This year’s tourism peak season in Maasai Mara National Reserve got off to a bad start when more than 300 tourists were left stranded for more than nine hours in Narok town on Friday.
The tourists, who missed most of their schedules in the reserve, were abandoned in the town by tour operators, who were protesting over the poor state of the 70- kilometre Narok-Sekenani Gate road.
They blocked the busy Narok-Bomet road for about six hours, also inconveniencing motorists.
They claimed the road has been in deplorable state for more than 15 years, charging that it was giving local airline companies advantage over them.
“This is an important road to the country’s economy yet it has not received the attention it deserves. We suspect it is being neglected to give airline companies business,” said James Gichina, the national chairman, Tour Guides and Drivers Association.He said the protests will continue even if it means disrupting the peak season until the road is repaired.
Operators wondered what became of the Deputy President William Ruto’s pledge last year during the Narok County Economic Forum that it would be upgraded to bitumen standard before the peak season.
“We have heard the story about fixing this road for more than 15 years. Two years ago and more recently, the DP told us that Sh1 billion has been set aside for the works. We are tired of stories,” he said. According to the 2014 Economic Survey, Narok County government raked Sh8.2 billion in tariffs and fees from tourism activities in the reserve that is under its management.
Tour operators have been holding protests annually over the state of the road but the timing of the latest one has dented the country’s image internationally.
“The protests will surely give the country a bad name. When tourists are inconvenienced and business in Narok, that is the gateway to the Mara is disrupted, livelihoods are also lost,” said David Mpatiany, the local county chairman, Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
He concurs with the tour operators that the road has been neglected for long and wonders what the government priority is if improvement of road network in areas which hosts tourist facilities is a secondary issue.
Gichina said tour vehicles will, if nothing is done not be picking guests who access or leave the reserve by planes, adding airlines should make arrangements on how their guests will enter and leave the park. The road is not good for ageing and sick tourists adding that not all tourists can afford air trips.
“It will be expensive if all use planes to go or leave the Mara. The visitors save for a long time to visit Kenya and an added cost to them will not be taken lightly,” he said.
Mara Managers Forum secretary Ben Kipeno said protests are not good this season adding that delays in moving the visitors to and from the reserve would deny them hotels business. “If protests will continue, visitors might be forced to go to Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.
They can even watch migration from the other side. We don’t want that to happen because it will deny us business which we have been waiting for,” he added.