Dressed in a bright red shuka with strands of equally colourful beads around his neck, Peter Lesongoyo, 27, stands on the road leading to Engaresero village in northern Tanzania, waiting for tourists.
A tall and lanky Maasai moran, he is with about 20 others. They are too tired to even perform a traditional jig.
Each one of them has a sad story to tell. Tourists have suddenly started giving their village a wide berth for reasons unknown to Lesongoyo and his friends.
“I’m worried not only for myself, but also for the entire community, because if tourist numbers keep on falling, we will die of hunger,” says Lesongoyo.
Indeed, as you travel from Arusha to Lake Natron or Lake Eyasi, you enter a world where local communities struggle to survive.
Hadzabe, Maasai and Tatoga ethnic groups, the surviving remnants of the hunter-gatherers and nomadic pastoralists who dominated this part of the world, basically live on what nature provides. Their staple food consists of meat and milk from domestic animals, bushmeat and wild fruit and honey.
Climate change and other modern developments such as commercial agriculture and mining are fast depleting vegetation, forcing the communities to abandon their traditional lifestyles in a bid to survive.
In their efforts to adapt, lately, these communities have been engaging in cultural tourism as an alternative economic activity.
They sell traditional items such as beads and other cultural artefacts to earn money for survival, but it is not easy.
Lately, local authorities in northern Tanzania have been competing with each other in coming up with charges for tourists enroute to these cultural tourism villages set up by communities.
To enforce payment, barriers have been placed on all the major transit routes. For example, tourists travelling to Lake Natron and Oldonyo Lengai have since 2012 been subjected to a fee of up to $40 each to transit through these community centres.
Monduli, Longido and Ngorongoro district councils are among the local authorities that have imposed these unspecified charges on each foreign tourist.
Tourists pay $10 at Engaruka gate to the Monduli district council, another $10 at Oldonyo Lengai to the Longido district council, while Ngorongoro district council collects $20 at the Engarasero barrier.
Alexis Cronin, a tourist doesn’t understand why he should pay $40 just on transit fees in addition to a $25 entry fee.
“It doesn’t make sense for me to pay $40 for just being in transit. This is unfair. I couldn’t mind if I would pay this money directly to the community though,” he said.
As a result, tour operators have since March 1, 2013, unanimously excluded the route on their itineraries to protest against the local authorities’ arbitrary fees.
“It is unfair to charge a tourist $40 even before seeing anything,” said Sirili Akko, chief executive officer of the Tanzania Association of Tour Operators.
He adds that the business was all about negotiation, not harsh laws. The four district councils of Ngorongoro, Longido, Monduli and Karatu have rejected a proposal by outgoing Arusha Regional Commissioner Magessa Mulongo to abolish the charges.
The authorities told the commission appointed by the Mulongo appointed to look into the matter that their budgets would be negatively impacted if they abolished the charges imposed on tourists.
Worse still, Karatu district council executive director Moses Mabula says plans are underway to review the model of charging the fee in order to bring in more revenues.
The district, which imposed its collection barrier at the Lake Eyasi entry point, wants to charge $10 per tourist and $5 for every vehicle carrying tourists, instead of the $10 each tourist van is currently charged.
The co-ordinator of cultural tourism at Mto wa Mbu, Wesley Kileo, says the local authorities’ decision is a final blow to the communities whose lives depend on cultural tourism.
Kileo said that cultural tourism created employment for nearly 600 youths in the form of tour guides as well as workers at various campsites and lodges surrounding Lake Natron, Engaruka ruins and Oldonyo Lengai mountain.
“This area is dry, with no other meaningful economic undertaking than the cultural tourism business. The myriad fees are a final blow to the people living along the route,” he explained.
Tourists, mostly from overseas, have for ages been flocking to the villages situated along the shore of Lake Natron, the foot of Oldonyo Lengai, and the nearby Ngaresero River waterfalls, a hot spring and the recently discovered hominid footprints some 220km northwest of Arusha.
Lake Natron is the only regular breeding site for 1.5 million-2.5 million lesser flamingos in East Africa, whereas Oldonyo Lengai is among the world’s few remaining active volcanoes.
Youths in villages around these attractions have formed groups to engage in cultural tourism for the benefit of their communities. They collect and distribute tourism earnings to local communities for them to meet their basic needs.
The cultural tourism groups charge $25 for a half or full day excursion to the waterfalls, Embalulu Crater, the Rift Valley escarpment, Lake Natron, the baboon caves along the river, the hominid footprints and a hot spring. The groups run educational guided tours to each site.
“Tourists mostly prefer to hear the history of the volcanic mountain and its name ‘Oldoinyo le Engai’ which means the mountain of God,” says Lesongoyo.
The Maasai believe God spits fire on the mountain peak. When the mountain rumbles and a tremor ensues at night, residents are always on the look out for signs of flowing lava. “We last experienced such a scenario in 2007 when the group received up to 2,000 tourists a month,” said Lesongoyo, whose livelihood depends on being a tour guide.
But now the fees have unexpectedly made tourists vehicles give the village a wide berth.
A high ranking official with Engaresero Cultural Tourism project Lazaro Ndirima, says currently, the vehicles taking tourists to these cultural villages have fallen to six only from 15 per week on average, thus denying local people an opportunity to sell to their culture to tourists.
“Last year we got 1,800 tourists vehicles earning us $45,000, but this year, we are not sure if they can reach 1,000 visitors because the tourists are simply not coming,” said Ndirima.
The Lake Eyasi Cultural Project co-ordinator Joseph Nyamsagori has the same story, saying this year they projected to receive 2,500 tourists vehicles, but now he is not even sure if they will hit 1,000 vehicles.
Natural Resources and Tourism Minister Lazaro Nyalandu pledges to come up with sweeping reforms in the structure of tourists fees outside national and game parks.
“We need tourists to spend more days in Tanzania. We cannot afford to let every Tom, Dick, and Harry wake up one morning and erect a barrier on the road to collect money from tourists,” said Nyalandu.
He argues that with the current challenges of Ebola and international terrorism, Tanzania should be the last country to impose “nuisance” taxes on tourists.
According to Nyalando the cultural establishments along the Lake Natron route are a rare example of transferring tourists’ dollars to common people directly, with direct multiplier effects.
Transferring dollars from international tourists to poor people living around tourist destinations has been a major challenge throughout East Africa and the world.
Freddy Massawe, the chief executive officer of the Tanzania Association of Cultural Tourism Organisers (Tacto) said that at the moment, cultural tourism destinations attract 30 per cent of the 1.2 million tourists who visit Tanzania’s wildlife-rich attractions annually.
This means the segment is responsible for nearly 360,000 tourists, directly earning the people at the grassroots roughly $32.4 million annually, but Massawe sees this as a paltry amount in comparison with the potential.
Looking beyond the numbers, experts say that this is a successful model that tour companies could borrow to transfer tourist dollars to the people at the grassroots.
Massawe underscores the need for local tour operators to incorporate culture in their safari package in order to transfer more dollars to the local people.
“Cultural tourism if well-developed can attract millions of tourists to our country given the cultural diversity we have,” he said, adding that countries such as France, Egypt and Morocco rely on cultural tourism solely and have attracted millions of tourists.
For instance, he says, French cultural tourism attracted 87.3 million international tourists in 2013, with Egypt receiving 9.1 million and Morocco 10 million visitors, generating billions of dollars for the economy.
“In Tanzania, multiple taxes imposed by inter-sectoral Acts frustrate efforts to unlock our cultural tourism potential,” Massawe noted, stressing that in certain instances, local government authorities raise tourism levies without considering their impact.
He argues that cultural tourism if well developed can generate employment for thousands of youths and women as well as bringing in foreign currency.
More importantly, it can also be used to combat poaching, as communities will see the benefits of tourism, he said.
Growing at a steady rate for the past two years, Tanzania tourism is now booming with latest data confirming the industry as Tanzania’s top foreign currency earner outshining gold.
Fresh figures from the central bank indicate that tourism brought in $1.973 billion during the year ended June 2014, up from $1.757 billion earned in the previous corresponding year.
Recent statistics show that earnings from the Tanzanian tourism industry increased to $1.88 billion in 2013 from $200 million in 1993.
The number of visitors also increased over the same period to a record one million from 230,000, creating direct employment to 156,500 Tanzanians.
The reported number of tourists who visited Tanzania in 2012 and 2013 places the country as one of the leading African safari destinations recording over a million visitors per year.
Other African tourist destinations attracting one million or above tourists a year are Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and South Africa.