Next month's ASTA Destination Expo in Nairobi, Kenya, is expected to position Kenya as a safe destination in the eyes of the American travel trade and the American traveler.
The event will take place from Feb. 23 to 28, despite a travel advisory from the U.S. urging its citizens to avoid parts of the coast and Nairobi's suburb of Eastleigh over fear of terror attacks.
Tour operators say the perceived threat of terrorism resulting from travel advisories and sensationalist news reports still remains the main stumbling block for U.S. travelers to Kenya.
Chris Liebenberg, a Safaris Pros member, explained that although every effort is made by Kenya to ensure the safety of travelers, "overblown" reactions from foreign governments have done significant damage. "I wish we could be more understanding of the effects of travel warnings globally," he said.
"Agents who don't have extensive experience in Kenya will tend to sell something easier; a destination without the negative perceptions. I think this may be one of the biggest challenges for Kenya in terms of increasing market share," added Kota Tabuchi, managing director at Africa Travel Beyond.
Kenya-based tour operators also are struggling to convince travelers that the destination is safe. "Kenya still has the terrorism blanket over its shoulders," said Mefi Pishori Alapat, owner of the Kenya-based operator Journey to Africa. She explained that she tries her best to assure clients that the government has increased security and that usually the brunt of the problems are near the Somalia border, far away from the parks that tourists frequent.
Kili McGowan, a Safaris Pros member, said the ASTA Expo will undoubtedly boost travel agents' confidence in the destination. He explained that the collective enthusiasm of a multitude of travel agents may encourage potential travelers as they convey that Kenya is a safe destination once again.
Jim Holden of Holden Safaris agreed.
"No doubt attendees will write about their experiences in Kenya, which will appear on the different social media platforms. With Africa on almost everyone's bucket list, the publicity will remind them to follow up and call their agent," Holden said.
The ASTA event could be the push Kenya needs to become the No. 1 African tourist destination for U.S. travelers, as the destination has performed very well over the past two years despite safety concerns.
Statistics from the Kenya Tourism Board reveal that the U.S. has become the top international source market for Kenya, with U.S. arrivals up more than 16% for the first 10 months of 2016.
"Our Kenya sales have doubled already for this year, with the booking season still in progress," said McGowan.
Simon Stobbs, Wilderness Safaris business unit manager for North America, agreed, saying that in the last two years there has been a huge return in interest from the U.S. for Kenya compared to other areas.
Said Stobbs: "Kenya is still a must-see destination and considered by many as the 'home of safaris'. U.S. agents have worked with Kenya for many decades before southern Africa developed its safari offerings. For this reason, agents understand the destination very well, and it remains a strong interest."