The first few weeks of 2008 were tough on Kenya. After a disputed national election, parts of the country erupted in violence that led to some Kenyans losing their lives. A large number of families were displaced from their homes.
It is estimated that more than 200,000 tourism and associated sector employees have been laid off or had their salaries cut. This means that more than 2 million people have indirectly been affected economically.
On Feb. 28, both parties agreed to share in governing the country. This historic power-sharing deal and the swearing-in of a Grand Coalition Cabinet restored peace and calm across Kenya. The new government has affirmed its commitment to re-establishing Kenya as one of Africa's most stable and economically successful nations.
Kenya is rebuilding, repairing ties across neighborhoods, tribes and regions. Prime Minister Raila Odinga has apologized to the tourism industry for the harm the protracted electoral dispute caused this very important sector.
This is where we in the travel industry can help. The rainy season will end this month, and the country is primed for new bookings. For our colleagues in tourism, bookings for the remainder of 2008 will be crucial to getting back to work, feeding their families and meeting their financial obligations.
Forces are gathering to help Kenyans regain their rightful place in safari tourism. The Kenya Tourist Board has launched a campaign with the theme "I am the original home of the Safari. I am Kenya." U.S. tour operators are sending the same message to all who contact them: Kenya is a safe and desirable safari destination.
Even the U.S. government is involved. An unprecedented letter from Ambassador Michael E. Ranneberger on April 23 encouraged Americans to visit and invest in Kenya.
"The U.S. recently pledged an additional $25 million in new assistance to help in the reconciliation and reconstruction efforts," Ranneberger wrote. "I hope you'll consider visiting Kenya as a tourist or businessperson in 2008. The country is very much back in business, and this is an exciting time to be here. There is a tangible spirit of renewed hope and opportunity. You'll find Kenyans to be welcoming and warm. I hope to see you here soon!"
The party invitations are going out; will we send the guests?
We sellers of travel can do more than passively support clients who inquire about travel to Kenya. We can actively encourage our Africa-bound travelers to consider this prime safari destination.
The problems in Kenya were political and did not reflect the feelings of locals toward visitors. Kenyans have always welcomed visitors with open hearts and warm smiles. All who travel to this country return home with fond stories of guides, drivers and locals offering a quick laugh, a story and genuine hospitality.
Like no other time in recent years, we who have enjoyed Kenyan safaris can repay this friendliness with a steady flow of visitors to a country whose population depends on tourism.
If potential travelers need reminding of the wonders of Kenya, here are my top 10 reasons why clients should visit this year.
- Sometime in late July, 1.5 million wildebeests and zebras will enter the Masai Mara for several months. Seeing the migration from a hot-air balloon is unforgettable.
- Samburu, Amboseli and the Mara have the large elephant herds that offer hope this species has a place in our world.
- Samburu offers the gerenuk gazelle, a world-class oddity one has to see to believe.
- Families love Kenya, and Kenyans love kids. So if you want to take children to Africa, Kenya is the place to visit.
- Kenya has new, luxurious, boutique tented camps that make one feel like they are surrounded by Africa, rather than by a lodge full of tourists.
- Mobile camping is the best way to experience the bush, and Kenya offers several stunning locations.
- Special elements like small-plane charters, helicopter flights, golfing and visits with notable experts cost a fraction of what they cost elsewhere.
- Kenya can be easily combined with either Tanzania or Uganda (gorilla tracking) for an even more unforgettable experience.
- Kenya offers the best value for one's tourism dollar in Africa: plains full of game, English-speaking locals, a variety of accommodations, wonderful climate and an easy country to get around.
- The recent slowdown in tourism is only temporary. If you ever wanted to see the Mara or Samburu with fewer tourists, this is the year to visit.
As luck would have it, the Abercrombie & Kent sales team held our January meeting on safari in Kenya and Tanzania. We were there during some of the worst of the unrest, moving through both Jomo Kenyatta and Wilson Airports four times. At no time were we in any danger, nor did we see any protests, riots or street demonstrations. We could not have said there was unrest until we watched CNN at the Norfolk Hotel. Our plans were not changed, nor our itinerary altered. If there was no reason to avoid the country in January, there is certainly no reason to stay away now.
For all our colleagues in the tourism industry in Kenya, this is my attempt to set the record straight here at home. Americans are prone to remember images on the evening news, when in fact what is shown represents a small fraction of the reality.
Let us extend the hand of friendship to our colleagues in Kenya by sending our guests into their friendly, welcoming care. We will be profusely thanked by these fortunate visitors to a country that continues to offer the magic of spectacular safaris.
The party is starting, the large cats are chasing the grass eaters, the campfires are set, the sundowners are poured, the open sky is vast, the sunsets are spectacular and the country is ready to welcome visitors with a hearty "Jambo."
Cynthia Reed is sales director for Abercrombie& Kent.