the rates would be reviewed downwards as the proposals await to go through parliament before gazettement.
Some stakeholders recommend an increase of marine park fees and transport to reduce footprints in the park, and others support gradual increase.
Mohammed Hersi, the Chairman Diani Hospitality Owners Association, recommends that KWS explores other ways of raising funds for conservation to raise funds instead of relying in tourism alone as the source of revenue.
“Carbon credit is one way. We also have many corporates around the world who are willing to support conservation as long as transparency is guaranteed. We must also not undermine Tembea Kenya’s success that has grown in leaps and bounds since 2010. The depreciation of the shilling has given by default a 35 per cent park fees hike hence we must address these changes in a holistic manner. While Kenya is magical in its own right, we must always remember that we are not the only country offering safaris. Rwanda, Uganda and others are all slowly growing their own with Rwanda reintroducing lions and many other animals in their parks,” he explains.
Locals to feel excluded
Others believe that increasing the rates will reverse gains made to encourage domestic tourists to visit parks.
“The decision to raise fees might lead to a negative perception among locals, as they may feel excluded from enjoying their own natural treasures. This can result in reduced domestic tourism, affecting local businesses and employment opportunities,” notes Stellamaris Miriti of Stejo Tours and Travels Limited.
Stella adds that the issue of inadequate amenities in the parks should also be addressed before KWS decides to increase the rates.
“If the amenities are subpar compared to neighbouring countries, international guests may continue to choose those alternatives, further hurting the tourism industry. It’s crucial for the government and relevant authorities to prioritise improving park infrastructure and facilities, ensuring that the overall experience is competitive with neighbouring countries. Balancing the need for increased revenue with maintaining affordability for locals and providing appealing amenities for visitors is essential,” she adds.
Peak and green season
According to the 2022 Annual Sector Tourism Performance Report, the number of Kenyans visiting parks increased with the Nairobi Animal Orphanage recording the highest number of visitors at 348,565, a 79 per cent growth from the previous year and overtaking Nairobi National Park, which had 280,412 visitors. Other parks that had high number of visitors included Kisumu Impala Sanctuary with 235,041 visitors and Lake Nakuru National Park with185,051 visitors overtaking Amboseli Park, which recorded155,691 visits compared to the previous year.
“We are happy that both Masai Mara National Reserve and KWS are now giving us an opportunity for both peak and green (low) season, which is something we have lobbied as the tourism industry for a long time. While we are not against park fees increase, doubling park fees for the Mara from US$100 (Sh14,475) to US$200 (Sh28,940) will certainly affect visitor numbers. KWS planned raise for Nairobi National Park, Lake Nakuru and Amboseli parks to USD$100 is equally on the higher side. Even Tsavo is meant to increase to US$80 (Sh11,576) from US$52 (Sh7,524),” says Hersi.
Hersi adds that the triple hikes for Kenyans and the domestic market will equally shock the system and undermine the Tembea Kenya campaign that has taken the country a long time to build.
“Looking at competing safari destinations, highest will be Tanzania who are in the US$100 (Sh14,475) a day mark while South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia all hover between US$20 (Sh2,894) to US$30 (Sh4,341) a day. If it is the wildebeest migration, please keep in mind that we share that experience with Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, hence we should be very careful how and when we choose to hike our rates,” he continues.
Disadvantaged local operators
Policymakers have justified the increase of the park fees by comparing the tourism sector with Rwanda’s Gorilla permits that currently stand at US$1,500 (Sh216,900). At one point, Rwanda charged US$350 (Sh50,610), then there was an increase to US$750 (Sh108,450) before finally doubling it to Sh216,900.
“What these policy makers won’t tell you is that by law, only eight tourists can visit each habituated gorilla family per day, meaning that only 152 permits are available daily in Uganda and 96 in Rwanda. For a long time, Rwanda capped the permits at 56. Availability is limited. If anything, I can equate the gorilla permits to limited edition of a designer bespoke item since supply is limited and cannot be stretched,” he says.
“If we go ahead and double our park fees or even give 50 per cent hike, it means that as operators in Kenya, we will be disadvantaged,” continues Hersi.
He adds:“Kenya is a midscale destination. We are not a mass market and we don’t want to be a mass market destination neither are we a niche destination. We do attract a small bracket of high-end visitors, but trust me, those numbers are not enough to sustain our tourism industry.
The worst hit by the increased rates will be lodges and camps located in the Mara and KWS parks since numbers will reduce and even those who make it, will reduce the number of nights spent at those establishments. Parks, such as Tsavo West and East, Lake Nakuru, Amboseli, will be affected as guests will find it too high to pay for the hotel, as well as park rates. Despite the fact that the Mara is not under the KWS jurisdiction, the recent changes when it comes to the timings in the park during the high season have also affected stakeholders greatly.
“At US$200 a night between July and December means a couple will be expected to pay US$400 (Sh57,900) a day. Also the new rule of 12 hours is not helping matters since all competing destination offer the traditional 24 hours. It simply means that visitors to Mara will be paying to access the park compared to what they will be paying to stay at some of the camps and lodges,” continues Hersi.
“The increase is wrongly timed and should have been gradually done, because we are from the pandemic season where things were tough. They have done this without consultation and the high rates will discourage tourism and our businesses will be affected,” says Tuva Mwahunga, General Manager Severin Sea Lodge in Mombasa, a brand that also has properties in Tsavo West National Park.
The stakeholders are also complaining that the sudden changes without prior notice greatly affects the tourism business. Some businesses have experienced cancelations of future travels with tourists opting for other destinations, such as Tanzania, which has currently been chosen as the most preferred destination by tourists.
Top up margin
Tourism players recommend that they be given ample notice of not less than 18 months since the international market has consumer laws and most source market do not allow price change once a package has been bought and paid for. This issue has made the local operator incur losses as they will have to top up the margin.
“Contracts for 2024 have already been signed and tour operators have done so based on the park fees communicated to their clients. I had some clients who had booked in advance for next year, because of affordable rates, but have cancelled because I have notified them of the changed rates from next year. We charge all inclusive meaning the park, hotel and tour vehicles are charged as one package. This change has tarnished our image, as well as that of the destination. They should consult us the stakeholders before making such drastic changes,” explains Calvin Ouma, CEO Calvin Tours and Safaris Limited.
Normally, tour operators negotiate early with hotels for a better room and for their guests to have better rates. Now, some are in trouble as their clients are refusing to top up. “If you book late, chances are that the hotel will be fully booked or you won’t get a good room, which some clients may not be comfortable with and will give you a bad review. That’s why some clients pay early, but now with increased park fees, we have had to let our clients know about it and that has earned me a bad review on the Trip Advisor platform for informing a client that they had to add more money. As business owners, we have a lot to pay for, such as taxes and having to refund or top up simply, because a client has refused to pay is dragging us behind. Guests are already heading to Tanzania and no amount of public relations will save us this time,” he adds.
Rosebell Mugambi of East African Luxury Safaris has also experienced the heat from increased park fees and believes that the increase was untimely and unreasonable particularly at a time when the industry is still recovering from the effects of the pandemic.
“Some clients are not happy, while others accepted the new rates, because for some of them, their biggest percentage of visits are supplied by tourism traders and corporates. They are the ones who correspond and engage clients on the ground. They understand their concerns more and how much a percentage increase would hurt the destination. A collaborative venture would work best as they would brief the clients in an understanding manner,” she says.
She believes that Kenya has not yet reached the over tourism level to have high rates with the aim of controlling mass tourism.
“The high prices will make the destination more expensive, especially since even hotels rates have gone up. Another thing we have noted is that those who are financially constrained are still interested in coming to Kenya. The number of park stays or visits will decline as most will opt to do other activities or visit other destinations, such as Tanzania and use Kenya as a point of transit. My recommendation would be that we go back to the original park entry fees,” she says in conclusion.