THE TOP RESORTS NORTH OF MOMBASA – A PERSONAL VIEW FROM A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE (Part 1 of four)
(Posted 29th July 2018)
I have no doubt that the headline will have readers sit up in anticipation and hoteliers will be on the edge of their seats until they have read, and then agreed or disagreed with my findings, rooted in 13 nights and 14 days trip from Mombasa to Malindi with Watamu and Vipingo thrown in for good measure.
What is undisputed is the fact that Destination Kenya Coast has been facing occupancy challenges for several years and equally undisputed and almost uniformly echoed by tourism and hospitality stakeholders is the fact that the charter incentives by the Kenyan government have broadly failed to generate the extra business needed to put occupancies across the industry above break even point.
The top dogs among tourism stakeholders at the coast agree that much of their product is aged and tired and that many resorts have failed to upgrade, modernize and refurbish their premises, for reasons which we all understand of course.
Yet, some resorts have managed to beat the trend and have upped the ante in order to stay competitive, not just in the Kenyan or East African context but as seen on a global scale.
The age of the all inclusive tour charters is waning fast and Mombasa in particular has been affected by this trend while at the same time scheduled air services suddenly were able to offer competitive fares at the back of the plane as a result of new technologies helping airlines to manage their yield and optimize both revenues and occupancies.
The Seychelles for instance does not allow charters unless for a special and approved purpose and yet have visitor numbers steadily grown over the past 10 years with all tourists arriving on scheduled flights.
It is here that Kenya needs to re-examine their aviation policy with the aim of opening up the Mombasa airspace and let scheduled airlines in – as after all the national airline has clearly failed to offer non stop Mombasa services from key tourist source markets despite constant demands by industry leaders to do so.
Presently, and notably is it Kenya Airways’ senior in terms of profitability, route network and fleet, Ethiopian Airlines which is flying twice a day from Addis Ababa to Mombasa, having only recently upped their flights from one a day to two a day.
This provides a largely increased connectivity into the ET network across Africa and the rest of the world, allowing individual travelers but also groups to book themselves on these flights and reach the Kenya coast with the one stop in Addis Ababa.
Sadly though were they blocked from launching flights between Addis Ababa to Malindi with a Bombardier Q400, which would have been a shot in the arm of Destination Malindi and Destination Watamu – a sign that a limited corporate horizon managed to impose itself on the entire nation to the detriment of the latter. More about this further below.
Turkish Airlines, another world heavyweight carrier with the most international destinations of any airline in the world, too flies daily to Mombasa, again giving travelers from North America, Europe, Eastern Europe and Asia the certainty to reach the Kenya coast with but one stop, this time in Istanbul, where incidentally one of the world’s largest new airports is nearing completion.
For African and regional connections does RwandAir also fly to Mombasa as part of their services to Dubai, again offering connectivity at very attractive fares compared to what some Kenyan airlines charge and needless to say is RwandAir my favourite African airline of choice.
More airlines have in the past applied for landing rights but eventually opted out of the route over what they have said were less than satisfactory terms and conditions vis a vis in particular fifth freedom rights, among them Qatar Airways which twice took Mombasa off their upcoming destination list but also FlyDubai, both of which by the way serve Zanzibar with increasing success and more and more frequencies.
One of those ‘application denied‘ or often in a more concealed way ‘application deferred‘ rulings apparently affected Ethiopian Airlines too which has planned to connect the town of Malindi to their network but in the end the authorities caved in when national airline interests were cited and considered rather than taking the interest of the country and its tourism industry as a whole into consideration. Reaching Malindi for instance with Ethiopian from across their entire network with one stop in Addis Ababa would have opened up an entirely new ballgame for hoteliers and tour operators in Watamu and Malindi. But, as seen in the past when the Kenya Airways of old blocked the British Airtours charter in 1983 and by doing so effectively destroyed the Malindi and Watamu tourism industry at the time, who in government circles in Nairobi really gives a damn about those places – and going by the potholes on Malindi streets not even the Kilifi county government does.
It is here that the Kenyan government and subordinate bodies needs to change tack and direction. Infrastructure development and maintenance is a fundamental right of citizens after all. The Kenyan government needs to listen to their tourism stakeholders and invite foreign airlines to begin scheduled flights to Mombasa to fundamentally change the fortunes of the Kenya coast again – and Malindi too in the process by granting Ethiopian Airlines landing rights as a start.
When travelers land – many of them having booked their tickets online when special fares are on offer – most of them also booked their choice hotel online and will use their smartphones on arrival to hail an UBER or Taxify ride to get to their resort. That cuts out the old style supply chain using travel agents and tour operators who blockbooked large contingents of seats on charter flights in the old days – but no more today.
The new digital age has long arrived – Damian Cook keeps hammering the message home wherever he holds workshops and seminars – that online bookings have increased at record pace and will do so for some time to come.
Here comes in the need for hotels and resorts in Kenya and especially at the coast to be tech savvy and offer state of the art 360° technology in user friendly and constantly updated websites, made more visible by Search Engine Optimization – in short known as SEO – to pop up first when potential travelers research Destination Kenya Coast, because research they do and their decisions where to stay will be based on what they find online.
Key hotel booking platforms like Bookings.com, Hotels.com, Expedia.com and even Tripadvisor.com offer special deals on an almost daily basis and the tech savvy know when to hit the book button on their smartphone and get the best deals.
But enough of the tech talk and on to the resorts themselves.
Let me start with my first true highlight while at the coast, the Mombasa Serena Beach Resort & Spa.
Inexplicably only given 4 stars when the grading team paid them a visit, is the resort going by the various hotel review platforms the frontrunner in the Shanzu area and my own impressions confirmed that.
Once all the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted does the Serena Beach tick all the right boxes, from Accommodation to Food to Service to the Gardens to the Staff attention and friendliness to their Conservation projects and of course also their Sports and recreational facilities before adding and and and …
(Plenty of pictures included in the review give a ‘real picture’ of what the Serena Beach is all about)
The internationally much applauded Butterfly Conservation Project gets little attention from ‘official Kenya’ and yet is part of Serena’s corporate culture and philosophy to look after their neighbourhood and mitigate environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity.
With 67 butterfly species at Serena from an overall 263 butterfly species at the coast and 871 butterfly species now left in Kenya is this a success story which deserves greater attention.
The guide told me that from laying the eggs, do they after four days turn into caterpillars who eat almost nonstop for 4 weeks to maturity before they turn into
cocoons for another 12 days and then finally does a butterfly emerge. The lifespan in the wild is only between 5 to 8 days only while at the Serena butterfly nursery the lifespan can reach up to three months.
In addition does the hotel have a turtle conservation project and 34 young ones were released while I was there, given safe conduct to the waters of the Indian Ocean, thus avoiding the circling crows and other sea birds keen to feed on them.
The gardens are a tropical paradise with birds galore and monkeys chasing each other, well maintained and the lawns always trimmed to make walking bare feet a pleasure without fear to step into something sharp.
Last but not least, does the hotel now offer an architectural, historical and cultural tour through the resort, starting from the main gate. Two guides, Marsden and Martin, dressed up for the occasion, take guests on a journey of discovery which includes pointing out the uses of the breadfruit on the Baobab trees and more. Anecdotes from the old days make way to extensive details about the Lamu style fronts of the buildings and the ornamental carvings and inlays on doors, the alcoves, balconies, arches and layout of Serena’s Lamu Village, making use of the breeze from the sea to keep the inner yards cool, aided by plenty of ponds and fountains.
A full overview has, courtesy of the Serena Beach Resort and Spa General Manager, Mr. Tuva Mwahunga been availed and is available through a PDF link here, a quintessential read for those with an interest in coastal construction methods and the way Serena incorporated all the best features of ancient buildings still holding water today.
If all the coastal resorts would apply themselves to such details as Serena does, would the overall situation no doubt be much brighter and the outlook much more positive but there you are – there are leaders and there are followers and then there are those left behind, stragglers of sorts, but more about that in the upcoming parts 2, 3 and 4.
The following three parts of this article series will be specifically devoted to Malindi, to Watamu and Vipingo and a broad closing overview from Nyali to Bamburi and beyond, reflecting on some of the upsides I saw but also the downsides which must not be hidden – albeit narrated with positive intentions and as constructive critique.
I traveled from Entebbe to Nairobi on RwandAir, took the Madaraka Express to the coast and returned from Vipingo Ridge on the daily Safarilink scheduled flight to Wilson Airport.