Nairobi — Light clouds scudded across the sky as Kenya Wildlife Service chief pilot Anthony Kiroken guided his 14-seater plane to a perfect landing at Lake Nakuru National Park's new tarmac airstrip at exactly 9.50am.
Among pilot Kiroken's passengers were the KWS chief executive officer Julius Kipng'etich and several senior officials of the organisation.
On the ground to receive them were the KWS regional assistant director, Mrs Anne Kahihia, mayor David Gikaria and several councillors, the manager of Barclays Bank, Nakuru branch, Mr Daniel Muya, representatives of the hotel industry and civil aviation, among others.
There were also representatives of the provincial administration, manufacturing companies and the Kenya Army, Lanet.
Engineers and other officials of Adequate Machinery Construction Company which built the 1.2-kilometre long airstrip, at a cost of Sh31 million, were also at hand for the handing over ceremony.
The commissioning of the new Class 'B' airstrip was aptly described during speeches made later by leaders as a umbilical cord that will marshal the economic recovery in central Rift Valley and beyond.
Lake Nakuru National Park and other tourist destinations in the area were beset by the post-election violence, which saw the number of tourists drop by about 88 per cent in February.
But Mr Kipng'etich extolled the benefit of all the stakeholders pooling their producer resources to enable the country overcome the past misfortunes, get back on the track and focus on Vision 2030.
Mr Kipng'etich said that KWS was in the process of repositioning Kenya as a premium tourist destination by upgrading infrastructure in all the parks.
He said the new all-weather airstrip, the best in central and southern Rift Valley, would turn the area into an investment hub and open up the picturesque sceneries and rustic resorts that spread all the way from Hell's Gate in Naivasha, Lake Bogoria, Menengai Crater and the Maasai Mara.
Tourists will now be able to fly to Nakuru from Mombasa, the Maasai Mara and most of the other protected parks in the country, where the KWS is upgrading airstrips. Among the parks, where the KWS is to upgrade airstrips is Ruma in Suba, Mt Elgon, Tsavo East, Tsavo West, Meru National Park and Mweiga.
The KWS is also to provide an aircraft to each of its eight regions and allocate more sites for new lodges in the protected parks.
Lake Nakuru National Park has two lodges - the Lake Nakuru Lodge and Sarova Lion Hill. Tariffs will also be reviewed to ensure that the country reaps maximum benefit from its rich wildlife. He cited the case of Rwanda where tourists pay $500 to watch gorillas for an hour.
In Kenya, Mr Kipng'etich said, tourists pay only $40 to watch the big five and other animals and birds for 24 hours.
He said that while the KWS was determined to make Kenya one of the best tourist destinations, the other stakeholders, including local authorities such as Nakuru municipality, must wake up from complacency and play their part in the burgeoning national and international tourism arena.
Mr Kipng'etich said that sectors such as agriculture had reached a plateau and tourism had taken over as the key economic driver.
"You must see each planeload of tourists landing here as a source of employment and market for agricultural produce. The hotels will need eggs, vegetables and other foodstuff. This airstrip is a national resource and you must make the best out of it," Mr Kipng'etich told his listeners, who included farmers from the neighbouring Naishi farms.
Mr Kipng'etich said the new airstrip would play a key role in increasing visits to Lake Nakuru National Park and consequently raise revenue for KWS, lodges in the park and hotels in Nakuru Town.
He said the aviation industry would be an increasingly important means of transport for tourists, especially in areas where the road network was poor.
An engineer told the Nation that the 1.2km long, 18m wide airstrip was suitable for domestic use, "but even a jumbo can land here in case of an emergency".
Naishi section of the park, where the airstrip was built, has the offices of the Rhino Sanctuary protection base managed by KWS. It was here that the first rhinos from Solio Ranch in Laikipia were held in an enclosure and fed for several days before being released into the wild.
Another 10 white rhinos from South Africa were received at the same place in 1994, leading to the growth of the current breeding herd estimated at over 100 animals.
The new airstrip will certainly be a boon to tourist facilities that have not attracted large numbers of visitors.
Such facilities include the Lord Egerton Castle in Njoro, the Hyrax pre-historic site on the western side of the town and the 90 square kilometres Menengai Crater to the north.
Tourist to the Nakuru sites will also be able to visit the famous Thomson's Falls in Nyahururu Town, which is about 60km from the Rift Valley provincial capital. Mountain climbers can enjoy a thrilling time at Hell's Gate National Park. This is one of the few protected parks in the country where visitors are allowed to walk along nature trails or use bicycles.
While at Hell's Gate, tourists will have the opportunity of visiting the Joy Adamson's Centre and later take a boat ride on Lake Naivasha.
The almost hidden crater lake, which has also been attracting small numbers of tourists, is likely to record higher numbers of visitors.
Currently, visitors travelling between Nairobi and Nakuru by road have the opportunity to enjoy the scenic Rift Valley and the various species of birds at Lake Elmentaita.
Ornithologists have recorded as many as 40,000 flamingoes at Lake Elmentaita, which also has a pelican breeding island near part of the lake bordering Lord Delamere's Soysambu ranch.
Residents of Maji Tamu have also been trying to establish a conservancy around Lake Solai, tucked away below the hills, about 30km from Nakuru Town.
Lake Solai has several hundred species of birds, including the Egyptian geese, weaver birds and the African Jacana.