The main port of air passenger entry into Malawi is Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) at Lumbadzi. I don’t have the official figures, but I would wager that this is therefore also the main entry point for overseas tourists to Malawi. Disembarking from an international flight at KIA on December 9th., 2012 did not feel like entering ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’ as Malawi is advertised. It felt more like descending into, and wading through, the flames of a wild summer fire.
Sole Chance to Make First Impression
The government of Mrs. Joyce Banda has identified Tourism as one of five priority areas for investment to help alleviate Malawi’s persistent and notorious forex dearth. I think improving and speeding up the arrival process at KIA would be a good start. For many tourists and visitors, it is the first impression they will ever get of Africa’s supposedly friendliest country. The arrival protocols, therefore, need to meet the standards of speedy convenience that would say ‘you are most welcome’. They don’t.
One must present one’s passport to an immigration officer through one of four or five booths, first thing. There is a line for holders of Malawi passports, of SADC passports, of other passports and for staff working for international agencies – or some such. Visitors, especially, are required to fill a card about their expected length of stay and other such details. The immigration officers record this information manually in a notebook, a process which takes an inordinate amount of time especially for people travelling with children. When the lines are long, such as they were on December 9th afternoon when three international flights arrived practically simultaneously, and when the mercury is flirting with the thirties Celcius, tempers flare. After what seems like an eternity, the immigration officer stamps the passport and lets the holder through a turnstile into Malawi.
As the kids sweat and scream painfully in the sweltering heat and humidity, the traveller still has to go and wait for their baggage at the creaky, slow, small carousel behind four or five concentric semi-circles of sweaty, impatient humanity abreast of them. Unless you are in the first semi-circle, you are lucky if you actually see your bags when they emerge. On December 9th., this took another good hour and a half minimum. In the meantime, if you tried to visit the toilets, just two of them for everyone, you found them filthy or without toilet paper or both; and if you moved towards what was supposed to be the air conditioner to get some relief from the boiling heat and humidity, you found it belching heated air, thinking this was the cold season. Fuel to the fire!
How much would it cost to buy four or five computers for immigration officers to speedily scan passports? Probably less than buying one official ministerial limousine; and our ministers have two each, replete with a government-paid chauffeur for each minister. It would be a good investment, too, to add a second and even third baggage carousel, another set of toilets and to eliminate the army of customs officers opening suitcases to inspect the contents including traveller’s underwear. Spot checks of that sort are fine, but to require this of all travellers is needlesslessly invasive, time consuming and distinctly unwelcoming. It also incentivizes bribery of customs officers in exchange for being speedily let out of the arrivals hell-hole.
The Ministers of Home Affairs (responsible for Immigration) Finance (responsible for Customs) and Tourism sadly do not experience these travails in the arrivals dungeon. They arrive royally through the VIP Chalet and ‘protocol officers’ do the dirty work for them. Things might change for the better sooner if these ministers, at least some of the time, went through customs and immigration the regular way; like every Tom, Dick and Harry.
I was in an Internet cafe at Balaka this other day. On the computer next to me was a young white traveller writing furiously on Facebook. When he was finished, he asked the clerk, ‘Chakuddiya bwino gula khuthi?’ He wanted to know where he could have a nice meal in the town. In my conversation with him later, I learned that he had been in Malawi some days but was often having a hard time finding good places to eat a good, clean meal in the small towns. December is mango season and flies rule. He also complained about sleeping in noisy rest houses next to bars and dance clubs blaring music late into the night. He was an American backpacker.
We ate at a lodge and I later showed him the Mulungu Simunthu shop because he wanted to buy local music. Later, I showed him the Amachila Akamwa pharmacy – he wanted to buy some pills. Being in Balaka Town on a rainless December afternoon already feels like sitting on a braai grill atop smouldering embers of charcoal. It need not be made worse by not knowing where to go to get good food, a clean public toilet or a quiet bedroom.
An official directory for travellers in book form or on the Internet for townships like Balaka could help backpackers like these easily find places they need. Alongside overall personal security and the availability of medical care in case of a health mishap, backpackers look for simple things which should not be too difficult to implement in every small town. Such a directory would help make their sojourn comfortable enough to recommend Malawi to their family and friends overseas. Local entrepreneurs would, no doubt, compete to be on such a list and this would in turn encourage healthy business competition and therefore overall economic improvement. The forex might not descend like mana from heaven immediately, but it would drizzle in more steadily than it does now.
The one-time Minister of Tourism under dictator Bingu Mutharika, Mrs. Patricia Kaliati, used to make shock inspection trips to establishments in the hospitality industry and would close those that did not impress her. This approach to improving Tourism was simplistic and ineffectual. Our local assemblies — and it’s good we will elect local government politicians in May, 2014, who will have to be accountable for things like these to their electors — will do well to consider an official rating of their towns’ establishments with these goals in mind. Remember, Tourists are not only those from overseas. Every visitor in town, even from withing Malawi, is basically a tourist. Townshippers have an interest in receiving every such visitor well for economic reasons and for the good reputation of their town. Anasiketi, mlendo ndi mame.
Longer Term, Costlier Investments
I heard an intriguing proposal on MBC radio to improve airports at some spots on the shores of Lake Malawi to enable them receive direct tour charters from abroad under some form of ‘open skies’ concept. This should involve quite a bit of capital costs and sounded like something that could be achieved in the long, rather than short, term. We need forex today. Constructing new airports at Mangochi, Salima and Chintheche able to receive airbuses direct from London or Johannesburg can’t be achieved even by next year. The immediate solutions to the current forex shortage must be practicle and address the problems of the Malawi of today and the very near future, even as we plan for the long term. For now let us improve reception at KIA and make connections from it by coach or domestic flight to all areas of Malawi easier. This is feasible in the short term.
Almost every tourist visiting Malawi knows that it is a developing country. They are not coming to see glitz and glamour, they are coming to see our natural wonders and experience our reputed warm hospitality and culture. We do not gain much traction by building peacockish hotels. We gain many tourists by receiving them warmly at KIA, in Mulanje, in the Lower Shire, at the lakeside, in the game parks and in small towns throughout the country. We keep them coming by gaining a good reputation through good hospitality, good public hygiene, acceptable healthcare, good personal security, a well-connected and safe transportation system and a well cared-for environment. Above all, we gain them when they return home and spread the gospel of the welcoming friendliness and umunthu of the people of the Warm Heart of Africa.
*Ambuje Che Likambale is from Balaka Township, Malawi
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