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Nothing to show for tourism billions

Communities around the world-famous Masai Mara Game Reserve still wallow in poverty.

"We are still waiting for the day when we will reap benefits from tourism. The situation is bad and it calls for urgent intervention,..."

Despite the billions of shillings earned from tourism annually, communities around the world-famous Masai Mara Game Reserve still wallow in poverty.

The poverty index is high and it is only a few people, hoteliers and tour proprietors who are reaping maximum benefits from the vibrant tourism industry.

"We are still waiting for the day when we will reap benefits from tourism. The situation is bad and it calls for urgent intervention," says Ben Kipeno, a community leader at Sekenani area of the reserve.

He says out of desperation, communities have resorted to mining stones, poaching, and charcoal burning, which will in future impact negatively on the future of the goose that lays the golden egg.

Kipeno says it is only the Narok and Transmara County Council officials, hoteliers and tour companies’ proprietors who are pocketing millions of shillings, leaving behind too little to uplift the living standards of the locals who bear the brunt of human-wildlife conflict.

"The locals who have conserved the ecosystem are spectators who just watch as the money is swindled," he says.

Sh3.5billion earnings

Both councils, which run the greater Mara, only plough back 19 per cent of tourism proceeds annually to the communities.

Estimates availed to The Standard On Saturday show both councils earn about Sh3.5 billion annually in fees and tariffs.

Sammy Nkoitoi, the chairman of Siana Wildlife Conservation Trust on the eastern side of the jewel, says the 19 per cent is too little to uplift the living standards of the locals and calls for sealing of all loopholes in which money is pilfered.

"There is nothing to show of the billions of shilling accrued from tourism. There are no visible infrastructural developments like schools and health facilities that go along to ameliorate the hardships locals face," he says.

Nkoitoi adds: "The new Constitution calls for autonomous counties. If we have done nothing with devolved funds and rates and tariffs from county councils, what are we going to do with more devolved funds?"

He says corruption will thrive with the new Constitution, claiming there will be nothing to check on misuse of funds by corrupt governors.

"The annual migration of wildebeest from Serengeti in Tanzania to Mara has been named the seventh wonder of the world but the event which led to the increased tourist arrivals has not changed the living standards of the locals," the official adds.

He says people in the area die of treatable ailments because there are no health facilities and children have no access to education because there are few schools.

"Malaria, pneumonia and typhoid are claiming lives and there are a few and ill equipped schools in the place. To what benefit is this resource to the locals?" he wonders.

Nkoitoi faults owners of lodges and camps in the reserve for not giving back to the communities yet they post millions of shillings in profits annually from tourism proceeds. "Apart from Sarova Group of Hotels, which is rehabilitating and equipping Sekenani Primary School in conjunction with Virgin Atlantic, most hotels have failed to appreciate the efforts of locals towards the conservation of Mara," he adds.

Review agreements

Hassan Kamwaro, the chairman of Olkeju Ronkai Ltd, says there is need to review all lease agreements between locals and proprietors of hotels in Mara to reflect the changing economic times.

"Most of the leases were entered many years ago and they do not reflect changing economic fortunes. It is time they are reviewed," says Mr Kamwaro, whose company together with Somak Travel Ltd has constructed a prestigious lodge inside the park. He claims that some hoteliers had taken advantage of the ignorance of the members of group ranches in the reserve and are still clinging to old land lease agreements.

"It is a fact that they post heavy profits which are sometimes not taxed yet they are not willing to plough back some proceeds to their hosts or revise the agreements they entered with them before they set the establishments, he says.

Narok County Council (NCC) has awarded Equity Bank a ten-year contract to collect park entry fees. The system dubbed E-Ticketing, according to NCC clerk Pius Mutemi is meant to tighten revenue collection and ensure communities benefit.

"The new system will make pilferage a thing of the past. The revenue will help initiate development projects that will benefit communities," says Mutemi.

The council depends on tourism revenue to fund its activities, he adds, saying the time when communities watched as their money is being misused will soon be over.

By Kipchumba Kemei, 2nd May, 2011.