Quo Vadis Kenya tourism come 2015?

WILL KENYA’S DILEMMA CONTINUE INTO 2015 OR IS CHANGE IN THE AIR

(Posted 21st December 2014)

While the jury is still out on the extent of the downturn of tourism in Kenya during the past year, one thing is certain and beyond argument, this downturn is the sharpest in history and appears to be the most prolonged ever.

From the city hotels to the safari lodges and the beach resorts have occupancies gone down this year and some sources claim by an industry average of up to 40 percent at the coast but lower percentages on the safari circuit and in the city. However, as arrival data appear to remain a closely guarded secret, the updates are now habitually published later and later, do industry pundits lack the figures to back up their read of the trends and rely on individual hotel companies’ friendly feedback to try and add up the losses.

A series of charters to the Kenya coast were progressively pulled from the market by airlines which were not willing to shoulder the risk of filling the seats as their key tour operators in turn declined to give guarantees, which they knew they could under the circumstances no longer fulfill without risking major losses.

Anti-travel advisories, sharpish like never before, resulted in British tourists being pulled from their sunbeds and flown home and two murders of tourists in the old town of Mombasa, previously a tourist attraction together with the nearby ancient Fort Jesus, proved the authors of those advisories somewhat right. While terror attacks, other than those two incidents, focused on Kenyan citizens, it nevertheless made the country look unsafe and be portrayed by the international media as just that, to the detriment of the tourism industry.

The past government of President Kibaki, who after serving two terms was ineligible to stand again, was told at an early stage after the invasion of Somalia to fund a marketing campaign to alleviate fears by tour operators over the abduction of foreigners and then again as the election campaigns went underway. Nothing happened and the minister of the day, instead of acting, engaged in a vendetta against the tourism board chief, who had dared to contradict his projections of sectoral growth when all indicators already pointed to a steep decline.

The current government too became culpable when it did not act decisively, taking the advice from the private sector on board in a timely fashion. Quintessential changes in the Kenyan security portfolios, which should have been instituted following the rather bodged clear-up after the initial Westgate attack, were not forthcoming until very recently. The country paid a heavy price for the continued failures of the two office holders to get a handle on the situation with subsequently repeated major attacks in the Lamu and Mandera counties.

On the policy front did the government also not heed further advice to cut Visa fees, remove VAT from tourism services, open the Mombasa airspace for foreign airlines, including giving them fifth freedom rights, bundle tourism and conservation related activities in a single ministry and reduce the parastatal proliferation by creating a tourism authority. Instead were misplaced, what the sector broadly refers to as ‘sunshine speeches’, delivered which failed to address the real problems and masked the deteriorating situation on the ground for too long. Promised funding for a recovery marketing campaign was not forthcoming quickly enough, leaving the tourism board financially hamstrung and unable to go after both emerging and new markets and at the same time courting the existing key markets in Europe and North America. The absence in Dubai at the key Arabian Travel Market only added to the perception of tourism having become a rudderless ship.

A recent meeting of the tourism recovery task force in Mombasa in fact revealed the rift between government sponsored optimism and the reality on the ground, with key figures projecting the downturn to continue throughout 2015 and into 2016.

While success has many parents, such negative trends appear to be orphans although literally all fingers are pointing to this and the immediate former governments’ failures to read the writing on the wall and take sensible counter measures when they could and should have.

It is clear that Kenya needs to restore security, though the how is more of an issue as is the when. Nevertheless will this form the centerpiece for any meaningful and sustained recovery in particular at the Kenya coast. Secondly does the government need to make funds available at preferential interest rates, plus allow rapid depreciation of assets created by newly invested funds, to restore coastal resorts to a state of global competitiveness again. Upgrading and refurbishing costs money many owners no longer have following the prolonged downturn and the depletion of their cash resources. Thirdly is a revenue percentage based financing of the tourism board long overdue now, to ensure that the sector can hit the global market places hard and when needed. This requires funding similar to what Egypt and South Africa are spending, the former to aid recovery and the latter to sustain their phenomenal growth, growth by the way inspite of spiraling crime often directed against tourists.

Two things though are also beyond dispute, that one, the Kenyan private sector has taken the initiative to the markets with their successful #WhyILoveKenya campaign and second, and no doubt more important, does Kenya still have plenty adding up in her favour, with those perfect sundrenched beaches, spectacular parks, breathtaking settings of lodges and tented camps and the quality of food and service second to none. This has during several visits throughout the year continued to impress this correspondent and of course tens of thousands of other visitors, who enjoyed a well-organized conference or who had that holiday of a lifetime and returned home, safe and sound, what else, to tell their story.

It was a hard year but that glimmer of hope, including whispers of a cabinet reshuffle and meeting the demands of the sector for its own portfolio will in the early part of 2015, after FITUR and other tradeshows leading up to ITB 2015, determine which way Kenya’s tourism industry will be heading.

I personally hope it will be up up and up some more, reopening resorts, restoring jobs lost last year, earning crucial foreign exchange and bringing in more foreign investments in the sector.

And would it not be nice to show the world that peace through tourism is not just an empty phrase, when the creator of it, former Skal International President Uzi Yalon, comes to visit the Kenya coast for the first ever International Skal Congress to be held in Kenya next year, together with the sitting President of Skal and hundreds of Skalleagues from around the world in tow. They are after all industry leaders, opinion leaders and trend setters in their own right who can help shape new fortunes for Kenya.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas and to a better New Year ahead.

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