Quo vadis Lamu tourism?


(Posted 12th October 2014)

The Lamu Cultural Festival, the arguably biggest annual event this ancient town stages, seems to be a festival in suspense at the moment, not certain how it will take place as the curfew slapped indiscriminately on the entire Lamu county by Kenya’s police chief has remained in place and Lamu town, Shela Beach, Manda Island and Pate Island have not been officially excluded from it inspite of desperate pleas to the authorities.

The recently concluded Magical Kenya Travel Expo gave the opportunity to speak to individuals on the Lamu County stand in an effort to ascertain just where the preparations for this year’s festival had reached, as the event, due to take place from 27th to 30th of November, is now only 6 weeks away.

Those asked insisted that the festival would take place, though compared to previous years, little visibility of the festival in local and other media could be seen, bringing about a case of nostalgia when one of those spoken to recalled the sustained efforts by former Tourism Minister Najib Balala, who at the time went out of his way to drum up support for Lamu and made sure the entire country, the region and the world at large knew about it.

With just weeks to go there are doubts creeping into the travel and tourism fraternity’s combined minds, as little is known about sponsors, partnerships and even to get a logo for this year’s event proved impossible at this stage.

The two airlines flying scheduled services from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport to Lamu have equally admitted that the demand for seats on the route has dropped considerably, resulting in the use of much smaller planes and at times the cancellation of flights when no passengers were booked.

One Malindi based tour operator also confirmed that few if any foreign tourists, mainly backpackers, who in past years used buses to travel from Malindi to Lamu, are now seen to board these vehicles after several incidents a few months ago taking place enroute.

A representative of Lamu County at the MKTE 2014 did have a complete list of events from this year up to 2016 which covered the New Year’s Day Dhow Race on 01st of January 2015, the Maulidi Festival from 13th to 16th of January 2015, the Lamu Painter’s Festival from 02nd to 15th of February 2015, the Lamu Yoga Festival from 12th to 16th of March 2015, and 2015 Lamu Cultural Festival from 25th to 30th of November and the Lamu Hat Contest on the 06th of February 2016. While confident that the 2014 Lamu Cultural Festival would go ahead, she was on the other hand equally unable to confirm the status of preparations and the number of people expected for the event, which in past years often was a sell out with resorts, hotels, guest houses and villas booked weeks in advance and the airlines using their largest aircraft able to land at the Manda Island airstrip plus adding more departures.

Lamu’s name has a magical ring to it and those who ever visited the ancient town know that it is a journey back in time. The around 80 members of the Lamu Tourism Association, from resorts to guides and from restaurants to the dhow captains, have all in the past made a decent living off their services but the past months have been particularly hard on them as foreign visitors shunned travel to Lamu over security concerns and the UK’s travel advisories, as well as that of other Western countries, put a near blanket travel ban on the county, which had a devastating impact on occupancies and revenues.

While keenly awaiting the promised details about the Lamu Cultural Festival this year, the sponsors and promoters and the development partners coming on board it is noteworthy that Go Places has thrown their weight behind Lamu tourism and will do what they can to rekindle public interest and stir up some added demand, but by the look of it this will be a touch and go situation. Said one Nairobi based operator when asked for a comment: ‘The people in Lamu will probably celebrate their festival no matter how many visitors from upcountry or overseas will come. But then, the purpose always was to turn the festival into a cultural showcase of past and present and it defeats that purpose if so few people actually go there. Even the local media have been very quiet about it and making a splash in the newspapers just a few days prior will not help much to fill the beds and seats on aircraft. I personally also wait to see what is now coming from the government because if that curfew stays in place, I don’t know how this will work’.

Meanwhile did Ms. Maggie Mugambi of Lamu Homes & Safaris say that while there are presently very few visitors booked through her office to fly to and stay in Lamu, those who go are enjoying their stay in the absence of any crowds. That said of course, it is time to get some crowds back to Lamu before a stage is reached where the last tourist leaving will switch off the lights and with it take the spotlight off one of Kenya’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. For more information about the Lamu archipelago visit www.lamutourism.org or check the links for Lamu holidays on www.magicalkenya.com

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