The Kenya Wildlife Service has been granted a commercial licence to fly tourists to Northern Kenya, setting the stage for the tapping of tourism potential in the far-flung areas of the country’s northern circuit.
The one-year licence, given by the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority, has been gazetted and restricts flights to areas around Sibiloi National Park in Turkana, Marsabit National Park and Malka Mari National Park on the Ethiopia-Kenya border between Mandera and Moyale.
Other air operators are expected to start flights once the KWS non-scheduled passenger air service shows that the business is viable.
Most of Kenya’s tourism is concentrated in the southern circuit around Amboseli and the Masai Mara leaving out enormous potential in Northern and Western regions.
The KWS Airwing, based at Wilson Airport in Nairobi, has been a huge expense on the service, especially due to the costs of running 12 aircraft and 14 pilots, which on average cost Sh4.5 million ($58,442) per month.
The Kenya Civil Aviation Authority is in the process of approving a seven-seater helicopter, 13-seater caravan and a four-seater Cessna aircraft for the non-scheduled passenger air services.
KWS has nine other aircraft for anti-poaching and conservation work permanently stationed in Nakuru, Tsavo, Lamu, Meru, Marsabit and Aberdare National Parks.
KWS plans to get an aircraft to be stationed in Kitale to cover conservation efforts in the western region. All the other conservation areas have aircrafts.
Launched in 1990, the KWS Airwing is charged with carrying out routine monitoring and conservation field trips or security operations, search and rescue missions well as emergency evacuations.
The areas in the northern circuit to be covered by the KWS flights have rich tourist attraction sites, fauna and flora.
For example, Marsabit National Park, one of Kenya’s most quiet and remote national parks, has the scenic and serene Lake Paradise on top of Mt Marsabit, elephants, Greater Kudu, mountain lions, buffalos and other wildlife.
Sibiloi National Park, which was gazetted in 1973, has international significance as the cradle of mankind and teems with fossils, zebras, gazelles and impala.
The park was partially established through the initiative of the National Museums of Kenya to protect unique prehistoric and archeological sites, some of which are linked to the origin of man.
Malka Mari National Park, on the other hand, was gazetted in 1989 because of its high wildlife concentration. It is located along the Daua River on the Kenya-Ethiopia border in the extreme north east of Kenya on the Mandera plateau.
Its main attractions are Malka Mari fort, hills and valleys. But it has not been developed.
Opening up of the domestic airspace is one of the key cogs in a drive to realise Kenya’s target of five million tourists per year by 2012.
Already, KWS is planning to build airstrips in Ruma National Park (Homa Bay) and Mt Elgon National Park near Kitale Town. In the near future, more airstrips will be upgraded, including one at Voi in Tsavo East National Park, Kamboyo in Tsavo West National Park and Mweiga in the Aberdare National Park. Each region has an aircraft for patrols and other conservation activities.