• The Mara is best known for the "Great Migration" where an estimated 2.5 million animals make a round-trip journey of 2,000 kilometers in search of food and water across the Serengeti ecosystem between Tanzania and Kenya, attracting thousands of tourists annually.
  • ‘Too much of a good thing is poison’ and the same applies to the Mara ecosystem. While the reserve cannot cope without earnings from tourists, the reserve is also threatened by the same tourists.
  • Business Insider SSA had a chat with Nicole Hankar, an avid traveler and the General Manager of last minute: mara, Kenya’s newest booking platform making luxury travel to the Mara more affordable, on how Kenya can sustainably tap into the famous park.

There are few places in the world which can compare to the Maasai Mara National Reserve located in southwestern Kenya, along the Tanzanian border.

Wild animals including Lions, Cheetahs, Elephants, Zebras, Hippos, and Wildebeest freely roam the expansive grassy plains with rolling hills in a perfect symbiotic relationship.

The Mara is best known for the "Great Migration" where an estimated 2.5 million animals make a round-trip journey of 2,000 kilometers in search of food and water across the Serengeti ecosystem between Tanzania and Kenya, attracting thousands of tourists annually.

Maasai Mara, Kenya
BusinessInsider

In 2018, the Maasai Mara was voted Africa's leading national park at the World Travel Awards and it’s not hard to see why.

“The Maasai Mara is such a special place. It has so much to offer in terms of the landscape, in terms of the sheer amount of wildlife there is to spot all year round, in terms of the culture and it’s not a coincidence that everyone in the world who knows about Kenya, knows about the Maasai Mara. The Mara is the most renowned park in the world, who wouldn’t want to go on safari to the Mara?” poses Nicole Hankar, an avid traveler and the General Manager of last minute: mara, Kenya’s newest booking platform making luxury travel to the Mara more affordable.

Literally, everyone is scrambling to go to the Mara. Last month, hotels in Maasai Mara national reserve ran out of bed space due to increased tourist arrivals who flocked into the area to witness the annual spectacular wildebeest migration. 

The Great Wildebeest Migration

Mara National Reserve management said more than 100,000 tourists had already witnessed the migration and more were expected to come before the spectacle ends in September.

“The number of tourists has been increasing between April and this month. In April we had 9,000 tourists. This shot to 11,000 in May and 26,535 in June. We expect the number to go up to 100,000 by the end of this month,” Mara National Reserve administrator Christine Daabash said.

Why Kenya can’t have its cake and eat it

Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, UNCTAD Secretary-General with Chinese business investor Jack Ma join a Maasai moran in a dance at Maasai Mara National Reserve.

From a lay man’s eyes, Kenya is enjoying a boom in tourism as the industry recovers from years of slow growth occasioned by terrorist threats and attacks; the country should rub its hands in glee and keep the party going.

However, from an expert’s point of view, the party cannot go on forever and indeed it is high time countries like Kenya put measures in place to protect the delicate ecosystem from tourists themselves otherwise we may as well be seeing the last of the ‘great migration’.

"During the migration, the Maasai Mara is milling with tour vans and honestly it pains me to see this. It’s great to see so many people rushing to experience this incredible eco-system for themselves however, if we get to a point where there are more vehicles than animals, where are we heading? Tourism, while extremely beneficial for the economy, has a major impact on the environment; think about the amount of waste generated to cater for all these people and there are so many camps in the Mara,” Nicole told Business Insider SSA.

Nicole Hankar, the General Manager of last minute: mara speaking with Business Insider SSA.

‘Too much of a good thing is poison’ and the same applies to the Mara ecosystem. While the reserve cannot cope without earnings from tourists, the reserve is also threatened by the same tourists.

"I sometimes wonder if there should be a daily limit imposed on how many people can visit the Maasai Mara during the migration. While this may not be possible, I do believe there should be stricter rules in place regarding tour vehicles; these should only be driven by certified driver guides who understand the impact their presence has on the wildlife and the ecosystem as a whole,” she explains.

The root cause of the problem

The wildebeest migration.

Nicole explains that the Mara’s greatest attraction – the wildebeest migration - is also a curse as this has created major seasonality issues due to shifts in demand. The business model used by most luxury camps and lodges is dependant on foreign tourists booking far in advance, the main problem is that the majority of these tourists travel to the Mara specifically for the migration which leaves the camps vulnerable to lower levels of occupancy in other months. 

The main problem here is a lack of education about the Mara which has resulted in overseas agents only selling the Maasai Mara as a worthwhile destination during the migration. The result, most of these camps are much less busy the remainder of the year," she mentions. 

Saruni Wild camp located in the heart of the Mara plains in Lemek Conservancy.

This seasonality issue leaves many stakeholders in difficult positions long after the migration is over. There is hope though and Nicole is working hard to ensure the communities depending on the park have something to look forward to once everyone packs up and leaves.

"This seasonality issue has a negative impact on the economic situation in the Mara and the many stakeholders that depend so much on a thriving tourism industry. We figured if we were able to make the Maasai Mara more accessible to the Kenyan market then this would help turn the situation around,” the last minute: mara General Manager states. 

Home-based solution

Angama Mara, a safari lodge in Maasai Mara.

Nicole says Kenya doesn’t need to look far from home for solutions on how to sustainably tap into the ‘spoils of the Maasai Mara’. It can borrow a leaf from Rwanda and Uganda who in recent years have doubled permit fees for watching and trekking with the critically endangered mountain Gorillas.

“I don’t know much about the policies or what the government has in plan for this but I believe Kenya could learn a thing or two from Rwanda and Uganda who increased the price of Gorilla trekking permits and limited the number of permits issued daily in an effort to further protect the already endangered gorillas," says Nicole.

Rwanda has chosen to market itself as an exclusive, upmarket destination, that goes along with the building of more exclusive lodges and world class hotels in Kigali.

Mountain Gorrila, Rwanda

Nicole believes the Rwandan model can help in protecting Kenya’s wildlife.

"With the emerging middle class in Kenya there is more purchasing power at home than ever before. Kenyans are now travelling more than in recent years however they are travelling to foreign countries or to the same destinations within Kenya and the Maasai Mara is simply not one of them. Why? Because for the longest time no one has really targeted them and they do not know what is available to them.” 

“I feel that if there were fewer camps and lodges in the Mara, and as a result fewer travel vans, visitors would have a more authentic and enjoyable safari experience which would be worth every shilling,” she says. 

Rwanda currently charges $1,500 (RWF150,000) per person for a gorilla permit while Uganda charges $600 (Sh60,000).

Nicole believes Kenyans should have the last laugh while traveling

Nicole Hankar, the General Manager of last minute: mara believes Kenyans should have the last laugh while traveling.

Nicole says the problem is also rooted in Kenya’s hospitality industry which is at times caught flat-footed when local demand spikes, something she is tackling through her company last minute: mara.

“Last minute Mara was created to deal first and foremost with the seasonality issue the Mara is faced with. Due to the business model used by most luxury camps, the focus is essentially on international travelers who book long in advance. 

The way camps and lodges generally deal with demand is very reactive, people have to go and seek out where they can go, what hotels are available to them and the problem is that a lot of people simply don’t know what is available in the Mara. We figured if we can create a platform that enables these camps and domestic airlines to make their last minute inventory more easily accessible then there is definitely a market for it. Last minute: mara simply provides a marketplace in which suppliers can make their last minute rooms/seats available to travellers who are more price sensitive and willing to sacrifice booking far in advance." Nicole states. 

A tourist gazes at an African Elephant in Maasai Mara National Reserve. (Naboisho Camp)

She wants Kenyans to have the last laugh while traveling and already her company is making sure this happens.

“The Kenyan market compared to the international market doesn’t necessarily need to book in advance, and you know Kenyans are well known for booking last minute (laughs) but why should they be penalized for it and this is what happens a lot of the time," she tells this journalist as we conclude the interview.