Travel Weekly's Kenneth Kiesnoski is visiting Kenya. Read his first dispatch here; his second dispatch follows.
NAIROBI — Just back from a severely unplugged, laptop- and smartphone-free three days of safari in and near Kenya's national parks, I've only now gotten a chance to read Travel Weekly's April 5 online item about the updated U.S. State Department travel warning on this country — and I don't recognize the place Washington is warning me about.
The trouble with these government advisories and warnings is that they are — perhaps out of legal and/or political necessity — overly broad and overwhelmingly cautious blanket statements that simply do not jibe with the on-the-ground experience of U.S. tourists visiting the city or country concerned.
I read of "heightened threats from terrorism," "thousands of people — pour[ing] across Kenya's porous borders each week" and violent crimes happening "at any time and in any location."
Also mentioned: a fatal March 10 Islamist grenade attack in Nairobi that killed nine, one in a "string" of such unfortunate happenings here and in coastal Mombasa and last fall's kidnappings of two European Union nationals by Somali terrorists on the resort island of Lamu.
Kenyan authorities are, according to the U.S. warning, unable to deter or investigate any or all of the above. A pretty grim diagnosis at first read, as well as a likely deterrent for some potential American tourists considering a Kenyan vacation.
I won't dispute the facts and events asserted in the warning, no doubt compiled and analyzed with the assistance of the staff at the huge U.S. embassy here near my hotel. Where I would differ is in arguing that they really have any practical impact on the average visitor experience in Kenya.
In addition to its alleged inability to address violence within its borders, it would seem Kenya — half a world away from Washington and light years from global political and economic heavyweight status — is also unable to swing a more detailed and accurate security assessment (from a tourism standpoint) for itself.
Witness how highly specific, in contrast, the State Department has become in its latest travel warnings for neighboring Mexico, where a blanket, countrywide warning has been replaced with a highly detailed document drilling down to specific stretches of highway to be avoided. (View a graphic explaining the Mexico warnings here.)
Hosting a fraction of Mexico's annual U.S. arrivals, Kenya, unfortunately, just doesn't warrant the same attention to detail. But if it did, I reckon the areas of concern highlighted would barely figure in any Western vacationer's Kenyan itinerary.
Most Britons and Americans — Kenya's two largest groups of leisure visitors, respectively — fly into Nairobi and perhaps stay one night, if that long, at a secure city center hotel before boarding a domestic flight to a national park for their safari.
My itinerary is unusual in that I've bookended a three-night safari with two nights before and after in Nairobi, where I'm warned to avoid mass political gatherings. But after my first two violence-free nights here in the Kenyan capital, I, like most of my fellow safari-bound Americans, headed to Nairobi's domestic Wilson Airport for a flight to the bush. I boarded a 30-minute Safarilink flight to Nanyuki and the nearby Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where Gamewatchers Safaris runs its Porini Rhino Camp. (Porini means "in the wilds" in Swahili.)
If I had any State Department-generated security fears about abandoning my tony, policed hotel digs for the wild, wild east of Africa, they were quickly subsumed under more practical (though misplaced) concerns about flying aboard a one-engine, 13-passenger puddle-jumper.
By the time I was greeted at Nanyuki Airfield by Gamewatchers driver Andrew and game spotter Benjamin, and then set out on a game drive to and through spectacular Ol Pejeta, all safety concerns were completely forgotten.
This felt no different than my safari last year in comparatively well-off, and warning-free, Botswana. Apart, that is, from the unique approach taken by Gamewatchers Safaris and its Porini Camps, to which I duly turned all of my attention. The firm operates four intimate, eco-sensitive and impermanent safari camps on private "conservancies" — or wildlife and nature preserves — that it's established on territory, mainly former grazing lands, leased from local owners. Most of them belong to the Maasai tribe.
The conservancies border some of Kenya's most popular national parks for safari vacations and were founded to address the problems the parks' popularity with foreign visitors can generate. Heavy tourist traffic into the parks often drove wildlife onto neighboring private lands used by Maasai herders for grazing, bringing humans and wild game into frequent conflict.
Gamewatchers Safaris contracted with local landowners to set aside, depopulate and rent out tens of thousands of acres adjacent to the most popular parks. Game began to return in droves.
Wildlife now has new refuges from both overly touristed national parks and angry landholders. What's more, clients staying in the small (six- to 10-tent, 12- to 20-person) yet upscale camps that Gamewatchers operates in each conservancy enjoy exclusive access to that wildlife, as well as usually unheard-of perks such as off-road and nighttime game drives.
Even better, many local Maasai earn extra income working at the camps. They make excellent and engaging guides, bringing hundreds of years of familiarity with local flora, fauna and landscape to bear on the visitor experience.
I experienced this firsthand: During my 24-hour stay at the Porini Lion Camp, on the Olare Orok Conservancy near the Maasai Mara National Reserve, my driver Keteri and game-spotter Jackson, both traditionally garbed Maasai, amazed me by consistently tracking down even the most elusive game, from lions and cheetahs to hippos, hyenas and aardwolves.
The jovial pair even, somehow, spotted the gold standard of safari sightings for me: the legendarily elusive, much sought-after leopard. Perched high in a tree with a fresh kill. Accompanied by her cub. In a dark, driving rainstorm, no less. I was floored — and thrilled. Keteri and Jackson seemed just as thrilled for me.
Crawling into my cozy bed each night in my expansive, plush and solar-powered tent after a day of exciting game drives, excellent dining and heartfelt fellowship at each camp, I wondered why on Earth anyone would be warned away from this experience. After all, I was hundreds of miles from any political rally or Somali pirate raid, among friendly, law-abiding and competent Kenyans.
My feelings were echoed by my fellow safari-goers, nearly half of whom were Americans, at the three Porini Camps I visited.
Married couple Alex Robinson and Alison Fraser, from Alexandria, Va., were on their first visit to Kenya. I spoke with them over fireside drinks at the Porini Mara Camp, in the Ol Kinyei Conservancy, with Gamewatchers commercial director Mohanjeet Brar. They had not been put off by the State Department warning when planning their eight-day sojourn here.
"Anytime, anywhere you travel, there is a certain amount of risk," Robinson said. "As long as we're not hearing about major conflicts or terrorist attacks happening everywhere all over a country, we're willing to assume a little risk in order to have a unique experience."
For his part, Brar — a fourth-generation Kenyan admittedly in the business of spurring foreign leisure travel to the country — got personal. "I'm also a family man with a 23-month-old boy, and I wouldn't keep my family somewhere that's not safe," he said.
Brar noted that, politically, Kenya has been one of the most stable countries in Africa. Thus, the post-election ethnic violence seen in 2007, which depressed arrivals, "came as quite a shock."
"But during that time not one tourist was hurt or targeted," he said. "We're quite optimistic about the future; we believe tourism is and will be one of the key pillars of the country. And Kenyans realize that without security, you're not going to have tourism, so it's something we're taking quite seriously."
For destination news and updates worldwide, follow Ken Kiesnoski on Twitter @kktravelweekly.