Kilimanjaro and the COVID pandemic: what is the current situation for those looking to climb in 2021 and beyond?

As the COVID pandemic continues to paralyse much of the planet at the start of 2021, just as it did for most of 2020, we think that now is a good time to take a look at the situation as it currently stands for those looking to climb Kilimanjaro this year.

We know, from the steady stream of enquiries we are currently getting at Kilimanjaro Experts, that people are very eager to travel again, and are hoping to conquer Africa’s Highest Mountain, either later this year or in 2022.

But there is also an understandable reluctance from people to actually book anything at the moment due to the uncertainty of the situation.

This ‘wait-and-see’ approach is, of course, entirely sensible, and one that, to be honest, we endorse. Because while we love our role in helping people fulfil their ambitions on Kili, we only want our climbers to travel when it is safe and sensible to do so.

After all, part of the joy of any holiday are the weeks and months that you spend leading up to the trip, planning, preparing and dreaming of the adventures to come.

But if instead of excitement, you feel nothing but anxiety at the prospect of travelling during a pandemic, of last-minute cancellations or exorbitant quarantine restrictions – well, that pre-departure enjoyment is ruined.

So let’s just look at the situation regarding COVID and Kilimanjaro as it is today, to help you decide for yourself whether it’s worth even contemplating such a trip at the moment, and, if so, when would be a good time to climb.

COVID and Tanzania

As many of you will know, Tanzania has become renowned (or should that be notorious?) over the past year for its, shall we say, relaxed approach to the virus.

The attitude of John Magafuli, the country’s idiosyncratic president,  have certainly raised a few eyebrows around the globe.

His belief, for example, that the virus can’t be caught in a ‘house of God’ (which meant that mosques, churches and temples have remained open throughout the pandemic), surprised many.

More recently, his preference for homeopathic remedies from Madagascar over more conventional vaccines, have left Tanzania rather isolated in their approach to the coronavirus (and, it must be said, a bit of a laughing stock too).

More sinister have been the rumours of secret night-time burials, particularly at the start of the pandemic, that were said to have taken place to hide the true impact of COVID in the country.

Which is perhaps why, throughout the pandemic, the official death toll has been absolutely minuscule compared to virtually every other nation (and even now stands at just 21, from a total of only 509 cases).

Indeed, the government has now even declared that they have ‘beaten’ coronavirus, and have refused to order any of the newly developed vaccines available through the World Health Organisation.

Few observers, of course, believe such eye-catching statements, and even the country’s own doctors have, rather bravely, voiced their discontent with the government’s response to the pandemic and the official COVID statistics that they’ve published.

What the Tanzanian’s approach to COVID has meant for travellers

The Tanzanian government’s approach to the pandemic has, of course, brought mixed blessings for travellers:

Good news for those looking to visit Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro, go on safari or spend some time on the beaches of Zanzibar, for there are next-to-no restrictions on entering the country.

Bad news, however, for those who then want to return back home after their trip. Tanzania’s relaxed attitude towards the virus has not been appreciated by other countries, who see the country’s approach as irresponsible.

As a result, Tanzania has been ‘blackballed’ by many nations, who have advised their citizens against visiting, and put rather draconian restrictions on those who do.

The UK, for example, has put Tanzania on its ‘banned travel’ list. This means that British nationals and residents have to quarantine in a hotel on arrival back in the UK at their own expense (which works out at almost £2000 for the 10-day stay).

While those coming from Tanzania who aren’t British nationals or residents aren’t allowed in the country at all.

Most other nations have similar restrictions on travellers coming from Tanzania, so you’ll need to be aware of what these are for your own country before you even head to Tanzania, and certainly before  you fly out again.

In particular, the United States and others require their passengers flying from Tanzania to take a COVID test before flying….

Flying out of Tanzania: COVID tests

Even before you leave Tanzania, you’ll probably have to take a COVID test within 72 hours before your flight, and that test must come back negative. If you don’t take that test, or you do and it comes back positive, you won’t be able to even get on the plane.

Test centres have been established in Arusha, Dar and, as from earlier this week, the Serengeti too. The test takes less than an hour, and typically costs US$100. They have promised that the results will be provided within 48 hours.

What to do if you’ve booked a trip and can’t take it because of the COVID restrictions

Most companies have, by now, followed our lead and are happy to postpone people’s trips without any penalties.

Most – but not all. There are those who still insist on punishing their clients by charging ‘admin fees’ and other spurious charges if they have to postpone their bookings.

Suffice to say that the trekking agencies shouldn’t be charging anything for postponed bookings.

The only justifiable situation where they might is if you let them know at the last minute that you’re postponing your trip (by which we mean you let them know less than 30 days prior to departure). In this instance, while the trekking company itself should not penalise you, the hotel that they booked for you may do – and that cancellation/postponement fee from the hotel will be passed onto you.

So the best advice we can give you here is:

  1. Check on the latest COVID rules in both your country and Tanzania (and any country you happen to be passing through too) at least 30 days (and preferably 45-60 days) prior to the start of your trip, to make sure it’s still viable to go.
  2. If the COVID restrictions make it impossible or at least prohibitively expensive for you to visit Tanzania, let the trekking agency know at least 30 days prior to the start of your trip. That way, if your trekking agency is reasonable, it shouldn’t cost you anything and any money you’ve paid should be put towards your new booking (whenever that will be).

    If it happens to be less than 30 days prior to the start of your trip, do still let your agency know that you won’t be able to make it. The only money you should lose in this case will be any money that the agency has paid to your hotel as a deposit.

What the airlines are up to

Of course, it’s not only what you’ve booked in Tanzania that you need to think about. You also have to consider your travel arrangements to and from the country too.

On the surface, the airlines have been behaving very strangely, Timetables are constantly changing, with many flights cancelled and those that aren’t often departing several hours earlier or later than originally scheduled.

It’s not entirely the airlines’ fault, of course. As travel restrictions are imposed or tightened throughout the world, so the airlines are forced into making these alterations.

So what you must do when booking your tickets is to check what the rules are on those tickets for cancelling/postponing your flight with them.

You should also find out what compensation there may be if your flight is one that is cancelled/postponed.

It’s also a good idea to find an insurer that will be willing to cover any losses that you incur due to any flight changes. On that subject….

Insurance

Among the usual questions you need to ask your potential travel insurer, you should also check with them what their rules are regarding COVID. There are dozens of potential questions you could ask – here are just a few?

Will they cover you if you need to postpone?

Will they cover any flight costs too?

Will they cover you if you contract and fall ill from COVID while you’re in Tanzania?

Will they cover any quarantine costs you incur due to restrictions introduced wither in Tanzania or in your home country while you’re on your holiday?

Overall

Predicting what will the situation will be in Tanzania this year, and whether it will be feasible to climb Africa’s highest peak this year, is still almost impossible.

This uncertainty is reflected in the bookings we are taking at the moment. Some of our more optimistic climbers have booked their treks for June.

More cautious trekkers, however, are booking for September/October, or for 2022, and we are now getting a steady stream of enquiries for these dates. 

There does remain a concern that Tanzania’s laissez-faire approach to the virus will, ironically, have repercussions that persist long after other countries emerge from their lockdowns.

Will countries, for instance, want their citizens to travel to a country where the government can be said to have not taken the virus seriously, and where the citizens have not been vaccinated?

So there is perhaps a slight possibility that Tanzania could become something of a pariah state over the next year or so, while other countries are finally emerging from lockdown once more.

That is, of course, the most pessimistic prediction, and we are all hopeful that Tanzania will join the rest of the world in relishing its freedom again.

But those happy days still seem some way off.

In the meantime those people looking to climb Kili, particularly those looking to tackle the mountain over the next few months, would be best advised to start making enquiries, and planning for their trip – but when it comes to making a booking, we advise you to just sit tight for the following few weeks, until the situation becomes a little clearer.

Further reading and watching

https://theconversation.com/what-tanzanias-covid-19-vaccine-reluctance-means-for-its-citizens-and-the-world-155310

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w172x2t8ch7dk23

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p096qdw5

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0962vs9