Think of an iconic African attraction. Chances are that along with Egypt’s pyramids and Cape Town’s Table Mountain, Tanzania’s famous Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Mount Kilimanjaro came to mind.
Immortalised over the decades in a multitude of books and wildlife documentaries, Tanzania’s natural assets are some of Africa’s most famous and sought after attractions.
However, as a tiny regional gateway, Kilimanjaro International Airport, has its own interesting tale to tell, with it going head to head for air service with Nairobi, one of the biggest hubs in Africa, just 180 miles away.
Kilimanjaro International Airport opened in 1971 and became the first international airport to be privatised in Africa in 1998 and is now owned and operated by the Kilimanjaro Airports Development Company (KADCO).
KADCO was originally a consortium made up of UK-based engineering consultancy Mott McDonald; the South African Infrastructure Fund; the Government of Tanzania and Inter Consult Ltd, a Tanzanian engineering firm. However, in September 2009, this consortium was unbundled, as Marco van de Kreeke, managing director of Kilimanjaro International Airport explains.
“The consortium consisted of four shareholders, including Mott McDonald and the South African Investment Fund, both of which sold their shares back in September 2009,” he says.
“On the one hand the partnership was successful in terms of the management of the airport – if you ask most people in the industry they would say things have improved and there are positive perceptions of the airport as a well-managed facility,” says van de Kreeke.
However, he goes on to explain that within Tanzania there was some disappointment that development at the airport and on its surrounding land was not happening fast enough.
“The government had hoped for major investment but this did not really happen, so the government decided to buy those shares back with a view to looking for a new investor in the future. The airport continues to operate as a separate, private company and the government is not in a huge rush to find investors, as the airport is making a reasonable profit,” he says.
So to what type of investment does the small airport lend itself? Like the airport’s surrounding region, any development is largely driven by tourism and Tanzania’s tourism industry has fared fairly well during the economic downturn thanks to its appeal to high-end travellers who are seeking a very particular experience – and one that cannot be found elsewhere on the planet.
“Tourism is extremely important here. International traffic is 90% leisure and of our total traffic, I would say it is about 75%. We are in the safari capital of Africa, with the Serengeti and Ngorongoro and Kilimanjaro itself attracting climbers. This is high-end leisure traffic too – these are expensive safaris and visitors are willing to spend on airfares,” says van de Kreeke.
He goes on to explain that traffic declined by about 10% in 2009, but describes the company’s approach for 2010 as “carefully optimistic”.
“We are finding our way back and expect this trend to continue. We were lucky in that we did not lose any airlines, with both KLM and Ethiopian keeping their services daily, except in the rainy season when they reduce to five a week.”
Attracting around 450,000 passengers a year, there is now a need for some new development at the airport, specifically in the landside areas. Van de Kreeke hopes to have landside extension plans for the existing terminal building approved by the second half of this year, with work earmarked to start early next year.
“If all goes well then we can start work quite soon – once approved projects actually move ahead quickly in Africa,” he remarks.
It is in the development of the land surrounding the airport where there remains much untapped potential, which is in line with van de Kreeke’s comment about some disappointment about the lack of development under the previous consortium.
“We have a very large 100sqkm estate around the airport, which the company got as a concession from the government to develop. In 2002 we established an airport hotel, which is really a lodge in keeping in line with our destination,” he says.
“There is a definite possibility to extend this area by developing more tourism products at the airport, which people could use for pre- and post-safari. It’s a possibility and a real opportunity.”
With tourism playing such a vital role in the whole Tanzanian economy, the airport boss is also quick to point out that air service development is truly a key function for the region.
“Air services are extremely important to us, but until recently the airport was only served by a limited number of international carriers,” notes van de Kreeke. “Most people come here come through Nairobi, as the regional hub for East Africa, and it is only 180 miles away.
“Despite being the safari capital, only 25% of our passengers fly in directly,” remarks van de Kreeke. “We want to explore the potential and establish more growth for our airport, outside the hub of Nairobi.”
The gateway’s two largest international airlines are KLM and Ethiopian Airlines, with Precision Air, Air Tanzania, Air Rwanda and Fly540 also serving it.
Having these two major international carriers operating has seen the airport develop in a number of areas, particular safety and security and operations – areas in which van de Kreeke believes many regional airports in Africa struggle. But like so many regional airports, financing remains a sticking point for Kilimanjaro.
“Our biggest challenge, as a small regional airport in Africa, is undoubtedly finding the finance for infrastructure – smaller airports always find it very difficult to make ends meet and to find the right funding.
“Besides financing, I would say that overall we need to continue to focus on improving our services and we have a lot to do before we get to standards that most European tourists would regard as normal,” he candidly remarks.
This is just the type of challenge that van de Kreeke relishes, having himself worked in a number of different roles at airports and handling companies in Europe, the Caribbean and Africa.
In fact, this is his second tour of duty at Kilimanjaro, having previously been airport manager at the gateway. Before that he worked in Maastricht in the Netherlands, both at the airport as well as a handling company, before leaving the grey skies of Europe behind for the sunny ones of Tanzania. There he developed a taste for the Southern Hemisphere, by following this with a move as managing director of Bonaire International Airport in the Netherlands Antilles.
“Kilimanjaro and Bonaire were quite similar in that they each handle less than half a million passengers,” he says.
Having less than one year under his belt at Kilimanjaro it is probably too early for van de Kreeke to be planning the next chapter in his ‘world tour’, but another stint in the Caribbean would definitely bring certain symmetry to his career.
Luckily, for the rest of us who dream of witnessing one of the greatest wildlife shows on earth at the Great Migration or scaling one of the world’s most famous mountains, Kilimanjaro International is just a flight away.
Airport World 2010 - Issue 2