THE #KENYA COAST – A STORY OF ROT AND RENEWAL (Part 4 of four)
(Posted 30th September 2018)
While in Europe did opportunity finally arise to complete the promised 4th part of the review of my visit to the Kenya coast in July and August.
Much has been written about it before, relevant links shown below, but a summary is needed to take a look at the future of tourism at the Kenya coast, the upsides but also the downsides.
Let me start with the good news, which only made it into the article due to the delay of completing it. Qatar Airways was finally given landing rights for Mombasa, after two previously failed attempts to fly to the Kenyan coast. Those two attempts cost the tourism sector between Malindi and Diani and beyond dearly while the airline pumped passengers into close rival Zanzibar to the loss of Mombasa.
After that reality had finally sunk into the minds of the powers that be, more so given the failure of the Kenyan charter incentives to actually restore previous traffic levels, has apparently a bold decision been taken to give the world’s first five star airline the right to bring tourists to Mombasa and the other Kenyan beach destinations from around the globe, with just one stop in Doha.
Four weekly flights, for now, will no doubt help to promote Destination Kenya Coast around the world and bring much needed tourists and their Euros and Dollars into the local economy and throw the industry a new lifeline.
As said in earlier articles however are more and even bolder decisions needed to further stimulate traffic to the Kenya coast.
No doubt would Ethiopian Airlines be more than happy to launch flights from Addis Ababa to Malindi, using a well suited Bombardier Q400 aircraft on the route. An international connection into Malindi would bring much needed tourist traffic directly into an area rightly famous for deep sea fishing, great hospitality businesses and – like it or not – would go beyond suddenly harping about another attraction most of us have known for ages but on which ‘official Kenya‘ is just catching on to – the whale and dolphin migrations. An international air link to Malindi would bring the tourists from around global Ethiopian Airlines network to actually see this attraction, and pay for the privilege.
As often will only time tell if the powers that be can jump over their own shadow and do the right thing for the tourism industry at the coast, in particular in Malindi and Watamu, or if vested interests by an ailing national airline are seen as more important than the country’s tourism industry overall.
Especially in Malindi were a number of resorts remain closed as witnessed during a visit to that part of the Kenya coast, which is indicative that getting tourists into the town is of key importance.
While some resorts have kept the flag of Malindi flying, such as the ‘Driftwood Club‘, have other owners simply locked up their premises and laid off their staff, apart from a few security guards.
Restoring those hotels now closed to their former shine will require massive investments, given the state of affairs seen when peeping through locked gates and gaps in the hedges and create much needed jobs for this part of the Kenya coast which for decades has relied on tourism as a main source of income.
Not that the fancied Diani beaches south of Mombasa have been spared by the way as there too closed down resorts remain an eyesore and at the same time a reminder of how urgent it is to concentrate on Kenya’s beach tourism industry and inject new life into it.
Let me continue here with the decline seen along the resort areas north of Mombasa, where low occupancies over the past years have eroded the financial foundation of many hotels and resorts, even though some were already aged and worn by the time the downturn began in late 2012. Many owners had persistently failed to modernize their resorts, upgrade or even ‘just’ refurbish them with some still having the same ‘entertainment’ templates in place I remember from the time I left Mombasa 26 years ago for Kampala.
The government owned Mombasa Beach Hotel is one such property where hopes were high a year and a half ago that things would change for the better but alas, this was not to be and the property remains in urgent need of a fundamental overhaul – as by the way do many others between the city of Mombasa along the north coast, over Nyali to Bamburi and Shanzu.
Thankfully has the Nyali Beach Hotel apparently come out of hibernation and work to refurbish and renovate has, as directly witnessed, gathered pace. This is a sign that the owners, Sun Africa Hotels, have hope for better days ahead and want to bring the resort back to the shine it had in the old days, when it was the arguably finest hotel north of Mombasa.
Equally is the sister property Sun Africa Resort seeing some overdue work unfold, while next door to it the Voyager has kept up with times, largely initiated when my good friend Mohammed Hersi was CEO of Heritage Hotels.
Yet other resorts have not kept up with the times and low and even no occupancies outside peak demand periods tell the story that local and overseas clients only go there if no other, more preferred and ‘better looking‘ hotel, is available.
The Serena Beach Hotel is one such example how owners continue to put money back into a beach property by constantly upgrading and innovating, but there are too few of those to give an unqualified thumbs up for the hospitality industry as a whole.
A more recent addition to the coastal scene, Pride Inns, has bucked the trend though and captured in particular the local conference market and their properties in Nyali but especially those in Shanzu, have shown that there is a way to be successful. Not only has the Pride Inn Paradise stood out with consistently high occupancies but the company has taken a quantum leap by buying the former Flamingo Beach Hotel, renaming it initially the Flamingo by Pride Inn, then embarking on a major refurbishment of rooms and public areas before more recently rebranding it at Pride Inn Flamingo.
Within walking distance across the beach to sister property Pride Inn Paradise will the two be a formidable force for the conference market in Mombasa and it is little surprise that SKAL International will hold their first ever world congress in Kenya at these resorts.
Pride and other beach resorts – again notably led by Serena – were swift in offering package deals using the ‘Madaraka Express‘ putting up conference packages including transfers from and to the Mombasa Terminus but also of course for purely leisure trips over long weekends. Serena in fact offers this in combination with a stop at Mtito Andei and a visit to their Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge in Tsavo West, making the rail journey to park and beach even more rewarding.
Low fare airlines have also latched on to the Mombasa resort market by offering packages from both JKIA and Wilson airports for Kenyan and East African residents at preferential tariffs, giving travelers more options where to go and how to get there.
The resorts which have persistently ploughed money back into their properties will no doubt be in pole position as are those with superior marketing ploys such as earning loyalty points which can for later visits be turned into meaningful value additions for one’s stay.
It remains to be seen how forceful this year’s Magical Kenya Travel Expo push for Destination Mombasa and Destination Kenya Coast will be and stock will be taken once Kenya’s premier international travel trade show has been concluded.
Of added concern is the encroachment of the beaches, not just in the vicinity of Mombasa but also further down the coast.
A new resort development dubbed ‘Weston Mombasa‘ by sources from the coast is under investigation for breaching NEMA regulations, building too close to the shores but going by reported incidents with media personnel being beaten up by construction site security is it now anyone’s guess if threats made by the local governor that illegal structures will be demolished will be turned into action or if influence peddling will carry the day. Elsewhere have recently erected and enlarged ocean walls drawn irate criticism, especially where they directly lead to the erosion of the beaches of neighbouring resorts, and again will only time tell if such illegal structures will be demolished – similar to the ongoing demolitions in Nairobi – or if impunity will prevail. Rising ocean levels will in any case over the coming decades prove mightier than rocks, steel and concrete going by examples seen elsewhere around the globe.
Make no mistake though, international travelers are more and more aware of such situations as the modern day encyclopedia called Google gives those keen on green practices and best environmental behaviour in a destination this information on a screen sized platter. Potential visitors will pick up such news and information and more often than not base their decisions where to travel to on the full Monty of information they gather, not just the resort, its services and rating itself.
Kenya, in average just 8 or 9 flying hours from Europe gives vacationers excellent value for money when they go on safari out of Nairobi but to have them fly directly to the coast will take a concerted effort to remove aviation regulatory hurdles to accomplish that.
Kenya is also just five hours flight from the Gulf where baking temperatures in summer see those who can afford it – and there are plenty – seeking the cooler temperatures of East Africa and in this case of Kenya, her beaches and the safari parks.
The state of coastal infrastructure is improving but far from satisfactory with roads, bridges, the supply of fresh water and linking resorts to sewerage systems high on the agenda of the hospitality industry according to those spoken with while at the coast.
Also long overdue is a national convention centre at the coast and the gap has been filled by the likes of Pride Inn, though local tourism sources continue to lobby for a national facility similar to the KICC in Nairobi. To fill it though, just like with hotels and resorts, will more flights be needed to Mombasa, a challenge to which the powers that be need to find a solution, and fast.
Kenya is generally seen as giving very good value for money and when customs and immigration officials finally fall in line with a friendlier attitude towards the ‘wagenis‘, what reason should there be for travelers not to give Kenya the thumbs up once again.
Award winning beaches, be they found in Diani and further south or north of Mombasa, in Nyali, Shanzu, Kilifi, Watamu, Malindi or in Lamu, deserve tourist traffic and in summary this article should help to put things into proper perspective and perhaps trigger a renewed debate, first within the private sector and then with the public sector once a position has been agreed, to find innovative solutions and take hard decisions – for the many reasons already known to ATCNews readers but mostly because the Kenya coast tourism industry deserves a revival and unqualified support from their government and related agencies.
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.