Fear is a four-letter word
In his media keynote address, Peter Greenberg, travel editor for CBS News, cited Kenya's 6% growth rate, visa waits dropping to three days (they can now be obtained online) and Kenya's percentage of tourism-associated domestic product exceeding that of South Africa. But larger events cast their shadow. "Instability," he said, "leads to the worst four-letter word in travel: fear."
After a business meeting, I visited Westgate Mall. The four-story manifestation of a Kenyan upper-middle-class home resembled what you'd find in many American suburbs. Banners celebrated "Nairobi's Premier Shopping Mall," and a photo of a happy family on several of them was captioned "Kenya Is Our Pride: The Future Is Our Destiny." Still, foot traffic was sparse.
On a September day in 2013, gunmen, likely associated with the Al-Shabaab terror movement, massacred 67 people here. It was one of several acts of political violence that have afflicted Kenya, from the U.S. embassy bombing of 1998 to an Al-Shabaab attack that killed almost 150 at a college last April.
Responses have been vigorous. Security guards deploy mirrors to inspect under vans; hotel entrances have metal detectors. It's starting to pay off: A 2014 State Department advisory concerning U.S. government personnel traveling to Mombasa was largely lifted this August.
"We cannot deny terrorism-related events," managing director Muriithi Ndegwa said in a side meeting at the Kenya Tourism Board. "We can confidently say that we have invested a lot in the security and safety of the people and those who visit. It has tapered off."
In fact, more warnings were voiced about taking shortcuts through parks or wandering around at night than about jihadist attacks. No travelers were lost during the course of the conference.
At the gathering, calls emerged for counter-narratives to rebut such confused Western perceptions as Ebola being a continent-wide pandemic rather than a West African outbreak.
"The agent, people, media should take ownership of perception," said Roger Kacou, minister of tourism for Cote d'Ivoire. "If we leave it to Western media, we have no chance."
Belise Kariza, the Rwanda Development Board's chief tourism officer, took a softer tone: "If we have a strong brand equity, we could fight without making a lot of noise or blaming Western media." Rwanda is going beyond that country's justifiably famous gorilla visits to promote diaspora returns, sports and culture.
The conference's final presenter, Guido van Garderen, senior strategist with South Africa's Interbrand Sampson de Villiers, smartly contrasted Africa's amorphous branding with France's focused associations. The next day, his talk was overtaken by a grim global reality: mass murders not in Nairobi but in Paris.
From potential to reality
"We need to stop talking about the potential of Africa and make that a reality now," Ruto said, citing issues from transport to hotel construction.
There's work to do for that to happen. While 14% of the world's population lives in Africa, airlift share is just 3%. High operating costs reduce net profit per passenger to a fraction of what it is elsewhere. And while a rising business class and some local tourism exist in Africa, intra-continent fares can rival an intercontinental ticket's price.
Nevertheless, Ron Mracky, managing director of Africa Consult Group, said that Africa can compete with cruises and big-ticket consumer purchases because it is "unique and innovative." During and after his module titled, "The U.S. Africa Travel Market," Mracky named the Los Angeles/Southern California area as the top departure point for Kenya trips, followed by New York, Texas, Chicago and Vancouver/Seattle.
"California travelers have gumption," the L.A.-based Mracky said. "And in California, everyone's an immigrant."
Distance and cost suggest an older travel constituency with both money and time. Since there's no Concorde to shrink a day-plus in the air from the U.S., Mracky suggested that agents consider adding two or three travel days to African itineraries. Even with a nonstop from the U.S. becoming a possibility, airlines could consider a free stopover.
Within Kenya, help might be on the way. The Air Kenya flights we took between destinations featured competent and cordial crews and even a dash of air-pioneer romance when landing on semi-wilderness (but safe) airstrips.
Moreover, aviation upgrades are occurring countrywide. A new Nairobi international airport, scheduled for completion in late 2017, promises better capacity, service, online access and payment systems. Near Lake Victoria, the Kisumu airport can now handle 747s, affording an international gateway to Africa's interior. Along the south coast, the Malindi airport, nicknamed "Little Milano" for its Italian visitors, is also being upgraded. An East Africa visa is now available for Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, and there's talk of extending the Borderless Borders program.
Yet, it's "a crying shame [that] we still have a challenge" on intra-Africa visits, said Mbuvi Ngunze, CEO of Kenya Airways. Kenya, he said, could become the regional hub, linking landlocked neighbors. Other speakers described opportunities to attract non-Western tourists.
That said, road transportation requires Zen-like patience. Nairobi is Gridlock Central, and it took five hours each way to spend three hours at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy and its Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary. At least I bought a nice mask at a roadside stop.