(Posted 22nd September 2013)
As Kenyans wake up this morning the realize it was not a nightmare they had in their sleep but that the siege at the Westgate Mall is still ongoing, though from the latest reports it is now clear that the gunmen are pinned down and largely contained, yet still holding hostages as human shields.
Last nights’ figures given by President Kenyatta, that 39 had died and over 150 injured had been taken to hospital may this morning already be greater, we do not know yet and will eventually learn the final toll this gruesome terror attack has taken.
It was to the day 2 years ago that Kenya had legitimately gone on hot pursuit to hunt down Al Shabab terrorists, who had repeatedly intruded into Kenya and taken hostages, including foreigners, and killed some of them. No country can and will let that happen with impunity and once the Kenyan offensive, on land, from the sea and in the air was underway, Al Shabab had it coming to them. Today, Somalia is largely at peace and inspite of a time attack yesterday on Mogadishu’s main market, triggered as the gunmen stormed the Westgate mall, mowing down the security check points, that country is on the way to mend and restore law and order, helped by troops under the UN banner from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti and Kenya. Still Al Shabab, despised by the Somali population for their twisted interpretation of the Koran and their cruel inhuman punishment, and beaten in open battle, continued to wage an asymmetrical response by having grenade thrown at Kenyans though were contained from carrying out any major attack until now.
Experts, the true ones as well as those reshaping the world in their pubs over a few pints, will no doubt analyze what happened at Westgate. I am a regular visitor there myself when in Kenya and can vouch that entry security is taken seriously, BUT there is simply no way anyone can stand in the way of a dozen or more terrorists, driving up to the entrance gate, opening fire with full salvos and then storming inside. No one can claim to be 100 percent safe, no country on earth is courtesy of the twisted minds of Al Qaida and their deadly evil offspring around the world and since 9 / 11 we had multiple major attacks, in Europe, in North Africa, in Indonesia and other countries. Were they sitting on their hands? Surely not but it goes to show that bombing a train, a bus, a discotheque, a supermarket or a church even, simply cannot be prevented, nor could it be in a country like in Russia where Chechen separatists in the face of constant ‘vigilance’ succeeded to do their deadly handiwork.
Until now we have always had reason to say, that tourists and foreigners in Kenya, apart from the two incidents in Lamu in 2011, had not come to any harm but the announcement by various embassies that some of their national had been caught up in the shootings has changed that too. Foreigners were apparently targeted this time. Non muslim Kenyans were targeted this time too and the majority of those dead and injured are Kenyans, I want to make that quite clear, in other words, Kenya once more carried the lion’s share of the victims. I am certain that bureaucrats in London and Washington and Brussels are already working on harshly worded anti travel advisories, which would very likely accelerate an already visible downward trend for Kenya Tourism. That however will rob Kenyans of much needed jobs, foreign exchange earnings and create exactly the socioeconomic environment terrorists with their attacks hope to accomplish, a festering wound they hope to exploit and a strategy well known when it comes to hitting countries depending on tourism.
I will soon go and visit Kenya, standing by my friends in time of need and as little a consolation and gesture this may be, I shall do it anyway. And as always, I will visit the malls, Yaya Centre, Sarit Centre, Village Market and if it is open at that time again, Westgate too, flowers in hand to lay them down as I bow my head in remembrance.
Today much will be written about the attack and how it will end, the why and where and how and all.
I want to focus on the fallout for tourism. Some may think it is sheer lunacy to now plead with overseas operators NOT to drop Kenya from their programmes but it is exactly what I do now.
Do not abandon Kenya in her hour of need I say, do not cancel trips and yes, while giving the facts also state that a repeat of this is most unlikely. If cancellations now come in en masse, the terrorists will win that side battle, and handsomely too, so do not let yourself be led by fear. Kenya’s resorts and safari lodges are safe, and while the Octoberfest celebrations I wrote about only days ago will be largely subdued, who can after all celebrate with the drama in Nairobi still ongoing, life will be going on.
Air safaris have taken off this morning from Mombasa, scheduled flights from Wilson into the parks are leaving on time, road safaris have set out to the lodges and excursions are underway along the Kenya coast. There will be added security measures, yes, but it will not stop life from continuing. We all in the industry, at the sharp end of operations and the likes of myself, now withdrawn to consulting, speaking at events and conferences and of course writing, now need to stand together and go out to tell the world, that this was an act of lunatics which should not be used to dump on Kenya as a whole.
That said, perhaps this is also the time for the Kenyan tourism industry to finally hold their national consultation to map out their way forward and for the Kenyan government to write a cheque big enough for KTB to be able to go out and attend every major trade show and organize missions to Kenya’s key core markets, to the new and emerging markets, and rebuild confidence. The time is now and I hope, in fact I know that the powers that be will get this message, perhaps not directly but through established channels which in recent weeks have already sat up and taken notice how one individual so constantly and persistently chips away on their stone walls to get the sector heard and its needs re-assessed and addressed.
With what happened yesterday, there is no more time to ponder or waver. It is time for President Kenyatta to put his foot down and put his money where his mouth was on inauguration day. Helping KTB to do their job now is helping Kenya to overcome the tragedy, regroup and emerge stronger and united.
My prayers go to the families of the victims and to their friends as I myself have lost contact I had on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn. Stand up and be counted is my advice, and the more that follow my example the better. Kenya, I am with you, and I know my readers will be with you too. Take courage, take hope and stand firm and tall.