Kenya tourists safe, sound and staying put

By David Cogswell and Michael Milligan

NEW YORK -- When a terrorist bomb exploded near Mombasa, Kenya, recently, Dennis Pinto, managing director of Micato Safaris was in the city along with some 500 people, mostly Europeans, about to embark on several of his tours.

Another 700 guests already were on safari in the game parks, he said. But none was in harm's way.

"One of the things we did was ensure there was a security presence with all of our groups, and the government reacted very well on that front," said Pinto, a native Kenyan who returned to New York last week. "We didn't have a single person opt to come home."

Many travelers displayed a similar reaction, according to tour operators and agents contacted by Travel Weekly.

At Big Five Tours, Sunit Sanghrajka, director of Africa operations, said, "When I received the news I was shaking my head, saying, 'Oh no, here we go again. Just when things were looking good for 2003.'

"We were expecting heavy call volume from worried customers canceling, but it's rather surprising. We had put together a statement saying that if customers had any reservations about Mombasa, we would re-route them. But we have not had to do that."

Maisa Fernandez, a market development representative of the Kenya Tourist Board, said, "At this point we don't have any drastic cancellations -- on average about a 10% cancellation rate. We haven't seen people flocking out of Kenya.

"Of the people who are already traveling, most are staying."

On Nov. 28, suicide bombers detonated a car bomb outside the Paradise Hotel, an Israeli-owned resort in Kikambala, about 25 miles north of Mombasa, killing 16 people.

Soon after, an attempt was made to shoot down an Israeli charter flight with a handheld missile launcher as it departed Mombasa.

The incidents spurred the State Department to issue an alert that urged U.S. citizens visiting Kenya, where terrorists bombed the U.S. embassy in 1998, to "remain vigilant, particularly in public places frequented by foreigners, such as hotels and shopping malls."

But George Morgan-Grenville, president of Abercrombie & Kent, which had "minimal" cancellations, said the events in Mombasa have little to do with safari country.

He said, "It's highly unlikely such a thing could happen in the bush circuit."

Maggie Maranga, African Travel's regional sales manager for the northeast U.S., agreed, noting that "most Americans don't go to Mombasa."

"That kind of hotel is a very local kind of hotel, not one of the hotels we would have featured," she said. "It's so unlikely that an American would be there. At the kind of high-end hotels we use, that car wouldn't get through the gates."

"If things are calm [for] a couple of months, I think it will be fine," said a spokeswoman from Tauck World Discovery, which had no cancellations.

"People understand that it is not the natives targeting tourists," said Albert Anson, vice president of agent sales for Park East Tours.

Agents report mixed results. Some who had clients booked for the near future have seen a few cancellations.

Allen Mitchem, general manager of 5th Avenue Travel Center in Hendersonville, N.C., had a group booked for January and "every person called."

Some shifted their bookings to southern Africa, where they could fly nonstop from Atlanta. Mitchem said he thinks the incident brought to mind the embassy bombing of a few years ago.

"You can overcome a lot of doubts and questions," said Mitchem, "but overcoming fear is almost impossible. Hand- held missiles, that's pretty scary."

Some agents remain optimistic.

"The [Kenyan] people are very friendly and receptive. The infrastructure for tourism is excellent," said Carol Gussinger, owner and manager of Linger Travel in Grand Rapids, Mich., who recently returned from a 10-day, Kenya familiarization safari sponsored by Park East.

She expects to send a group to Kenya, possibly in June.

Robin Kalahorz, manager of Las Vegas-based Pretravel International in Las Vegas, was on the same fam trip with Gussinger.

Kalahorz said she would not hesitate to sell Kenya.

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