Poor understanding by politicians the main factor for Kenya’s tourism woes


(Posted 10th December 2013)

More and more tourism stakeholders from across Kenya are starting to voice their disquiet, worries and at times outright disillusionment with their country’s politicians just days before the 50th Independence Golden Jubilee Celebrations with some now openly demanding that the ‘head in the sand’ attitude has got to stop and government own up to reality. Some are on condition of anonymity seeking a platform here to express their concerns, and one of the ‘old guard’ with decades of service under the belt wrote yesterday ‘you have established yourself as a source of information and a place where we can read good news about Kenya, find critical views of things which ought to be improved together with constructive input and opinions our government should heed to get us out of this downward trend’. While music to my ears it also is a damning indictment of some of Kenya’s mainstream media which have yet to catch on to the reality on the ground, like singing from government issued hymn sheets instead of creating their own tunes.

A regular aviation source, close to the national airline, on Saturday added to a wave of emails on this topic, when saying ‘… it is fair and good if you write Mombasa needs more flights. Kenya Airways has just added over 10 extra flights between Nairobi and Mombasa, but you also need to tell those who ask for more flights that airlines need the passengers to fill those flights. No one today can afford to fly planes with too many empty seats. On a scheduled flight you need to match the fleet average load factor or you lose money. Charters as we both know need guarantees from tour operators and those are slow in coming these days. If the demand for Mombasa is not there, if the forward bookings are not there, not one of them will give the required 70 + percent guarantees charter airlines demand. The result is that the airlines then cut back in flights. Flying just a few added frequencies over the peak period is also costly because normally you have one flight each on the series almost empty, the first return from Mombasa and the last flight into Mombasa. Those need to be factored into the cost of packages. Tour operators with empty seats who gave guarantees have stark choices. If seats remain empty a week prior to travel they can only try to sell them as last minute offers and then you get those ridiculously low prices of say 199 Pounds for a week in Mombasa for bed and breakfast which give us a cheap image and really only reduces the loss of an unsold seat, not make profit from it. Right now the airlines all say, find me the passengers and I will fly but this winter season Mombasa is not comparing favourably with other long haul destinations. Even the troubles in Thailand right now do not help Mombasa. The trend this winter from Europe is to other destinations, Zanzibar even, but not Mombasa. I have no hard facts but this winter there will be those repeat clients who always come to Mombasa through thick and thin but the percentage of new comers might be a lot less than normal’. Another source close to the same airline spoke in a mail shared under confidential cover of ‘never seen flights this empty’ after fares had to be raised in the face of slackening demand before concluding ‘No one is prepared to listen’.

Two other senior tourism stakeholders, while saying no one wants to spoil the party for the 50th Independence celebration, the time would be now to drop the pretence that all is well and sit down, analyze the international trends where those passengers who are not coming to Mombasa or to Kenya this year are going and formulate a response tailored to those markets to restore confidence in the destination.

Egypt remains on the map but with deep discounts right now. They had a deep slump in arrivals during the height of the political unrest in Cairo and were forced to drop rates, even airfares to just stay in business. Egypt depends on tourism as much if not more than we do in Kenya. Maybe our government official should take a look of what amount of money Egypt’s government poured into recovery marketing because that is a good comparison, African destination with African destination and beach destination in Sharm el Sheikh with Mombasa. They do their culture thing while we do the safaris but essentially, this is a very similar market. Key issues here in Kenya are still the VAT which made us a lot more expensive, lack of enough funds for KTB and I am afraid to say those county governments trying to milk a dying cow to death. The demands from Mombasa county for a bed tax and for a vehicle tax are outrageous and show that those officials have no clue at all what they are talking about’ added another regular contributor from the coast whose own resort occupancies in 2013 will be ‘significantly down’ compared to 2012.

There is consensus among those ‘sampled’ that Kenya’s failure to react with increased marketing activities in key market places in the face of pre-election market wobbles contributed considerably to the way how the rest of 2013 panned out and that the current government’s failure to appreciate the woes of the industry after more recent incidents and clearly visible market trends away from Kenya are the main causes for the present situation. ‘If we can invest in infrastructure the way we do now, new roads, airport extensions, railways and all, then this government should equally invest in tourism. Many of those projects are done by the Chinese and they bring their own labour so the benefits for Kenyans in terms of jobs are marginal. In contrast, when tourism revives the impact on the labour market is almost instant and the knock on effects are significant in terms of added supply chain benefits and their ability to recruit. But it seems that government invests in physical infrastructure only and does not invest in tourism marketing. This failure will come to haunt them in 2014 like the failures of the Kibaki government came to haunt us this year. If the Kibaki government had invested in tourism marketing at the time when the fall out of the Somalia invasion was cutting coast occupancy rates and when the extend of the pre-election fears in our key markets drove down demand, we would be better prepared, better off now. But that failure combined with the current lack of appreciating our sector’s challenges, makes it a double whammy for our industry’.

The same sources also conceded that many of Kenya’s coastal resorts have failed to upgrade, modernize and revamp their products and accepted that this too has made selling Kenya’s beaches more difficult. It was accepted that competing destinations have not rested on their laurels and invested in new resorts, new attractions and refurbishment of existing beach resorts.

That said, there was also agreement that a number of resorts along the coast HAVE in fact have taken such steps and as a result recorded better occupancies than the rest. And there is equal agreement that Kenya’s safari camps and lodges remain top of the pops, offering high standards and often exceptional quality and value for money, something the coast needs to copy to re-invent itself as a prime tourism destination.

The way forward obviously needs to be determined by Kenya’s stakeholders, driven by the private sector while the public sector has to facilitate what has to be done in order to reverse the trend. And as one ‘regular’ put it correctly, there is no time like the present. ‘It is not us who failed Kenya, it is our politicians. They have to bear the blame, they are responsible. And let me rattle the hornets’ nest, the devolved government has yet to prove its effectiveness because all I have seen so far is the cost of that extra layer of government coming down on us like a ton of bricks with no value addition at this point at all’.

With but three days to go till Kenya’s 50th birthday, time to celebrate but also time to reflect. Thanks to those who contributed and as you asked for, the ball is now firmly in the court of public opinion and in the court of government. Watch this space.