Lessons from Kenya

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Thankfully, the crisis in Kenya appears to have come to an end. Violent incidents have ceased. Daily life in Nairobi and other cities is back to normal.

And Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations, persuaded both sides in the political crisis to consent to a power-sharing agreement, the final step in getting the nation back to its peaceful and prosperous self. 

During the last two months, it has pained me to see travelers question whether Kenya is safe to visit or whether they'll have an enjoyable experience there. 

The sad truth is that destinations that end up on Page 1 of the New York Times or suffer incidents that loop endlessly on CNN are punished by travelers long after any danger has passed. This problem recently affected tourism in Kenya. In 2004 and 2005, it affected Phuket, Thailand, after the tsunami. Before that, it affected New York after 9/11.

It still affects New Orleans, more than two years after Hurricane Katrina, even though the tourist spots in that city were up and running only months after the storm passed.

As a result of these events, residents who depend on tourism are hit hard exactly when they need help the most. Of course, given how many travel options are available, it's understandable for media outlets and travel agents to recommend destinations that are not in the news. But given that Travel Weekly's readers are experts in the industry, they are in a unique position to provide well-informed advice to potentially help destinations recovering from a case of "bad news."

Here are some questions I would ask to see whether your clients are really at risk:

Has the area of the country my clients would be visiting been affected? There may be some issues in a country, but it's important to take note of whether they are limited in geographic scale. For example, if there was unrest in Los Angeles, you certainly wouldn't advise people against travel to Chicago.

In the case of Kenya, violent incidents were limited to a few outlying areas of major cities. The country is about the size of France.

Are current visitors there experiencing any inconveniences or danger? Nations sometimes go through periods of civil unrest, but in the countries that depend heavily on tourism, citizens often know what side their bread is buttered on. Tourists and locations that cater to tourists are often left alone because the industry is a major source of the citizenry's livelihood. 

In the case of Kenya, more than 40,000 travelers were visiting the country at the time the turmoil began, and not one was injured or even inconvenienced in any way.  In fact, you may have read Travel Weekly reporter Michelle Baran's articles on TravelWeekly.com regarding her 10-day safari in Kenya. In her last dispatch, she reported that although she initially had reservations about going, based on what was shown on the news, she was relieved and grateful that she had taken this "trip of a lifetime."

Incidentally, those exact words -- trip of a lifetime -- have been used by our own guests recently returned from Kenya.

Are the news outlets presenting a complete picture of the situation? Shocking scenes and captivating headlines sell newspapers, and sometimes the press can make a situation appear much worse than it really is.

So, do a little research to see what conditions are really like in that country. Of course, check out the U.S. State Department's travel advisories (www.travel.state.gov) but consider other countries' views of the situation as well. You can refer to other government Web sites, such as the British Foreign Commonwealth Office (www.fco.gov.uk).

Have conditions improved dramatically, and does the country appear to be headed toward normalcy? If it appears that an end to the trouble is in sight, it might be an ideal time to book a trip. In the case of Kenya, the recent resolution of the political crisis cemented a peace that had already returned to the streets. 

Since your clients will likely be planning their trips for the near future (as opposed to an immediate departure), things will most likely be business as usual by the time they travel.

In addition to the memorable trip you'll help create for your clients, you'll also be helping a country and its people recover from a difficult period. 

I'm sure that people in Phuket, New York and New Orleans would attest to the transformative power of a simple act: just visiting.

Dennis Pinto is the CEO of Micato Safaris, which specializes in African destinations.  Write to him at [email protected].

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