Not all lost for East Africa’s tourism sector inspite of gloomy VISA survey


(Posted 07th December 2013)

An extensive survey carried out by VISA, the results of which are now reaching the public domain, has little good prospects for 2014 for some of the East African countries, with the exception of Tanzania and Zanzibar which were ranked fourth and fifth as destinations of choice, with South Africa topping the rankings and the Seychelles coming in third. Tourism stakeholders were swift to question projections that Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda would see a decline in interest, though conceded that some of the issues raised in the VISA survey were valid points but that the wrong conclusions were drawn.

I think there is no doubt in anyone’s mind right now that Kenya has a challenging year ahead of them. 2013 was not a good year and it is obvious that perception about security, something the VISA report highlighted, is not very good right now. We in Uganda have also told our government to cool it and not make public spectacles over small political issues, when the international TV cameras are transmitting scenes of police officers going berserk and rough up opposition politicians and their supporters. We only give ourselves a bad name and whoever devised such tactics needs their head examined, I mean really! Instead of building on the 2012 accolade by Lonely Planet and this year’s top ranking by National Geographic, we see bad pictures from Kampala on the global news instead of seeing our attractions highlighted’ said one regular commentor from Uganda, before adding: ‘Unlike what VISA seems to conclude, we all think that we will have another arrival record in 2013 inspite of such issues and inspite of our government giving UTB peanuts to promote the country. I gather they are now advertising for top positions in UTB and perhaps a new team could change direction but it will all be in vain if they are not given the money they need. We are fed up with promises, we want to see cash on the table now for UTB to promote Uganda like Rwanda does or like other neighbours do. And I hope you print this like I say it because those responsible should know how bitter many of us are. We spend a lot of our own money to promote Uganda and government just bleeds us with taxes and puts nothing back. And write this also, because cattle keepers will understand, you cannot milk a cow without feeding it or it will stop giving milk and die!

From Rwanda too cautious optimism was voiced that 2013 would produce another record in terms of arrivals and revenues, denouncing the issue of security concerns by those polled in the VISA survey: ‘Our visitors know that Rwanda is a safe country, in fact probably the safest in Africa. Our visitors know that their safety and security is on top of our agenda here in Rwanda. Next year we will have Marriott open a new 5 star hotel in Kigali, we hope that our new national convention centre and the adjoining hotel will be completed and our national airline RwandAir continues to expand their wings across Africa. We have a good product and we keep adding new attractions as you well know, so Rwanda as a destination will continue to shine bright. Really I don’t know where some of those surveys come from and how they get interpreted but as far as Rwanda is concerned, we are optimistic that our market will continue to grow’.

A leading Kenyan tourism stakeholder has meanwhile conceded that the last government under President Kibaki completely failed to appreciate the impact of the election scares which had been peddled in foreign media and the need to allocate more funding for KTB to stem the tide by creating visibility for Kenya during those months. ‘Our present government has not delivered very much for us. They raised taxes in a business environment which demands tax cuts and incentives. I do not understand how you in Uganda could have the VAT reversed, considering how you constantly write your government does not understand tourism, and yet we in Kenya have failed to make our government understand what negative impact those VAT charges have. We have won awards this year but awards do not translate into occupancies and arrivals. What Kenya tourism needs is a supplementary budget to roll out a full recovery marketing campaign so that for 2014 we can reverse the trends of this year. And as you rightly point out, we need to market Mombasa better. Yes, many of the resorts have gone to sleep so to speak but I think they are all having a wakeup call now. We need to get the charter operators back to Mombasa and we need to get more scheduled airlines fly to Mombasa, not just Turkish and Ethiopian. What happened to Qatar Airways, to the plans of Brussels Airlines to fly to Mombasa. How can Zanzibar get two flights a week from Johannesburg and Mombasa has none? But I fear if this government continues the way they have started and they even want to submerge KTB now into a mix with investment promotion, then probably the scenario of the VISA survey might just happen’.

Arrival data available from Kenya show a continued decline in numbers throughout 2013, a trend which according to senior stakeholders must be reversed, but such a reversal comes at a cost. For one there is consensus that KTB needs to remain a standalone marketing body in order to be an effective force to promote the country. There is also consensus that KTB requires more funding than has been allocated this year to work in particular high growth emerging markets in the Far East, India and Russia. National airline Kenya Airways has added capacity from both India and China and entered into codeshare arrangements with their SkyTeam partners from Vietnam and Korea, while Emirates and Qatar Airways offer double daily connections from their hubs in Dubai and Doha to Kenya’s capital Nairobi, offering easy connections from Asia, India and Russia. Etihad, now flying in codeshare with Kenya Airways, also connects those emerging and new markets via Abu Dhabi, offering yet more connections for potential travellers from those countries. ‘There is a need to go into those markets and do sales missions, engage the travel trade, participate in their tourism trade fairs. For that to happen KTB needs that extra money. Tourism has the greatest capacity of all economic sectors to grow jobs, grow foreign exchange earnings and attract investment. Every dollar spent in promoting comes back to the country in great multiples. We want tourism to become Kenya’s number one export, Kenya’s top performing sector. We can make it happen but things must change’ added another regular source from the coast, citing the successes of such competing beach destinations like Zanzibar or Seychelles, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Cause for concern, yes, but losing hope, that would be a big fat NO. East Africa has much to go for it as a region of choice and the common tourist Visa coming into effect in January between Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya will undoubtedly help to promote travel through the region and visiting more than one country. The region’s parks and forests, rivers and lakes, beaches and mountains offer a spectacular variety of options, where to go and what to do. Tourists can, as they choose, be either adventurous, active and intrepid or else laze in a sun chair on the shores of Lake Kivu, on Uganda’s Bulago Island in Lake Victoria, along the famous beaches of Diani or Watamu or on the Spice Island of Zanzibar. Opportunities and options galore and courtesy of Google, all those attractions are now at anyone’s fingertips via iPad or tablet. So go Google and then come visit as East Africa remains open for business and safe for visitors like few other destinations are.

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