Travel Weekly reporter Michelle Baran is in the midst of a 10-day trip to Kenya, to report on how recent violence in the country is affecting tourism. She spent some time in Nairobi speaking to tourism officials and is now on safari.
Day 8, Masai Mara National Reserve: Among the benefits of being a tourist in a country in crisis are the sudden perks and added value along the way. Not a soul was complaining when Big Five arranged for us to fly to Masai Mara from Nairobi, upgrading the usually scheduled five-hour drive on rough roads to a 30-minute flight with Safarilink.
Our drivers did undertake the longer journey, speeding ahead to meet us in Masai Mara. I was told that new drivers could have been hired, but that Big Five felt it was important for us to have our tried-and-true crew. Though driving to Masai Mara ahead of time was a bit tough on them, I'm glad they did it, because you form a bond with your driver/tour director/last line of defense against wildlife.
Had we gone along with the drivers, we would have motored through the scenic Rift Valley, an area that had seen some pockets of conflict. And though the drivers reported no violence along the road and recent news reports had indicated the area had calmed, Jacky Parmar, managing director of Big Five in Nairobi, said he wanted to play it safe. And since the itinerary had already been changed, it was too complicated to change it again.
Either way, the tour group benefited. We got to see the beautiful, mountainous ripples of the Rift Valley from above, enjoying a smooth flight in the quiet sky.
Now that we're in Masai Mara, it became clear to me why this part of the itinerary was saved for last. Between our charming Sarova Mara Game Camp canvas tent rooms, the amazing wildlife sightings (how often do you get to see a lion in the wild not more than two feet away?) and the colorful Maasai tribal culture (known for its high jumping and bright attire), any troubles seem far, far away.
Just today, members of the group asked me if I had any updates on the situation in Kenya, as if this Kenya place, the one in the news, was somewhere else entirely. I laughed and replied, "Guys, we're in Kenya!"
While on safari, you spend a lot of time looking and much less time finding. During the down time, talk inevitably turns to politics in Kenya and America.
For the most part, the Kenyans with whom I've spoken are optimistic about the future of their country, but some are less hopeful. Some blame President Mwai Kibaki for the current crisis, and others blame opposition leader Raila Odinga. Some blame the British, and others say this was a long time coming.
Whoever is to blame, the tourism sector is working overtime to make up for the losses it has already suffered. But this week's negotiation stalemate cannot have been overly reassuring for anyone reading and watching Kenya's progress, hoping for a quick and successful resolution to the current dispute.
On Wednesday, the headline for the lead story in one of the country's main English-language newspapers, Daily Nation, read "ODM threatens renewal protests." The Reuters news agency also reported on Wednesday that the opposition party, Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), led by Odinga, set a one-week deadline for constitutional changes before it will resume peaceful mass action.
Apparently, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit, coupled with former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's ongoing mediation efforts, could not speed along an agreement.
The news came a day after Kenya Airways announced it was suspending service to France because of a sharp decline in bookings, as reported by the news agency Agence France-Presse. Kenya Airways said the route would continue only after France lifted its travel advisory against Kenya, and that the suspension is effective Feb. 26.
The grappling and griping between politicians and business leaders, nationally and internationally, could continue for months on end. As far as tourists are concerned, as long as the violence has ceased, all the rest is rhetoric. Yes, they are curious, and some try harder than others to understand what is going on. But what they really care about is having a fun, worry-free vacation. These people came here to see lions, rhinos and a culture vastly different from theirs. They didn't come to see a coup.
Interestingly, America's own current political climate is a subject very near and dear to Kenyans. They have been grilling us about whether Sen. Barack Obama has a chance at the U.S. presidency. Obama's late father was from Kogelo in Western Kenya, and was a Luo. Kenyans' love affair with the presidential candidate blossomed when Obama came to visit Kenya in August 2006.
The more serious Obama groupies have even gone so far as to ask about the super-delegates and how our primaries work, hoping to crunch some numbers on the probability of having a Kenyan descendent in the White House. I gave up trying to explain it. Quite frankly, I'm not sure whether Kenya, a country of 42 tribes and more than 300 political parties, is any more or less complicated than ours.
To contact reporter Michelle Baran, send e-mail to [email protected].