Travel warning causes 'heavy losses' for Kenya


WASHINGTON -- It's not often that tourism is mentioned prominently during a state dinner at the White House.

But when the Bush administration hosted Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki during an official gathering recently, the leader of the East African country seized the opportunity to draw attention to a U.S. edict that has had a devastating impact on Kenya's tourism industry.

In an exchange of toasts with President Bush, Kibaki urged the administration to lift its travel warning for Kenya, which has been in effect since May 16.

"One of our economic pillars is tourism," Kibaki said. "Unfortunately, the sector has suffered ... heavy losses following the travel bans imposed by the U.S. I am, therefore, appealing for a lifting of the travel ban."

It was unclear what impact Kibaki's overture will have on the Bush administration. But what is clear is the impact the warning has had on Kenya's tourism, which, after agriculture, is the country's largest industry.

A lucrative market

The U.S. is Kenya's third-largest visitor market, behind the U.K. and Germany. It also is its most lucrative market.

U.S. travelers, who favor luxury safaris, spend three times more than their European counterparts, who generally view Kenya as a beach destination.

So it's significant that Tauck World Discovery canceled all of its Kenya tours for rest of 2003 and all of 2004. Instead, a Tauck spokeswoman said, the company is offering a Tanzania-only safari. Should the travel warning to Kenya stay in place, other operators might follow.

Tourism "is not our consideration when we are deciding to issue one of these warnings," said a spokesman for the State Department. "We are not out to damage a country's tourism. But neither are we there to encourage it if there is some kind of a potential security threat for U.S. citizens."

Nevertheless, Maisa Fernandez, the U.S. market director for the Kenya Tourism Board in Minneapolis, said, "The State Department warning on Kenya has really devastated the economy and the tourism trade there."

Fernandez estimates that the developing country's tourism industry is losing about $1 million each day the warning is in place.

"The [negative] effects don't just happen to people in the trade," she said, "but also to farmers who provide food and flowers to the hotels. This all trickles down through the entire economy."

The State Department warning came in the wake of terrorist attacks near Mombasa late last year, followed by an incident this spring in which terrorists launched a shoulder-fired missile at a commercial aircraft.

Warning signs

In the initial travel warning, the State Department advised U.S. citizens to defer visits to the country where "terrorism poses a continuing threat."

"Terrorist actions may include suicide operations, bombings or kidnappings," the department said. "U.S. citizens should be aware of the risk of indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets in public places, including tourist sites and locations where Westerners are known to congregate, as well as commercial operations associated with U.S. or Western interests."

It also permitted nonessential embassy personnel and the families to leave the country.

Other countries, such as Great Britain, also issued travel warnings about the same time as the U.S. British Airways even suspended flights into the country for a time.

But after Kenya took several measures to shore up its internal security, most countries removed their travel warnings.

Those measures were not enough to alter the State Department assessment. It renewed its warning for Kenya just days before Kibaki's White House visit. Nonessential embassy employees and their families, however, were allowed to return to Kenya.

Consequently, Kenya, once the premier destination for game-park safaris, now joins Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Liberia as places the U.S. government recommends that its citizens avoid.

"Our tourism numbers have dropped significantly since the warning was placed," Fernandez said. "We were up over 35% in the first quarter [compared with the previous year], even after the bombings in November. After the warning came out [in May], we plummeted to negative 6%."

Operators in middle

According to Fernandez, preliminary tourism numbers indicate operators selling Kenya and those providing ground operations in the country have lost 45% to 90% of their business this year.

John Galvin, chief financial officer for Collette Vacations, said that at the beginning of the year, "Advance bookings were pretty strong. But each warning took off a portion of the business. For a while we canceled programs and stopped operating. As the situation calmed down, we resumed operations.

"But there is no question that sales are definitely off from what we've seen a year ago and previous years. At this point, I would say we are close to 20% off for advance bookings."

Other operators, who also reported double-digit declines in bookings, said it is difficult, if not impossible, to market Kenya while the warning is in effect.

"It is a real challenge," said John Webley, vice president for Africa at Abercrombie & Kent. Webley, who grew up in Kenya, said, "There are a lot of people who are very keen on going to Kenya and Tanzania, but they are afraid. They have read too much negative publicity."

Some operators, such as Big Five Tours, try to make up for the lost U.S. business by selling to vacationers in Europe, Asia and India. But Sunit Sanghrajka, vice president of operations for Big Five, said those visitors can't fully replace Americans.

"What compels people to come to Kenya is the fact that the destination is safe," Sanghrajka said. "Until the travel warning is lifted, it will [continue to have] an incredible impact on Kenya."

An organized effort

That reality has spurred several top Kenya operators to do something they have never done before. They have formed a group, called the Coalition of Africa Tour Operators, to lobby the Bush administration and the State Department to lift the travel ban.

"We are lobbying as much as possible directly with the Ministry of Tourism in Kenya," Sanghrajka said. "We are encouraging them to put a lot of pressure on the U.S." and to find out exactly what Kenya needs to do to mitigate the State Department's concerns.

The operators said if something isn't done soon, Kenya's future as a tourism destination could be severely damaged.

But Fernandez is optimistic that Kenya, which has lost market share to Botswana and South Africa, could bounce back, possibly in 2005, should the U.S. lift the warning. In fact, the tourism office already has marketing plans on the drawing board in anticipation that soon will occur.

But should the warning stay in place, Fernandez fears many local hotels, land operators and other companies that depend on the U.S. tourism trade will be forced to shut down.

Kenya "will be looking at a very grave situation," she said.

To contact reporter Michael Milligan, send e-mail to [email protected].

Israel seeks change to ruling

WASHINGTON -- During a recent visit to the U.S., Benny Elon, Israel's minister of tourism, couldn't contain his disappointment over the State Department's then-2-year-old travel warning for his country.

"Maybe it isn't politically correct to criticize the State Department, but as U.S. Senators and Congressmen continually complain to me -- and agree that the warning should be amended -- I feel the obligation to speak out on this vital issue."

Elon contended that despite the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Americans still were visiting Israel in significant numbers -- an indication, he said, that the State Department's travel warning urging U.S. citizens to defer trips no longer reflected the current reality. Nevertheless, as clashes between Israeli and Palestinians continued in Israel and the Gaza Strip, the warning stayed in place and was renewed Oct. 21.

That wasn't the first time the State Department found itself in the eye of a tourism storm. It also took heat for issuing travel warnings for China and Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak last summer.

Currently, the State Department has issued travel warnings for 26 countries, including Colombia, Iraq and Kenya.

"In a situation like Kenya," a State Department spokesman said, "we take a look at any intelligence that may come along.

If we think there is a sufficient need to warn people, then we tell them. We follow very closely the 'no-double-standard' rule. That means, if we think there is a problem affecting safety and security that we have passed on to our embassy staff, we are duty-bound to give it to the public, as well."

The spokesman said there is no "magic formula" to have a travel warning lifted. "The [main] factor is how safe is it for American citizens to be in that place," he said. -- M.M.

Words of warning

The State Department issues the following directives concerning travel, which can be found online at

• Travel warnings are issued based on all relevant information, to recommend that Americans avoid travel to a certain country.

• Public announcements are issued to disseminate information about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term and/or transnational conditions posing significant risks to the security of U.S. travelers.

• Consular Information Sheets are issued and are available for every country of the world. They include such information as unusual immigration practices, health conditions, minor political disturbances, unusual currency and entry regulations, crime and security information and drug penalties.

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