Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest free standing mountain—not part of a mountain range—at an elevation of 5,895 metres above sea level, is one of Tanzania’s major tourist attractions, attracting 50,000 climbers and earning the country $55.3 million annually.
The mountain, in Kilimanjaro National Park in northern Tanzania, is managed by Tanzania National Parks (Tanapa), a government authority that manages all national parks in the country works with stakeholders in the tourism industry such as tour operators and guides, and in the case of Kilimanjaro, climbing guides and porters.
In the past few weeks, however, a storm has been brewing over the fate of the over 250,000 guides and porters who serve on Mt Kilimanjaro, following a government announcement that the plans to approve a cable car service project on the mountain to cater for the physically challenged, the elderly and children.
But able bodied climbers will have a choice of using the cable car or conventional climbing.
Constantine Kanyasu, Deputy Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism who made the announcement during a tour of the Kilimanjaro National Park recently, explained that the cable car service is to be built and operated by a private US company, which has already been identified and which has in turn registered a local firm, AVAN Kilimanjaro, to implement the project.
The announcement has not gone down well with the Mount Kilimanjaro Porters Society and the Tanzania Porters Organisation.
Edson Mpemba, chairperson of the porters’ society, lamented that if built, “most of the tourists will definitely choose the cable car to reduce costs and length of stay,” affecting the general tourism associated with Kilimanjaro.
He also wondered why decision-makers are overlooking the interests of the quarter million unskilled labour force that depends on the mountain for a living.
“Think of the ripple effect on families of the 250,000 porters,” he said, cautioning that, “the cable car facility will initially look like a noble and innovative idea, but it will, in the long run, ruin the lives and future of the majority of local people whose livelihoods depend on the mountain.”
The executive secretary of the Tanzania Porters Organisation, Loshiye Mollel, expressed fears that the project will render the 250,000 porters destitute and could force them into lives of crime.
The proposed cable car service “will be rolled out along the Machame Route where the ascent will start and end,” according to Beatrice Mchome from Crescent Environmental Management Consult, and who is leading a team of experts in conducting the environmental and social impact assessment. Members of the team are currently consulting tourism stakeholders for views on the project.
The Machame route, also known as the Whiskey Route, is the most popular for its scenic beauty.
However, the trail is considered difficult, steep and challenging, particularly due to its shorter itinerary (five to six days for those seeking to summit).
This route is better suited for more adventurous climbers or those with some high altitude, hiking or backpacking experience.
Putting a cable car service on this route will come in the way of a unique experience for the majority of climbers and trekkers.
The chief park warden with Kinapa, Betty Looibok, however says that the construction of the cable car will depend on the outcome of the environmental and social impact assessment currently in progress.
“The cable car is for physically challenged persons, children and old tourists who want to experience the thrill of climbing Mt Kilimanjaro up to Shira Plateau without wishing to reach the summit,” she explained.
While Mr Kanyasu believes that the cable car service will bring in more tourists who ordinarily would not choose to climb the mountain, Mr Mpemba sees a loss of jobs for the porters and lower earnings for the government from fewer stays as tourists arrive, zoom up and down the mountain, and leave, killing the very essence of mountain climbing as a tourism experience and denying porters a livelihood.
As of last year, the recommended tip for porters was $50 per climber.
Science too is on Mr Mpemba’s side.
One of the dangers of mountain climbing is acute mountain sickness or altitude sickness in layman’s language, and its severe variants, high altitude cerebral oedema and high altitude pulmonary oedema.
Altitude sickness is a caused by going to high altitudes too fast, where lower levels of oxygen inhibit normal physiological processes.
People typically start experiencing it about 3,000 metres above sea level. Some people can experience symptoms as low as just over 2,400m.
Due to Kilimanjaro’s natural rapid ascent, altitude sickness among trekkers is unfortunately quite common.
This means a cable car ride up the mountain, even to just 3,000 metres up, could make the situation worse for climbers susceptible to altitude sickness.
Normally, climbers take three to four hours to trek up to Shira Plateau, for those on day hikes. This is recommended so that they can acclimatise.
Acclimatisation is the process by which the body becomes accustomed to lower availability of oxygen in the atmosphere and can only be achieved by spending time at various levels of altitude before progressing higher.
To acclimatise better, climbers and trekkers use a technique called ‘‘climb high,’’ sleep slow when aiming for a summit higher than 3,000 metres above sea level. This is a time-tested strategy where climbers spend the first night below 2,000 metres.
They ascend gradually, hiking higher each day and retreating lower to sleep. And the higher climbers go, the slower they move because of the thin air.
It is recommended that once you reach a sleeping altitude of 3,000 metres, don’t increase sleeping altitude by more than 500 metres in a 24-hour period.
Shira Plateau, 13 kilometres west of Kibo peak, has an elevation of 3,962 metres. If people typically start experiencing acute mountain sickness at about 3,000 metres above sea level and some can experience symptoms at as low as just over 2,400m, taking a cable ride from ground level to Shira Plateau in about 20 minutes can pose serious health risks.
It normally takes about four hours to get to Shira Plateau on a day hike, giving ample time to acclimatise.
Ms Mchome told tour operators in Arusha that the cable car, when eventually built will operate 25 cable cars capable of carrying 150 passengers at a go to the Shira Plateau, nearly 3,000 metres above sea level.
Some people argue that cable cars in the wild are in use in other parts of the world such as Switzerland and the US. But there is an environmental cost to building cable cars.
First, trees and vegetation have to be cleared to create the cable line route causing adverse environmental impacts, as does erecting huge pylons and towers and stations that destroy the flora, which take years to recover, if at all.
Chief park warden of Kinapa, Betty Looibok, says the construction of the cable car will depend on the outcome of the environmental and social impact assessment currently in progress.
Tour operators too have raised concerns that the cable car project will deny the government revenue since it will reduce the number of days tourists spend on climbing the mountain.
Although the cable car is to cover only a distance that can be covered in a day hike, it means there will be no overnight stay by day hikers, who would normally spend a minimum of two nights.
According to Merwyn Nunes, a former civil servant in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism and the founding chairman of the Tanzania Association of Tour Operators (Tato), the project was first conceived in 1968 when a firm from France was interested in introducing the cable car, but he and a team of civil servants charged with its approval turned it down on behalf of the government on national interest grounds.
Mr Nunes says the project also negates Section 58(2) of the 2008 Tanzania Tourism Act No 11 which states that mountain climbing or trekking registration is preserved for companies fully owned by Tanzanians.
A seasoned tour guide, Victor Manyanga, cautions that the cable car service will promote mass tourism, contrary to Tanzania’s tourism policy and at the expense of Mount Kilimanjaro’s ecology.
“The Machame itinerary along which the cable car will be constructed is the birds’ migratory route, and electric wires will definitely harm them,” he said.
Sam Diah, another tour operator, wondered why Tanapa had awarded a foreign company the project without adhering to the country’s public procurement laws.
Tour operators are also worried about the safety of the 150 cable cars passengers in case of an accident, as rescue helicopters carry only four casualties at a time.
But some purists are not worried, saying serious mountain climbers and hikers will never use a cable car.
They concur with the government that having cable cars will actually bring in more tourists including physically challenged persons who would otherwise never think of climbing the mountain.
Some of the 50,000 tourists conquering Mount Kilimanjaro peaks annually use one of the six routes to the summit.