On the night before Barack Obama was sworn in as the nation's 44th president, offering the promise of change and hope in the midst of hard times, I sat in the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on Constitution Avenue, knee to knee with Najib Balala, Kenya's minister of tourism. Balala was in Washington explicitly to capitalize on the interest in the new president's Kenyan heritage and to kick off an ambitious marketing plan that's largely built on a foundation of change, hope and shards of hard times past.
The grand room we sat in was mostly quiet as waiters walked among scores of empty tables, straightening errantly angled knives and forks and ensuring water glasses were full. On the other side of the room's closed doors, mingling and drinking at a reception, was a mix of senators, representatives, leaders of nongovernmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, business executives (including the chairman of DuPont and the North American presidents of Toyota and Volkswagen), Hollywood stars Edward Norton and Robert Duvall and, perhaps in greatest numbers, lobbyists.
All had come to support the International Conservation Caucus Foundation by attending its pre-inaugural gala. The event would open with "The Star-Spangled Banner" performed by the Boys Choir of Kenya, courtesy of Balala.
I asked the minister how important the U.S. market was to Kenya. He thought for a moment, fiddling with his silver bow tie and adjusting his fashion-forward glasses before answering.
"In 2008, tourism was down 33% overall," he began. "But American arrivals were only off 28%. This market, the American market, recovered [from the violence following the Dec. 27, 2007, Kenyan presidential election] faster than any other. Without direct flights or charters. It's our No. 2 market, and it's very important to us."
Balala, who became tourism minister last April, has already scored an impressive victory: Less than a year after the election violence, he successfully courted Delta Air Lines to initiate four-times-a-week, direct service from Atlanta to Nairobi, beginning this June (direct, but not nonstop: It lands in Dakar, Senegal, en route).
Balala is also personally involved in working with tour operators to establish an "Obama route" in Kenya. Starting in Nairobi, the route will go through the Rift Valley to Naivasha, up into the highland tea plantations near Kericho and on to the Western Province and its primordial Kakamega Forest before heading to Kisumu on Lake Victoria. From there, a day's excursion can be made to Kogelo, President Obama's ancestral village.
Balala said he is working to make sure that the experience is a good one for visitors and residents alike. He has already facilitated the improvement of roads along the route, beefed up security in the area, made sure there is electricity and clean water along the way and taken action to provide better education for the children of the village, he said.
"Right now there is nothing to see but a humble house with two graves, one for [Obama's] father and one for his grandfather," he said. "Sarah Obama [the president's step-grandmother] lives there as well as some half-brothers. Tonight and tomorrow night, there will be a festival in honor of the inauguration. But we need to build permanent attractions."
The minister's plans include a heritage center, cultural center, a museum highlighting the links between Barack Obama and Kenya and a leadership center ("because, of course, his presidency is about inspiration"). He talked about his negotiations with the president's Kenyan relatives to ensure that they were supporters of the plans.
Balala's current visit to the U.S. includes a fact-finding component, he said. He plans to tailor specific messages for both the eastern and western U.S. He will invest significant sums in tourism promotion, with 50% toward mass media, 20% to support the Delta partnership and 30% for road shows, targeted campaigns and trade shows.
Later that night, Sunit Sanghrajka, president of Luxury Trips, a Florida-based high-end safari operator, told me that Balala is different from previous tourism ministers.
"I've seen a lot come and go," he said. "Some have been corrupt, and others just liked the trappings of the ministry but never did anything. He is different. He's a businessman to the core but understands conservation. He understands the attraction of low-density, higher-spend tourism. He's involving the private sector to work with the public sector. He's working to facilitate dialogue between the Masai [tribe] and tourism organizations. He's working to attract major Western hotel brands, even upscale brands. He gets it."
Based on my conversation with Balala, I would agree: He gets it. And hearing the minister of a developing country outline a sophisticated, detailed marketing plan for a country recently torn by political violence and strife seemed an appropriate complement to the mood of hope that permeates the capital and the nation.
I had looked forward to the gala, with its speeches, movie stars and celebratory mood. But in the end it was the conversation with Balala that was the highlight of the night. Although his plans have not yet played out in full, what he has accomplished and dared to dream in the 12 months that followed a catastrophic event for his nation is inspiring for our nation, as well. It demonstrates that thoughtful policy, planning and execution can ultimately give substance to the ethereal concept of hope.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].