Travel Weekly reporter Michelle Baran has embarked on a 10-day trip to Kenya, to report on how recent violence in the country is affecting tourism. She will spend some time in Nairobi speaking to tourism officials before going on safari.
Day 4, Nairobi to Samburu: "We want to say 'Karibuni Kenya' (Welcome to Kenya) and thank you for choosing our country as part of your itinerary. Your visit is particularly re-assuring as it underlines the fact that despite the political turbulence experienced in our country last month, Kenya remains a preferred destination."
Those were the words of Rebecca Nabutola, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Tourism & Wildlife, who addressed our group at a welcome dinner hosted by the Kenya Tourist Board.
Nabutola's presence at the dinner underscored the critical state in which Kenya's tourism industry finds itself and the challenges that lie ahead. Her gratitude communicated a deeper need for more people to visit Kenya in spite of the images of violence and unrest and in the face of ongoing travel advisories issued by the U.S. and European governments.
Despite the resolve of my traveling companions, Big Five's touring veterinarian group, the reality for Kenya's once-booming tourism sector is grim. In recent years, Kenya tourism had been raking in approximately $1 billion annually. Now the Kenya Tourist Board and the Kenya Tourism Federation are predicting an industry-wide decline of between $85 million and $142 million in the first quarter of 2008.
Hotels have been operating at 10% to 15% capacity during the crisis, according to Ongong'a Achieng, managing director of the Kenya Tourist Board. He estimates that close to 20,000 jobs directly related to tourism have been lost. In the coastal city of Mombasa, hardest-hit by the crisis because European tourists were staying away because of their governments' advisories against non-essential travel to Kenya, around 10% of the hotels have closed, Achieng estimated.
"And then we have the image issue," Achieng said, conducting an interview from inside a car winding through Nairobi's busy streets. "Of course, with the news coverage of Kenya, most people think all of Kenya is burning."
Achieng was busy running off to make a presentation to the Kenyan government to request funding for a recovery plan. The Kenya Tourist Board has established a crisis-management team, working closely with the Kenya Tourism Federation, which represents the private sector. Once it has a marketing budget in place, the Kenya Tourist Board hopes to launch its new recovery campaign at the ITB Berlin conference in April.
"We are very optimistic that your visit will be an eye-opener, and that you will be Kenya's goodwill ambassadors who will present the true image of this country to your fellow citizens back home," Nabutola said.
The veterinarians paused, perhaps suddenly realizing just what trailblazers they were. They had come here to expand their knowledge and awareness of the animal kingdom, but fate had turned them into poster children for rebuilding Kenya's tourism industry.
To contact reporter Michelle Baran, send e-mail to [email protected].