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Kenyan reserve’s tourism monitoring app builds revenue and transparency

  • Wardens at Kenya’s Mara Conservancy solved a revenue loss problem by teaming up with their revenue management company to create a smartphone app that lets them check tourists’ ticket and payment status by entering the vehicle license plate numbers.
  • Obtaining up-to-date information about the tourists and the validity of their ticket from their patrol car saves the rangers time and avoids their having to interrupt a group’s safari.
  • The rangers address any discrepancies first with the tour guide and involve tourists only as a last resort, which has nearly eliminated cheating and enabled the Reserve to boost the revenue it retains.

Nature reserves frequently operate with scarce resources, relying on revenue from tourism or donations for their survival.

When managers of the Mara Triangle portion of Kenya’s renowned Maasai Mara National Reserve’s assessed the revenue it was losing to cheating by tourist guides and park entry staff, they automated their capacity to monitor tourist payments and ticketing.

Giraffe buddies in Maasai Mara in the tall grass during rainy season, before the start of the massive animal migration from Serengeti National Park begins. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

Mongabay-Wildtech spoke with Alfred Bett, Tourism Warden in the Mara Conservancy’s wild animal harassment and ticket monitoring section, about an app his team uses to ensure transparency in tourism revenue collection.

A wonder-ful natural phenomenon

Bett explained that after the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) designated the Maasair Mara Reserve as a seventh wonder of the world in 2007 and the massive Serengeti-Mara wildlife migration as one of seven natural wonders of Africa in 2013, tourism to the Reserve exploded.

Nearly one and one-half million wildebeest, zebra and gazelles migrate north from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania each year to graze on fresh grass in Maasai Mara, and most of them cross the Mara River. Rushing waters and hungry crocodiles make this a perilous crossing, but the determination of so many animals to reach their dry-season feeding grounds inspires visitors.

Entry gate to the Mara Triangle, which makes up the western portion of the Maasai Mara National Reserve in southern Kenya. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

The influx in migration-oriented tourists led the managers of the Mara Triangle section of the Reserve to divide this section into two zones, with more restriction on use in the high-use zone along the Mara River.

“Many vehicles are concentrated [there] during migration time,” Bett said. “They used to destroy the habitat and the vegetation because most of them concentrate in that place, along the crossing points. Another option was to maybe restrict number of tourists who are coming in, but we decided to let them come as much as they can but we control them when they are inside.”

Misconduct in the Mara

The 10 rangers on patrol control the tourists’ behavior—no off-road driving in the high-use zone, for instance—and their 10 colleagues at entry points oversee their permits and payments.

Staff based at entry points act as public relations officers, Bett said. “They welcome the clients, give them the park rules, and give them a story of what they are expecting to see when they are inside the park. They also check the tickets when they are exiting the park, to see the ticket is not expired.”

Snapshot of the massive migration of over one million wildebeest, as well as tens of thousands of gazelles, zebra, and eland, from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to Maasai Mara in Kenya is an ecological phenomenon that draws over 140,000 visitors per year. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

Most foreigners pay for their food, lodging, and park fees for Maasai Mara up front, as an all-inclusive package. The travel agents and tour operators receive the money, pay the lodges, and give the driver/guide enough to pay for fuel, his own expenses, and everyone’s park fees.

As recently as 2014, however, the Mara Triangle was losing millions of these tourism dollars to cheating—they even sent staff on unpaid leave due to insufficient funds. Revenue did not reflect the big increase in foreign tourists—who pay US$70 per day in the Mara Triangle. Suspecting that tourism had declined due to political uncertainty, Triangle managers examined visitation during this period and found that tourism was high but that most tourists were tagged as expatriate residents or citizens, who pay just US$12 per day.

The examination uncovered collaborations between drivers/guides and park entry staff, who would agree to assign resident status to a group of foreign tourists, contribute the resident-level income to the Reserve, and share between them the remaining funds that the tourists had paid via their tour operator.

Visitation to Kenya’s national parks, including Maasai Mara National Reserve in 2011 and 2015. Image credit: Kenya Institute of Economic Affairs

This loss of US$58 per tourist per day, for thousands of visitors per year, motivated the Reserve’s managers to improve and streamline their system. They commissioned a smartphone application to help the Conservancy recover the full fees paid by the tourists.

There’s an app for that

In 2014, they contracted a private company, Kenya Airport Parking Services (KAPS), to develop the app. KAPS manages revenue collection in the Mara Triangle, as well as parking revenue for Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. It also has an IT lab that develops apps for revenue and parking management for various clients.

The Android app used by the Mara Conservancy lets the rangers check tourists’ tickets and payment status via vehicle license plates. It covers primarily the Triangle, and each app user is assigned a code to help track users.

“In this application, we key in the registration [license plate] number of their car, and we get all the details,” Bett said. “These are the number of clients inside the vehicle, their nationality, resident adults and children, non-resident adults and children, and citizen adults and children. It also shows expiry time and date [and] if [the ticket] is still valid.”

Elands are the world’s largest antelope and join the Serengeti-Mara migration, though in smaller numbers than gazelles or wildebeest. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

Isabela Gathoni, Resident Manager of KAPS in Maasai Mara, said that the Mara Conservancy and other clients can ask for features they need to be added to the app, though, she added, more features can slow it down. Gathoni explained KAPS and the Conservancy staff track use of the ticketing app by assigning a code to each person with a copy of the app.

This quick transaction saves the rangers time and avoids their having to interrupt the tourists’ safari unless there is a problem. If they can’t find the license plate number, for instance, due to a data entry error, they first approach the driver or guide to request a ticket. Since the ticket shows where and when the tourists entered the Reserve, they can also consult the appropriate entry point staff.

The discrepancy may instead be with the type of ticket issued and amount of payment received.

“That is the challenge that we have,” Bett explained. “We are very careful… If [the ticket] says they are resident, there’s no way to know if they are or not…I don’t need to check their passport, that wastes their time…and many times they leave their passport in their rooms.”

When he does involve tourists, as a last resort, he does so discreetly.

“If I suspect these people are not residents or citizens, when they stop for a sighting, I can just ask them simple questions, ‘Are you enjoying your stay in Kenya, in the Mara?’ Normally they say yes. Then I ask, ‘Have you been to Kenya before?’ and if they may say “Yes, we live in Nairobi, we are residents” and then that’s all. Or sometimes they can ‘No, this is our first time in Africa,’ then from there I know they are not resident.”

Maasai Mara buffalos enjoying a quiet mud bath to stay cool before the migration arrives in June and July. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

Bett and his rangers would speak with the driver, in Swahili, to ask why the group’s ticket says they are resident when they’ve never been to Kenya before. “What I do is tell him, at the end of the day, you must pay for the clients,” Bett said.

Drivers typically want to keep any wrongdoing secret from the tourists, to avoid losing their job, and Bett uses this to ask for drivers’ cooperation. He also fines the driver US$100 per day that the full fees are not paid.

“That is a very big penalty, so they don’t repeat it again,” Bett said, adding that his team allows cooperative drivers to return with future groups.

“I will also want to know who made a deal with him, and once I know, we expel them from working with us, because he’s a thief,” Bett said. Under Kenya’s labor laws, he added, “if you steal even a ruler from your employer, you are dismissed without notice.”

Staff don’t want to be dismissed and, he said, are working hard not to avoid making mistakes, which has improved their work. Moreover, the process has nearly eliminated cheating and enabled the Triangle to retain its tourist income.

“It really helps us,” Bett said. “Before, we lost a lot of revenue because maybe [people were] pocketing the money… but now we are collecting about 98% of our revenues.”

Zebra also join the migration, but in far smaller numbers than wildebeest. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

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