The pursuit of Al-Shabaab militants by soldiers of the African Union and the Kenyan Defence Forces opened the country to a string of systematic retaliatory attacks that saw major tourist markets shy away.
The latest attack was the twin bombings in Nairobi’s sprawling Gikomba market in May that claimed the lives of 10 innocent Kenyans and left 70 others injured. This happened while Britain, France and Australia were busy evacuating their citizens from the coastal city of Mombasa. With every attack confirming just how porous Kenya’s security apparatus is, travel alerts are swiftly triggered.
The number of tourists from January to December in 2013 closed at 1.49 million – a 15.8% drop in comparison to the 1.7 million arrivals the year before. This further dims the hopes of ever attaining the Kenyan tourism ministry’s target of attracting 3 million visitors to Kenya’s parks, beaches and conservancies each year.
The tourism window earned east Africa’s biggest economy just over $1 billion in revenue during that period. Kenya can ill afford that figure dropping. And while the dwindling numbers are worrisome, the administration in Nairobi maintains it will not relent on its campaign against extremists.
Kenya’s main tourist source markets, including Britain, the United States, Italy, India and Germany, exhibited the biggest decline in numbers in 2013, however a quick glance at the arrival numbers from Africa shows signs of a market that has been long ignored and whose potential is yet to be fully realized. Uganda maintains its number one slot as an African source market for Kenya, bringing in 47,398 visitors in 2013 alone, followed by South Africa and Tanzania.
The introduction of a 16% value added tax levy on parks and conservancy fees in September by the Kenya Revenue Authority caused another bout of panic in an already fragile industry.
Fears were rife that the change would lead to a hike in the cost of hotel bookings and travel expenses; further discouraging European and western tourists that are still licking their wounds from the Eurozone crisis. It was not long before tourists voted with their feet, cementing many analysts’ assertions that the move to slap the industry with the extra levy was proof of the government’s doublespeak.
The lack of government involvement in the marketing of this vital sector is often a hot topic at many tourism workshops. Having just returned from a tourism indaba in South Africa, Minaz Manji, the managing director of Twiga Tours, who has operated in the East African tourism space for the past three decades, reckons that governments are doing very little to promote the tourism resource at their disposal.
In the 2014/15 budget estimates, the Kenyan government set aside $22.9 million for the tourism docket with $14.8 million going into recurrent projects and the balance for development. It is this figure that infuriates Manji and many other players in this space.
“How many billboards or TV adverts can you put in Europe or Asia when you only have $8 million for a whole year. Is this government serious?” asks Manji.
The obsession with the bush and the beach by East Africa’s tourism bodies, including the Kenya Tourism Board, has also come under sharp criticism. Players in the sector point to destinations like the Kremlin in Moscow. It attracts a million visitors every three months to sample its history, perhaps proof that diversifying tourism in Africa should quickly gain traction.
In recent months, international hotel chains like Hemingways, Best Western Premier and Villa Rosa Kempinski have set up shop in Nairobi while the New York Stock Exchange-listed hotel chain, Wyndham, plan to enter the Kenyan market at the end of the year. These developments have left 6 million spaces for Kenya’s tourism industry to fill, creating a lot of room to attract investors.
There are no quick solutions in the quest to save Kenya’s tourism sector, but there are low hanging fruits that would set it on the right track in the short term. Kenya needs to amend taxation laws to make it favorable for operators, increase funding for the promotion of tourism and look at developing joint regional marketing of the East African region to make it an attractive destination once again. All of this, however, can only be possible if Kenya successfully tackles the escalating terror threat.