Tourists to the Maasai Mara National Reserve will no longer come and go as they please.
This is if the Government succeeds in a new attempt to control the flow of tourists and investments into the world-famous park in a bid to protect its ecosystem, which is being degraded at an alarming rate.
The Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife says it plans to put in place a new management plan for the Mara, which could result in the control of the number of visitors allowed into the park at any given time, especially during the peak season of the wildebeest migration. The plan would also see the Government shut down some tourist facilities as well as issue permits to lodge developers in a more controlled manner. The reserve is already said to be congested.
The annual wildebeest migration from the Serengeti in Tanzania to Masai Mara in Kenya is one of the greatest natural spectacles, which led to it being named the Eighth Wonder of the World.
The elevation of the park’s status globally has seen it attract high visitor numbers and in turn a huge number of investments, with some lodges and camps being put up illegally. This has led to degradation of the environment and reduction in the number of animals in the reserve.
The latest move is the second attempt by the Government to implement a management plan for the Mara. The first was slated for implementation between 2010 and 2020.
Implementation, however, flopped owing to differing interests and divergent opinions among stakeholders.
Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala said in Nairobi last Thursday, when he released the tourism industry performance report for last year, that the national and Narok county governments were working on a new management plan.
He said the plan was expected to preserve and perhaps reverse the damage caused by high human traffic and commercial interests.
The CS said the plan would revolve around staggering visitors to the park such that there were tourists throughout the year as opposed to having the reserve fully occupied during the wildebeest migration season and near-empty for the rest of the year.
“The Maasai Mara is the gem of tourism in Kenya. People come to the Mara mainly for the migration and during the months of July, August and September, it is usually 98 per cent occupied. This is good but we need to manage these numbers by perhaps spreading visitors throughout the year,” he said.
“We are working with the county government to develop a management plan and we will start executing this soon.”
It is not clear what impact the proposed plan would have on the overall number of visitors to the country, coming at a time when the sector is showing signs of revival.
The sector defied last year’s election jitters to register a 20 per cent growth from 2016, according to the figures released on Thursday. Earnings for up to December stood at Sh120 billion, up from Sh99.69 billion in 2016. The reserve received 146,000 visitors in 2016 and while not the highest visited wildlife attraction, the numbers translated to a higher visitor density at 1.6 people per square kilometre.
This is 10 times higher than in other Kenyan parks and 17 times more than Tanzania’s Serengeti. Visitors and a high concentration of lodges have partly contributed to the reduction in animals numbers, with resident wildebeests declining over time by as much as 75 per cent.