The protracted battle over construction of an international airport next to Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, pitting the government against environmentalists, is nearly over — and the government seems to have carried the day.
Plans for the construction of the $350 million facility, expected to start early next year, are complete, and the Tanzania Civil Aviation Authority has approved the project. All that remains now is the release of an environmental impact assessment report by the National Environmental Management Council (NEMC).
For six years, the government has come up against stiff resistance from conservationists and environmentalists opposed to the planned construction of an ultra-modern airport in Mugumu town, 40 km from northwestern Serengeti. The government’s move follows an earlier attempt to construct a 321-kilometre tarmac road through Serengeti.
(Read: Serengeti wildlife under threat)
This was shelved over concerns that it would destroy the only animal migration existing in the world.
The projects are a part of President Jakaya Kikwete’s dream to create a new gateway to Tanzania’s northern tourism circuit and open up potential investment opportunities in the natural resources-rich Lake Victoria zone.
The idea is that large jets could land directly at Serengeti to offer holidaymakers a hassle-free trip. “The new airport would offer tourists the option to use both Kilimanjaro or Serengeti airports,” said President Kikwete. The tourists could land at Kilimanjaro International Airport and, after visiting Tarangire, Manyara, Ngorongoro and Serengeti, use Serengeti international airport to fly back home.
Serengeti District Council Chairman John Ng’oina confirmed that the project had received the go-ahead from the Civil Aviation Authority and expected the environmental impact assessment report “anytime soon to pave the way for other crucial steps before the actual construction takes off.”
An American billionaire and conservationist, Paul Tudor Jones, is said to be willing to finance the construction.
Mr Tudor, a prominent Wall Street tycoon, runs a $16 million five-star lodge at Sasakwa Hill and the three wildlife rich hunting blocs of Grumeti, Ikorongo and Ikoma, covering nearly 110,000 hectares in western Serengeti.
“Mr Tudor is willing to bankroll the project, not only because he seeks close ties with the naturally well-endowed country, but because the airport would benefit his business as well since his higher-end clients would be using the airport,” a source told The EastAfrican.
Analysts say the airport would also be a major boost to Tanzania’s drive to increase the number of visitors from 800,000 to 1.6 million in 2015 and double tourism revenue from the current $1.4 billion to $2.8 billion annually in the next three years.
Natural Resources and Tourism Deputy Minister Lazaro Nyalandu said that the Serengeti airport would make life easier for tourists, who currently travel 300 kilometres by road from KIA to the famous game sanctuary.
“We want to cut down the time spent in travelling and enable our visitors to enjoy the abundant attractions,” Mr Nyalandu added.
The government also hopes having an airport next to the park will ensure tourist dollars reach the ordinary people of the area.
At the moment, only 18 per cent ($171 million) of the $950 million revenue earned on the northern safari circuit goes to the communities in the area through multiplier effects.
The construction of the airport is likely to be strongly opposed by environmentalists and conservationists.
The Friends of Serengeti movement has denounced the construction of an airport so close to the World Heritage Site, saying the project will attract more human activities near the fragile Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.
“We are deeply concerned about a massive new influx of foreign tourists into this delicate ecosystem, and contend the airport will pave the way for unsustainable development of the region,” the group says on its website.
Opponents of the project say the landing and takeoff of large planes in Mugumu, which borders one of the park’s most congested areas, both in terms of humans and wildlife, could in the long run damage wildlife migration patterns.
This area is critical to the wildebeest’s annual migration between Tanzania and Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve.
Seven years ago, conservationists, in collaboration with Serengeti National Park officials, drew up a 10-year comprehensive general management plan (GMP) for Serengeti.
The plan prohibits expansion of human settlement and development in the wider ecosystem of Serengeti-Mara. It notes the extreme impact in the northwest border of the legendary Serengeti, which was densely settled by a population of 3,329,199 in 2011.
The population increase has been fuelling poaching, with Director General of Tanzania National Parks Allan Kijazi putting at between 200 and 300 the number of wildebeest killed annually in western Serengeti.
A UNEP and World Conservation Monitoring Centre report puts the total number of animals killed annually in Serengeti at as high as 200,000.
The Serengeti Watch organisation says a facility like the airport will require machinery, road infrastructure, jet fuel, and a steady stream of equipment, spares, and supplies to support it.
In its “Stop Serengeti International Airport” online campaign, the organisation says jumbo jets landing near the park would change the Serengeti “beyond recognition.”