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Seeing is believing

Updated: 2013-08-16 08:56
By Li Lianxing in Nairobi, Kenya ( China Daily)

Seeing is believing

Witnessing the wonders of wildlife opens new avenues for tourism and conservation in east Africa

The massive herds of wildebeest that migrate each year between the plains of the Serengeti and Masai Mara are one of the great natural wonders of the world. They are among countless wildlife phenomena that have fascinated millions through TV documentaries, and increased awareness and appreciation of all animals and their environments.

As well as the long-established variety of safaris on offer, such experiences as the wildebeest migration are being seen - in East Africa at least - as a major drawing card to boost tourism, and the causes of conservation and wildlife protection.

Africa's amazing fauna and flora are also being highlighted to counter negative images caused by man-made disasters and events - such as the recent fire at Nairobi airport - that have seen a drop in tourist numbers.

Results of this are no more evident than in China, where conversely increasing numbers of tourists are choosing Africa for their main holidays. Again, many have been influenced by what they've seen on TV.

"When CCTV (China Central TV, the national network) did a live show about the animal migration in the Masai Mara last year, the Chinese audience suddenly realized Kenya was actually an attractive tourist destination and then started coming here," says Han Jun, chairman of the China General Chamber of Commerce in East Africa, who also runs a travel agency in Nairobi.

The two-hour live current affairs format is being repeated this month on CCTV's news channel, although it will focus on other topics.

"Rather than making documentaries, which is quite time exhausting and too delicate, we want to bring to our global audience more realistic and vivid pictures of the savanna and the animal world," says Song Jianing, chief of the CCTV Africa Bureau. "The live show is much more immediate in that everything we broadcast is what they might see in person. We may see the migration, but there's also a big chance that we won't."

This month's live program concentrates more on environmental protection and tourist education, she adds.

"We have several major topics this year, including the state of environmental protection in Africa, truths about poaching and how to fight it, as well as on how to behave properly when traveling in Africa," Song says.

"Kenya, our host country, has very good tourism resources that were unknown to Chinese tourists before. The Kenyan television stations had long wanted to do this, but lacked funding and technology. They thought we would be a good choice to cooperate with to promote their natural wonders."

The program seems to have made an impact both in China and Africa, and has impressed viewers at the highest level.

In an exclusive interview with China Daily, Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, says: "CCTV is helping us to expose this event (migrating wildebeest) to one of the world's largest populations. We hope it will encourage them to come to Kenya physically to see the animals for themselves.

"Because of the live show, we have seen an increase in Chinese people wanting to come here to see the migration, and we are expecting more.

"It is not only a chance to witness the wonder of wildlife, but also a good opportunity to show the heritage Kenya can share with the world, which needs all people to join hands to protect it.

"We are just custodians for future generations and we all have responsibility to ensure that we protect our environment, wildlife and culture, so that future generations can enjoy them as we do today."

Chinese tourists currently make up a small slice of the visitors to Kenya, but their numbers are increasing - by 10.4 percent last year compared with 2011, to reach 41,000.

However, according to the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism, the overall amount of visitors to the country in 2012 decreased from 1.26 million to 1.23 million while tourism revenue shrank by 2 percent to 96 billion Kenyan shillings ($1.12 billion).

The ministry says the fall in numbers was mainly due to adverse publicity caused by several abduction cases involving tourists, and by tension surrounding the general election. Several Western countries had issued warnings about travel to Kenya, some of which continued earlier this year.

"There will still be an increase in Chinese tourists this year, but it will not be too prominent due to the limited service capacity of this country," says Han Jun, of the chamber of commerce. "Chinese tourists' decision to come to Kenya would not be affected by Western travel warnings but rather influenced by domestic social media."

There have been no crimes targeted at Chinese tourists in the past 20 years, he says, so they are less concerned about the security situation.

"And the only accidents that happened were related to travel, and they were on trips operated by illegal travel agents."

 Seeing is believing

Samburu women look on in the Samburu game reserve in May. United Nations Environment Programme goodwill ambassador and Chinese actress Li Bingbing was on an official visit to the Samburu reserve in Kenya to highlight Africa's poaching crisis. Photos by Carl De Souza / Agence France-Presse

Seeing is believing

The challenges in selling African tourism to the Chinese lie more in the timing, travel habits and expectations about the sort of packages on offer.

Before Su Li, a manager of a tourist agency in Yunnan province, came to Kenya this August with her family and some clients, she was concerned that the sights and facilities in such remote places might disappoint her group. She was apprehensive about the conditions they would face.

"We saw the wildebeest migration on TV, but we didn't know how many animals there would be and how spectacular it would be," she says. "And this trip costs much more than going to Europe and the United States."

Su, who has been in the travel business for 23 years, says it's important but difficult to open a new destination, and this was a trial trip to see how Kenya measured up.

"It eventually proved to be a memorable journey that I will strongly recommend to my clients," Su says. "You can experience the most splendid natural gifts that no other place can offer."

Joseph Paul, 44, a driver who has worked in tourism for more than 18 years in Kenya, says he has been surprised by the increase in Chinese tourists in the past two years.

"There has been a decrease in tourists from the West, so we worried about the industry," he says. "But last summer, the savanna and hotels were full of Chinese tourists."

He used to work in a tourist agency that mainly catered to European and American guests, but he decided to move to a Chinese one, believing visitors from China will be the target for the country's tourism industry.

But Paul warns there are several unknowns and natural mysteries about wildlife travel, and that this might hamper this side of the industry from taking off.

For instance, the timing of the wildebeest migration changes annually and cannot be predicted in either direction.

"There shouldn't be a peak season or low season as wild animals and beautiful landscapes are always there," he says. "People divide the seasons based on animal migration time, but witnessing a crossing is very rare in peak season, and prices are much more expensive."

He suggests more visitors come to Kenya during the off-season to avoid congestion and over-pricing.

Han from the chamber of commerce says Chinese tourists are more likely to visit Kenya during the peak period between July and September.

"They don't like to book hotels and make plans in advance but prefer to make impromptu decisions, which makes it very difficult for the tour agencies to provide services," he says. "Booking good hotels in Kenya during the peak season is a tough task. Many Western travelers do it a year in advance."

There is massive scope for developing Chinese tourism to Kenya, says Zhang Taotao, manager of the Zijing Great Wall (Kenya) Travel Co, which has operated a tour company and a hotel in Kenya for more than seven years.

"For high-level business groups and regular tourist groups, we can provide a good service," he says. "But for special-interest groups, photographic say, backpackers and conference delegation, there is still a lot of room.

"Unregulated tour agencies that have no standards affect the general impression of Kenyan tourism, so improving the quality of tour agencies and punishing rogue operators are also key to a healthy industry."

Although visiting a foreign country is a chance to experience a different culture, Zhang says, many tourists still wish to have some aspects of service they are familiar with, particularly when it comes to food. This is especially the case for Chinese tourists.

"We found that some guests feel uncomfortable eating Western food regularly, so it's vital for us to provide some Chinese food during their trip," he maintains. "So apart from our own service, our hotel has reached agreements with local international hotels such as the Kempinski and Serena to voluntarily train their chefs to cook Chinese food, because we believe a taste of home during the journey makes their trip in Kenya more enjoyable."

Zhang also says Chinese tourists misunderstand some aspects of the service and accommodation in Kenya, which may affect their choice to come here.

"Many refused to live in a tent camp as they thought it was dangerous and with very poor conditions. But it's a very safe and special way of experiencing nature in comparative luxury. So we need to promote the first-class service in this country more."

As well as Chinese food and comfort, language is also an issue.

Jackie Sumaru, a Kenyan tour guide who speaks Chinese, says there are not enough like her to cater for the rapid rise in Chinese tourists.

"Many of my colleagues can speak Chinese, but do not know enough about national parks, conservation or wildlife," she says. "They are simply translators for the driver.

"So it's very important to have trained and assessed Chinese-speaking tour guides."

Zhang's Zijing Great Wall is hoping to cooperate with local authorities to organize training courses for both local and Chinese guides.

The "training" however works both ways, in that tourists also need to be educated about wildlife and natural environments - especially when it comes to buying and taking home souvenirs.

Tour guide and driver Paul says it's not the Chinese tourists who are the main buyers of wildlife products but residents.

"When they insist or are encouraged by some tour drivers and guides, they would be sent to some local secret agent to buy those products," he says.

Paul claims about three out of 10 tourists from China ask him if they can buy ivory, but don't seem to mind when they are refused.

It's still necessary to promote conservation to Chinese tourists so they can influence people when they go back home, says Zhuo Qiang, founder of the Mara Conservation Fund.

"We cooperate with some tourist agencies to give seminars or lessons to guests who are interested," he says.

Nick Nuttall, communications director and spokesman for the United Nations Environmental Program, says the Kenyan cooperation with CCTV is vitally important, as millions of viewers back in China get a chance to see the significance of conservation and natural environment protection efforts in Africa.

Looking further afield, Zhang, of Zijing Great Wall, also notes that Kenya can serve as an ideal hub for other tour destination in neighboring countries such as Uganda and Tanzania, and this is a route his company is exploring.

"We are very passionate and confident about the tourism resources in this region and we believe more Chinese guests will choose to come here," he says. "So we have established relationships with hotels and agencies in different countries in this region to prepare for the forthcoming boom."

He also suggests that to provide Chinese tourists with more diverse itineraries, other destinations in eastern Africa should be promoted as packages.

"Kenya will be a hub and platform to show Chinese tourist a real colorful Africa," he adds.

Perhaps the last word should come from Song Shengfeng, a 46-year-old traveler from Hebei province in northern China who visited the Masai Mara with his family this month. He says the trip was very different and much better than he had expected.

"The facilities along the route, especially the hotels and services, are so nice that I thought we could be in Europe," he says.

"It's so amazing and admirable that a national park can be established next to a Masai township and that the local people and the wildlife get along with each other so smoothly.

"It's a lesson that China should learn from Africa for a better living environment and relationship with nature."


Seeing is believing

(China Daily Africa Weekly 08/16/2013 page1)

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