Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.
Kilimanjaro could soon look quite different, and not just because of its shrinking glaciers. The Tanzanian government recently approved construction of a cable car on the 19,341-foot peak, the highest summit in Africa and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. Still, while it may technically be approved, the project is far from a sure bet.
The nation’s government first announced the cable-car idea in May 2019. Its goal: to increase the area’s tourism by 50 percent. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Kilimanjaro attracted some 50,000 tourists a year, roughly 35,000 of whom attempted the summit. Others admired the landmark from its surrounding national park. That same year, Constantine Kanyasu, then deputy minister of tourism for Tanzania, told me the cable car would help students and travelers under 15 years old and older than 50 experience the mountain’s beauty.
But climbing groups urged the government to reconsider, and social media erupted with opinions. Porters and guides joined forces in opposition through local lobbying groups, while climbers launched online petitions. Tanzanian officials remained mostly quiet on the topic, promising that they’d study feasibility and environmental and societal impacts before moving forward.
But in December 2020, the government gave its blessing for the cable car. Paul Banga, the Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA) spokesperson for the project, has emphasized that approval does not mean confirmation, however. “We are waiting for instructions from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism before we start looking for investors,” Banga said during a TANAPA workshop, according to the Xinhua news agency. When Banga responded to me on WhatsApp in January, he told me that if and when officials move forward on the matter, “the government decision will be communicated to the public.”
Timing for such a decision, like many details surrounding this project, remains unclear. But as a Kilimanjaro climber and frequent Tanzania traveler, my curiosity got the best of me after the 2019 announcement. I’ve spent nearly two years tracking this project, from messaging Tanzanian government officials to speaking with at least a dozen local and global experts. Here’s what I’ve uncovered about its most pressing questions, including insider perspectives on whether it will actually happen.
Where Would the Kilimanjaro Cable Car Run?
All reports and inside sources point to Machame, a scenic and popular route on the peak’s southern side. Machame attracts nearly half of all Kilimanjaro climbers, with its high success rate (85 percent for a seven-day climb) and beautiful passage through five ecosystems. Machame is also easily accessible from A23, the region’s main road, so it’s a natural choice for this kind of tourist attraction.
Merwyn Nunes, a Tanzanian who opposes the cable car, worked for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism before serving as a tourist representative for the Kilimanjaro region. Nunes now owns Wildersun Safaris, a company that runs tours from the Serengeti to Kilimanjaro National Park. He shared his best intel on what a proposed route could look like.
The plan, he said, is that “six pillars strong enough to carry 15 cable cars will be built along the route. Each cable car will carry six people on a 20-minute ride to the Shira Plateau.” One of three volcanic cones, the Shira is located at about 12,000 feet on a high plateau that stretches for eight miles before meeting Kilimanjaro’s tallest volcanic cone, Kibo, and its summit, Uhuru peak. With Kibo’s views and a relatively flat, open plateau, this area would be the most practical cable-car landing pad.
Could Altitude Sickness Pose Issues for Tourists?
While specifics are forthcoming, it’s likely the cable car would start near the Machame gate (elevation 5,380 feet) and climb roughly 7,000 feet to the Shira Plateau in 20 minutes, according to Nunes. Could this cause altitude sickness? Yes. Altitude effects can start anywhere from 4,900 to 6,500 feet. Ascending too quickly increases the chances of altitude-related illnesses, like acute mountain sickness, with symptoms that include headache, nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath.
In fact, research from the Mayo Clinic suggests that 20 percent of those traveling to higher altitudes below 18,000 feet will suffer some form of altitude sickness. But a lot depends on the amount of time visitors remain at high elevation. One study in the peer-reviewed journal Age and Ageing notes that symptoms typically present upon 6 to 12 hours of arrival at altitude—but that’s much longer than tourists usually spend atop a cable-car route.
Will a Cable Car Affect Kilimanjaro’s Biodiversity?
The project’s environmental impact is a major concern among opponents. Kilimanjaro’s five diverse vegetation zones encompass everything from forests and farmland to desert and glaciers—which have retreated 85 percent from 1912 to 2013, a fact that has made many a headline. But Kilimanjaro’s receding glaciers highlight more than a rapidly changing climate; they’re representative of the area’s fragile ecosystems, home to vulnerable species like elephants, who wander the surrounding forests, and migrating birds that travel through the nation’s Endemic Bird Area, which encompasses both the peak and much of southern Kenya.
To protect Kilimanjaro’s ecosystems and natural beauty—two factors that helped Kilimanjaro National Park earn Unesco World Heritage status in 1987—the Tanzanian government promised to conduct an environmental and social impact assessment before approving the cable car. In August 2019, Kanyasu, the former deputy minister of tourism, told me that the environmental element of that study was complete.
But the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) isn’t convinced. A spokesperson for the organization said that while the environmental and social impact assessment did recognize the area’s diverse ecosystems, it “does not assess how they will be impacted by the cable-car development.” As the nature advisory body for the Unesco World Heritage Center, the IUCN sent a letter to the state party of Tanzania recommending it not pursue the project due to negative effects on the environment and “outstanding universal value.” The group has yet to hear back.
On the other hand, the mountain’s tens of thousands of annual climbers already stress Kilimanjaro’s environment with litter and trampled vegetation, according to the IUCN. Steven Dale, a principal at the architecture and engineering firm SCJ Alliance, which specializes in cable-car consulting, and who is not affiliated with the project, says a cable car in and of itself is environmentally benign. “As a means to convey people from the bottom to the top of a mountain in an environmentally sensitive area, there’s probably no better means to do that,” he said.
Will Porters, Guides, and Climbing Outfitters Lose Business?
The 2019 announcement left Tanzania’s climbing community in shock. Would porters and guides lose their jobs? Would travelers choose the quicker, cheaper route up part of Kilimanjaro versus trekking for six or seven days to the summit? Concerned parties joined Nunes’s local anti-cable-car lobbying group, Voice of Kilimanjaro, “to give voice to a mountain that has no voice of its own,” said Nunes.
While many of these guides and porters are still not fans of the project, they’re less worried about job loss and more concerned about the sanctity of their treasured home mountain.
“I think people who really want to climb Kilimanjaro would still choose to climb Kilimanjaro to reach the summit instead of taking a short cable-car ride for sightseeing,” said Vivian Temba, director of marketing for the Tanzania-based climbing outfitter Amani Afrika. “But the overall appeal of Mount Kilimanjaro as a natural attraction might diminish. Imagine you’re beginning your Kili climb, and instead of seeing the mountain in its natural glory, you see steel towers and cables.”
So Will the Kilimanjaro Cable Car Actually Come to Fruition?
From a purely logistical standpoint, it could. “A system like this could be constructed in a year, although my suspicion would be, in a location as geographically isolated and complicated politically and logistically, it would take one to two years,” said Dale of SCJ Alliance. “But the proof is going to be whether or not they can get it across the line financially and from a permit perspective. That’s really what this all boils down to. It’s not about the idea. We can debate about whether it’s a good idea or not. The question is really, Can they get it across the finish line?”
Experts well versed in the Tanzanian government’s inner workings, like Nunes, have doubts. “There appears to be some dragging of feet in government circles on this project,” he said. “On the other hand, I am holding my breath, not knowing what to expect. The danger that I see here is that the ruling party and present government’s policy is pegged on industrialism of the economy. Cable cars are looked upon as an industry. My personal feeling is that it will not happen.”