One of the most frequently asked questions on Mount Kilimanjaro climb is:
Who is the Best Kilimanjaro Tour Operator?
Would-be climbers often see variations of this question on TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet travel forums, such as “Can you suggest a good tour operator for climbing Kilimanjaro?” or “Recommendations for Kilimanjaro company”, and they are repeated time and again. There are also numerous articles written on “How to Choose a Tour Operator to Climb Kilimanjaro” on the internet. While these snippets provide general information, advice or tips on factors to consider when choosing a good Kilimanjaro tour operator, such as guide qualifications, camping equipment, pricing, porter welfare (or lack thereof), they seldom remark on the fact that there exist various levels or “categories” of Kilimanjaro trekking outfitters.
Like buying a car or shopping for a camera, the superlative “best” is relative – it all depends on what you are looking for. Are you looking for the “best” jalopy? The “best” luxury ride? A family sedan perhaps? A sports car? Or an SUV? Are you after certain specifications or functionality? Another analogy would be shopping for a safari, there are luxury safari accommodations that cost over US$1000 per person per night, and there are public campsites near National Parks that charge a mere US$10 per person per night. Obviously, the facilities and services you’d receive differ as widely as what these price tags suggest. “Not all businesses are created equal”, choosing a Kilimanjaro tour operator is no different matter.
Here is a table that compares the various “categories” of Kilimanjaro operations out there:
*Why do some “luxury” tour operators join travelers together in groups, whereas the tailored packages offered by “high-end” boutique operators do not? The word “luxury” used in the description of those tours usually refers to provisions offered, not necessarily private tours, just like how most luxury safari camps offer immaculate properties but do shared-vehicle game drives. On the other hand, private tours are usually the norm to ensure the “best” service offerings for the tailor-made packages provided by boutique operators, because of the specialist nature. An analogy to this would be the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City, a 5-star high-rise lodging that offers luxurious, plush rooms. Contrast this with Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island. The 15-room property owned by Branson, a self-proclaimed “tie-loathing adventurer”, offers an eco-getaway that is exemplary of experiential travel, not necessarily one that’s defined by the plushness of the accommodation itself.
**A tour is operated only when a minimum of climbers have booked. This is usually the case when a package is priced very low to get resold by agents, or when a tour is accompanied by a foreign tour leader.
Each category of tour operator, with its perks and drawbacks, appeals to a different type of trekkers.
No-frills Kilimanjaro operators
As the name of this category suggests, this type of tour operators competes on price and price alone. In order to sell Kilimanjaro climbs at the lowest price possible, these tour operators might go to extremes to cut costs at every corner. From not paying its Kilimanjaro guides any wages to not providing sufficient food for climbers, you may not find out how the climb is operated until you are on the mountain, as the implicit “inclusions” and “exclusions” are not clearly detailed before your climb. Keep in mind that there are certain costs involved in climbing Kilimanjaro, if they do not come from your pockets, they are coming out from someone else’s. If you are looking to book last-minute or to join a group, and that quality provisions or crew welfare are not your concerns, then this type of companies might be your call. No-frills companies could be an option if you are choosing to climb Kilimanjaro via the Marangu route, which has sleeping huts and permanent facilities already provided at each campground. You can easily show up and get a guide to take you up Mt Kilimanjaro the next day. But if you are looking for a great, authentic Kilimanjaro experience, there is no guarantee that this type of companies could deliver.
Mid-range Kilimanjaro operators
The majority of Kilimanjaro tour operators belong to this category; and each company’s operations vary greatly. The objective of mid-range companies is to sell to as many as possible. In order to do that, they formulate a generic “product” that would appeal to the majority of customers. Most of the big companies operate in this mode to serve masses of tourists on Kilimanjaro. Because of the scale of such operations, the quality of service might be overlooked and the provisions (i.e. equipment, service, food, guides) tend to lack consistency, because quality of service is not their primary focus. The price for this type of Kilimanjaro climbs “depends” because it can be relatively cheap if you book directly with a local tour operator, but it is not always the case, as some big companies still mark up a fair bit to bolster their brand when selling directly. So it is not easy to tell what services you will be getting, judging from price alone.
Most of the overseas agents outsource their Kilimanjaro operations to mid-range Kilimanjaro operators because they are relatively low-cost (wholesale price) and have “generally acceptable” service. Hence, if you are paying an agent overseas, you might be paying a premium price for a mediocre tour operator who will serve as your ground handler, as a portion of your money has gone towards paying commissions. Because these ground handlers aggregate customers from various feeder-agencies, you may not be guaranteed a specific hotel before/after your climb, or be notified about the size of your group at the time of your booking. Or, you may be informed, but changes occur sometime after your confirmation. Of course, there are also many smaller local tour operators who operate in this mode. Because of the nature of “mass sales”, the advantage of booking this type of tours is that there would be many past customers with whom you can easily verify the legitimacy of such companies. But don’t forget that legitimacy does not equate quality. You are merely picking out bona fide licensed tour operators from their non-licensed competitors. Just because a company is registered and is known to be in business, it is simply meeting the prerequisite set out by Tanzanian regulations, and does not answer for “how” it operates. The shortcomings of booking this type of tours are the lack of customization and personalization of services, combined with uncertainty of what you might end up getting in the end.
High-end Kilimanjaro operators
As the description suggests, this is the category of tour operators who strive to deliver an overall package that is of high standards. When speaking of a Kilimanjaro tour package, comprehensive excellence should include quality equipment, superior service and professional guides. High-end Kilimanjaro tour operators are not easy to find, because there are not many.
Just like any other business, in order to operate legally in Tanzania, a tour operator is required by law to have a valid a business license. The government body who is responsible for regulating and issuing licenses to tour operators is the Tourist Agents Licensing Authority (TALA). There are certain conditions that need to be met by a company in order to be granted a TALA license. In view of controlling foreign enterprises from taking over Mt Kilimanjaro operations and jeopardizing Tanzanian-run businesses, TALA licenses for mountain climbing/trekking are only issued to Kilimanjaro outfitters who are locally owned by Tanzanian citizens.
The ramification of this condition is that an overseas Kilimanjaro “outfitter” can only operate in one of two ways: 1) outsourcing its Kilimanjaro operation to a third-party Tanzanian tour operator, or 2) setting up its business structure via a Memorandum of Association in such a way that a Tanzanian employee is the “token” license-holder. In order to remain competitive in serving the masses of “Kilimanjaro tourists”, carrying out mid-range Kilimanjaro operations is the only sound modus operandi for overseas Kilimanjaro companies. You’d be hard-pressed to find any foreign-run “non-luxury” Kilimanjaro outfitters to offer high-end services, simply because it’s not cost-effective, and that it’s not practical. Therefore, the only businesses who are capable of providing a high-end Kilimanjaro package to their clientele are local boutique tour operators. And it takes a fair amount of research to come across one such company, as there are few that exist.
All legitimate Kilimanjaro operators hire guides who are certified by the Kilimanjaro National Park Authority, so unless you are hiring one on-the-spot at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro, most reasonable companies would have guides who are “qualified” to take you up Mt Kilimanjaro. The quality of the service you’d receive, then, largely depends on the company’s values and operation principles. Don’t forget that being experienced and being professional are different attributes. Many licensed guides are indeed highly experienced, as they would have climbed many times, but showing professionalism on the mountain is a reflection of how a company trains and takes care of its staff. A company that is values-driven builds its business upon integrity. In order to maintain its brand, a highly reputable company would rigorously screen its potential staff and continually monitor their work performance after hiring them and not leave anything to chance. This is where overseas Kilimanjaro operators might fall short, as they need to heavily rely on their local partners to maintain the standards of their operations. While you may well have a good experience with a mid-range tour operator, depending on your luck, companies that offer a high-end Kilimanjaro package would go the extra mile to ensure that every detail is being taken care of personally for you to have the best experience – not leaving anything to guesswork or negligence. And that’s the major difference between cost-driven (no-frills), sales-driven (mid-range) and values-driven (high-end) tour operators.
Luxury Kilimanjaro operators
This is a special category of Kilimanjaro outfitters who serve a certain niche. Some trekkers prefer to have an American or UK tour leader to accompany them on the expedition. So, in addition to having licensed Tanzanian guides to meet the regulations for Kilimanjaro park entry, some foreign companies would hire a mountaineer from their own country to lead the group. Or, in many cases, those foreign mountain guides own an adventure travel business that organizes various treks all over the world, with Kilimanjaro being one of them. As part of their service, they would take their clients on each trek themselves. What is the difference between a “luxury” Kilimanjaro climb and a high-end package? Well, luxury, by nature, is expensive. This type of tour package often costs twice as much as a “standard” Kilimanjaro package, in order to include all the travel expenses of the foreign tour leader and a larger profit margin. However, you’d find that many “luxurious perks” are also thrown into the package, such as sleeping cots, satellite phones, etc. Some companies might even include a hyperbaric chamber upon request. While many high-end Kilimanjaro climb packages already include emergency oxygen tanks, which are valuable at high altitude to increase the trekkers’ safety, the practicality of requiring additional equipment on a Kilimanjaro climb is at the discretion of customers. As with all luxurious goods and services, it is often not about practicality, but rather, providing customers with added comfort and satisfying their unique wants.
So… Who is the best Kilimanjaro tour operator?
Next time, instead of asking “Who is the ‘best’ Kilimanjaro tour operator?”, you should be asking “Who is the ‘right’ Kilimanjaro tour operator for me?”
You should ask around to see which company consistently provides the facilities and service levels that you are after, at the price you are ready to pay. Do you care about the quality of your camping equipment? Do you care if the money you paid is going to the right pockets? Do you want to have the most professional guides? Do you need to have assurance on what you are getting at the time of your booking, or are you okay with leaving some details to chance later? There are no straight forward ways to get all the answers. The only way to know is to do your own research, ask the company questions directly, read online reviews and contact past clients for references.
Amani Afrika is definitely not the cheapest company you’d find for Kilimanjaro climbs. We are reputably the best Kilimanjaro tour operator who specializes in offering a high-end Kilimanjaro package at a very reasonable price. And you’d only find rave reviews about us. Why? As a boutique tour operator, we only operate private Kilimanjaro climbs, and each Kilimanjaro climb is personally run by Temba and his team of professional staff to ensure the highest level of service and satisfaction. (Literally, Temba runs up the mountain to join his clients on the summit climb sometimes.) Our operations are always superb because of the hard work we put into ensuring that our clients – and staff – consistently get the best treatment on Kilimanjaro – it is never by coincidence.