In Kenya, turmoil kept at a distance
By Kenneth Kiesnoski
NAIROBI -- The Kenyan capital is, in many ways, the stereotypical Third World metropolis that Americans might imagine: lots of traffic, reportedly lots of crime, some litter, frequent power outages and occasional political unrest.
But after a week spent here and on safari in three private conservancies near national parks several hours to the north and west of Nairobi, I didn't recognize the country that the renewed and updated U.S. State Department travel warning on Kenya, released on April 4, warned me about.
On guided tours of Nairobi's bustling streets and visitor attractions; at my more serene accommodations here, at upscale boutique property Tribe; and at three of four Porini Camps run by Gamewatchers Safaris in the Kenyan bush, I felt completely at ease and safe. I met U.S. and British tourists, as well as other Western visitors, who claimed to feel the same. (View a slideshow from Keisnoski's safari trip here
London-based research firm Business Monitor International on March 13 forecasted a "cautious" 4.7% growth rate for Kenyan arrivals this year, due to bad publicity in the wake of cross-border attacks by Somalia-based terror group al-Shabab. But it added that safari holidays, Kenya's bread and butter, "which take place much further inside Kenya ... should be relatively unaffected."
That jibed with my experience at the Porini Camps, where guests still hailed overwhelmingly from both Britain and the States, long Kenya's top two source markets, despite travel warnings from both of those countries' governments.
Porini Rhino Camp manager Mathew Ngugi told me over dinner that he has indeed noted a drop in overall visitors of late, which he attributed to international warnings.
He decried that state of affairs, given that "terrorism is a worldwide problem, and we try to fight it off as much as possible."
But fellow Rhino Camp guest Peter Dixon of Newcastle, England, on holiday with his wife, Hannah, called Britain's Kenya warning "incidental," as "the whole world's on a warning."
"So what's the difference in coming here?" Dixon asked. "The way we've been taken care of, we've had nothing to worry about."
I concurred. My time with Gamewatchers in Kenya felt no different than my safari last year in comparatively well-off, and warning-free, Botswana.
Married couple Alex Robinson and Alison Fraser of Alexandria, Va., were on their first visit to Kenya. At the Porini Mara Camp, Robinson said that "anytime, anywhere you travel, there is a certain amount of risk. We're willing to assume a little risk in order to have a unique experience."
At the same camp, Gamewatchers and Porini commercial director Mohanjeet Brar admitted, over fireside drinks, that he's in the business of spurring foreign leisure travel to Kenya. But he added that as "a family man with a 23-month-old boy," he wouldn't keep his own family "somewhere that's not safe."
When I returned from safari for a final two days in Nairobi, I decided to tour the city, while following State Department advice to take "common-sense precautions" such as using well-marked taxis, carrying small amounts of cash and being aware of my surroundings.
The concierge staff at Tribe arranged a full-day guided tour of Nairobi's highlights by private taxi with a driver/guide. (For more on Tribe, click here
). From the newly renovated Nairobi National Museum to the popular Giraffe Center, run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, I encountered tight security and well-mannered, law-abiding crowds.
A roadside encounter with local youths, which, thanks to the warning, I first feared might be a shakedown for cash, turned out to be a jovial exchange about my upper-arm dragon tattoo.
Mark Somen, general manager of the Tribe Hotel and a native Kenyan back in Nairobi after decades abroad, said some Americans may conflate the city with places such as Lagos, Nigeria, and Johannesburg but that it's the capital of a "beautiful country," is filled with people who "love to deliver excellent service" and has developed "tremendously" in the last five years.
Somen advised ditching the standard leisure visit model where visitors fly into Nairobi and spend just one night before and after a safari. "Spend two or three nights here," he said. "There are amazing underground music, literary and art scenes."
He did offer one caveat, however. "There are many interesting things to see and do in Nairobi, but no, you wouldn't arrive and just go wandering around alone as you might in New York."