Tanzania gives go ahead to controversial scheme

Over the past decade or so there has been one rumour about Kilimanjaro that has refused to go away. The rumour is that there will be a cable car being constructed near the Machame Route.

It is a rumour that has been fuelled by successive directors of Kilimanjaro National Park (KINAPA), who have all stated it as one of their ambitions during their time in office.

Well it appears that their dreams have taken a step closer to reality with the announcement last week from Constantine Kanyasu, the deputy minister for tourism, that they are now considering plans to build it.

The ambition of building a cable car are obvious: to allow those unable to climb the mountain to visit, and as a consequence to increase tourism by as much as 50%, according to the minister.

At the moment the plans are still a long way from fruition. Apparently various environmental, economic and engineering assessments have to be made. But there are currently three companies – two from China, one from ‘a Western nation’, that are interested in such a project.  And it is not as if monumental cable cars haven’t been built before, and this would actually be the fourth in Africa.

But such an announcement by so senior a figure in the Tanzanian government is a big step forward for the scheme.

But should they go ahead with the scheme?

Personally, I’m against the idea. I can see that a cable car may mean visitor numbers could conceivably rise as people who would not normally go anywhere near Kilimanjaro now have a chance to visit and reach an altitude that they would normally only achieve in a light aircraft.

But I’m against the project for three main reasons:

Firstly, any extra revenue generated from the scheme will presumably go straight to the government – and away from the local economy. Whereas on a climb, of course, a large chunk of that valuable foreign money from tourists is distributed amongst the local population in the form of wages for porters, cooks and guides, and more tangentially in the markets as agencies buy food for each expedition.

Sure, they’ll be some sort of short-term boost as presumably local people will be required to help build the car in the first place. But this will be offset by the long-term loss of income to the local economy from reduced climber numbers.

Of course, it is possible that the arrival of a cable car will have no impact on the number of people wanting to climb the mountain. But we doubt it. We think it’s inevitable that it will have some sort of deleterious effect on the numbers of people wanting to climb the mountain, particularly if, as is mooted,  the cable car is situated near the Machame Route, where tens of thousands of people climb the mountain every year.

My second objection to the idea is that there has to be some sort of environmental impact with building a cable car, particularly as this sort of project won’t take place in isolation, but will inevitably require improved roads and other construction projects around it.

My third reason for not wanting a cable car on mountain I love so much is more intangible: despite the fact that around 50,00o people climb Kilimanjaro each year, because Kilimanjaro covers such a large area it is still possible to think of much of it as a wilderness, largely untouched by people. This is particularly true on the quieter routes, and definitely so if you leave the official routes altogether.

Thinking of Kilimanjaro as a natural paradise may be an illusion given the huge numbers of visitors to the park and the damage they cause. But it’s one that resonates with a lot of climbers, including myself. And having a cable car up the side of the mountain is a very visible reminder that man has tamed and controls this environment too; that we are not just visitors to this beautiful, natural place, but we own it, and it is the wildlife that are the guests here, not us.

Nevertheless, despite all my misgivings, I am prepared to be proved wrong and I don’t want to always play the Luddite in cases such as this.