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
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
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
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
Fernandez estimates that the developing country's tourism
industry is losing about $1 million each day the warning is in
"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
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
In the initial travel warning, the State Department advised U.S.
citizens to defer visits to the country where "terrorism poses a
"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
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
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
"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
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. --
Words of warning
The State Department issues the following directives concerning
travel, which can be found online at http://travel.state.gov.
• 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.