Travel Weekly's Kenneth Kiesnoski is visiting Kenya. His first dispatch follows.
NAIROBI — I was shuffling to and fro in place, annoyed, jetlagged and sweating profusely in line in the warm, muggy immigration area of Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The sole “Holders of Other Passports” queue on which I was waiting was barely moving.
Meanwhile, the “East African Community Passports” and “Kenyan Passports” lines to my right and, worse, the two “Visa Applications” lines to my left, were moving along nicely.
I had applied for my Kenya tourist visa in advance in New York, thinking I would save myself some time on arrival in Nairobi. It turned out I outsmarted myself.
The visa-procurement process back home had been anxiety ridden — I almost didn’t get my passport back in time for departure — and now I was stuck in the airport’s slowest line, with a host of other once-smug advance-visa holders. Arriving tourists without visas, meanwhile, were procuring them quickly nearby, without much ado, and then sailing on through, to baggage claim.
Wary of making a bad impression and being denied entry, I kept my grumbling to a subsonic level as the line inched forward. But the British couple behind me had no such qualms and were audibly harrumphing, complaining and sighing about our collective predicament. I silently concurred in my head but kept outward signs of annoyance to vigorously fanning myself with my passport.
But all was forgiven once I finally got to the immigration officer manning my line. As I mopped the sweat pouring embarrassingly down my brow, he asked how many days I’d be in Kenya. “Six or seven,” I said, momentarily unsure about my exact itinerary (I was still fuzzy from my 14-hour-plus, sleep-bereft journey from New York).
“Just a week?” he asked, in an elegant, soft-spoken way I’d soon come to associate with Kenyan people. “Well, I’ll give you two weeks, just in case you want to keep on having fun here.” He stamped my passport, smiled and waved me through. I was charmed.
And that initial impression remains unsullied, two days into my stay here in Kenya’s capital. Nairobi is in many ways the stereotypical Third World metropolis that Americans might imagine: lots of traffic, reportedly lots of crime, some litter, frequent power outages and the occasional terrorist attack are facts of life here.
But the Kenyan people, in direct and somewhat confusing contrast, are — at least in my experience thus far — soft-spoken, well-mannered, welcoming, polite, helpful and cultured.
Any pre-flight jitters aroused by news reports back home of grenade-chucking here by al-Shabab, a Somalia-based Islamic militia, were instantly allayed.
I’ve been staying at the Tribe Hotel, an upscale boutique property and Design Hotels affiliate near the U.S. Embassy in the posh Gigiri quarter of Nairobi, and this dichotomy is on display even here.
The Tribe's luxury environment could give any property in New York or London a run for its money, but the power still goes off several times a day. Lights go out, air conditioning chokes up, soft ambient music falls silent — at least for the 30 seconds or so it takes for one of two back-up generators to kick in.
Tribe and the neighboring Village Market shopping mall may be heavily guarded and lavishly appointed, but the Third World outside still asserts itself a few times daily. It’s initially disconcerting, but I imagine one gets used to it after a while.
What’s consistent are the Kenyans themselves. Each employee working at Tribe is, as would be expected in an upscale property anywhere, professional and polite. Unusually, they’re also extra-friendly and engaging. In short, the opposite of snooty, hoity-toity or affected — attitudes that unfortunately plague boutique hotel staffs worldwide.
As I head out on safari in the bush, away from the gates, guards and glam of Gigiri, I’m reassured that I’ll be in Kenyan hands — especially given the renewed warning on travel to Kenya that the State Department issued on April 4, a day after my arrival in Nairobi.
The warning cautions about bomb threats, potentially dangerous public demonstrations and the risk of kidnapping. This is not exactly what one needs to hear before leaving the comfort of a posh, policed hotel in the diplomatic quarter for the wilds of East Africa.
However, I’m not the only Westerner at Tribe who’s here to follow up a hotel city stay with a safari. There’s groups of Spaniards, Canadians and Japanese here, too, all getting on with the business of tourism.
On March 29, Kenya’s new tourism minister, Danson Mwazo held a press conference to assure visitors touring the country that they are safe, thanks to beefed-up security measures. He almost need not have bothered; the country saw 15% growth in arrivals in 2011, to nearly 1.3 million visitors. The U.S. is Kenya’s second-largest tourist source market, after the U.K. The tourism ministry hopes for 3 million tourists a year by 2015.
London-based research firm Business Monitor International on March 13 forecasted a “cautious” 4.7% growth rate for Kenyan tourism this year.
The firm said that travel to some border areas of the country would be depressed, due to Kenyan military operations against Al Shabaab and retaliatory terror attacks, but that safari holidays “which take place much further inside Kenya … should be relatively unaffected.”