Photo Credit: Abe Peck

Kenyaflaunts its magic

By Abe PeckJanuary 11, 2016

A few years ago, when a beaver repopulated the once-polluted Bronx River near my old New York neighborhood, it was a mildly big deal. But on a November day in Kenya, the resident wildlife in the Mara River were literally a very big deal: namely, multi-ton hippopotami foraging methodically just behind the lush Karen Blixen Camp. It was a perfect follow-on to an uplifting hot-air balloon ride over parades of elephants, towers of giraffes and zeals of zebras.

"Magical Kenya" indeed, as one of the slogans underpinning the Africa Travel Association's four-day World Congress put it back in Nairobi before the fam trip part of this stay, all of which were sponsored by Kenya's Ministry of East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism and the Kenya Tourism Board.

There, two weeks before Pope Francis' visit, 339 attendees from across Africa and beyond convened at The Kenyatta International Conference Centre to provide a window on African tourism, especially to East Africa/Kenya.

In his opening-ceremony remarks, Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto underscored a theme generated on an electronic chiron outside the 28-story centerpiece of Nairobi's business district: "Africa Rising: Enhancing New Tourism Opportunities." Africa, Ruto intoned, is "the continent of the 21st century," with the world's greatest percentage of fastest-growing countries.

He had a point. International tourism to Africa has more than doubled since 2000, to as many as 65 million visitors in 2014. And total tourism activity contributes 10.5% of gross domestic product in Kenya, a country of 46 million. But Kenya is scrambling to recover from a 21% drop in arrivals from 2012 to 2014, and the conference would explore and debate key issues: conserving and broadening the region's lure beyond wildlife; safety and stereotypes; distance and infrastructure.

As Kenya's tourism cabinet secretary, Phyllis Kandie, admitted in an apt metaphor, "The issue of negative perception is the elephant in the room."


Animal kingdoms in peril

A cheetah mom and her three cubs, nonplussed by surrounding vans.

Scurrying warthogs, eyes out for a pride of lions lolling between kills.

And if a Maasai village had its touristy moments, jumping up and down with the warriors was great fun.

Kenya, with 59 national parks and game preserves, 42 cultures, six Unesco World Heritage Sites and a 300-plus-mile coastline, has a lot to preserve and to be proud about.

Still, many of the baby elephants at Nairobi's David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust -- cuddly if your lap is Gulliver-size -- had been rescued after falling down wells that manifested human population pressure. At the Nairobi National Park (a Noah's Ark in the city!) a sign noted "A Migration Corridor Under Siege." Lions may symbolize Kenya, but there's a danger of killing the tourism goose.

Some trends are encouraging: Rhino slaughter in Kenya is being contained, and the local elephant population is rising. Still, an international poaching trade that yields as much as $10 billion a year in profits remains a stain on the landscape.

"We cannot eradicate greed," said Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "We need strong laws."

China, a prime purchaser, recently enacted a one-year ban on importation of ivory hunting trophies, and travelers now receive notes not to purchase ivory overseas. As co-panelist Yue Zhang, an anchor and producer from China Central Television, put it: "If you don't buy, they won't die."

The author shows off his jumping ability to warriors in a Maasai village.
The author shows off his jumping ability to warriors in a Maasai village. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Abe Peck

New niche markets

"We need to be innovative in telling the African story," Deputy President Ruto added.

Sure enough, the first product development presentation was titled "Going Beyond the Safari." While that's a little bit like, say, going beyond Warren Buffett's money, a series of marketing and product sessions analyzed opportunities ranging from business to adventure to sports tourism.

Simon Chebon, director of Run With Kenyans, a company that organizes "Running Safaris," suggested how local operators could leverage the seeming omnipotence of Kenyan marathoners. Discussing "Archaeological & Paleontological Tourism," Fredrick Kyalo Manthi, a paleontologist with the National Museum of Kenya, made a case for "the varied and extremely rich heritage in this part of the world."

Operators are taking up a broad approach to guided tourism. Ten years ago, Daniel Kikemu took my family through Kenya and Tanzania for the deluxe Micato Safaris. Now he owns the well-reviewed DK Grand Safaris. During a brief, enjoyable reunion, he endorsed a multifaceted approach to Kenyan tourism: "Our packages mix different attractions: culture, wildlife, walking safaris, night game viewing."

Fear is a four-letter word

In his media keynote address, Peter Greenberg, travel editor for CBS News, cited Kenya's 6% growth rate, visa waits dropping to three days (they can now be obtained online) and Kenya's percentage of tourism-associated domestic product exceeding that of South Africa. But larger events cast their shadow. "Instability," he said, "leads to the worst four-letter word in travel: fear."

After a business meeting, I visited Westgate Mall. The four-story manifestation of a Kenyan upper-middle-class home resembled what you'd find in many American suburbs. Banners celebrated "Nairobi's Premier Shopping Mall," and a photo of a happy family on several of them was captioned "Kenya Is Our Pride: The Future Is Our Destiny." Still, foot traffic was sparse.

On a September day in 2013, gunmen, likely associated with the Al-Shabaab terror movement, massacred 67 people here. It was one of several acts of political violence that have afflicted Kenya, from the U.S. embassy bombing of 1998 to an Al-Shabaab attack that killed almost 150 at a college last April.

Responses have been vigorous. Security guards deploy mirrors to inspect under vans; hotel entrances have metal detectors. It's starting to pay off: A 2014 State Department advisory concerning U.S. government personnel traveling to Mombasa was largely lifted this August.

"We cannot deny terrorism-related events," managing director Muriithi Ndegwa said in a side meeting at the Kenya Tourism Board. "We can confidently say that we have invested a lot in the security and safety of the people and those who visit. It has tapered off."

In fact, more warnings were voiced about taking shortcuts through parks or wandering around at night than about jihadist attacks. No travelers were lost during the course of the conference.

At the gathering, calls emerged for counter-narratives to rebut such confused Western perceptions as Ebola being a continent-wide pandemic rather than a West African outbreak.

"The agent, people, media should take ownership of perception," said Roger Kacou, minister of tourism for Cote d'Ivoire. "If we leave it to Western media, we have no chance."

Belise Kariza, the Rwanda Development Board's chief tourism officer, took a softer tone: "If we have a strong brand equity, we could fight without making a lot of noise or blaming Western media." Rwanda is going beyond that country's justifiably famous gorilla visits to promote diaspora returns, sports and culture.

The conference's final presenter, Guido van Garderen, senior strategist with South Africa's Interbrand Sampson de Villiers, smartly contrasted Africa's amorphous branding with France's focused associations. The next day, his talk was overtaken by a grim global reality: mass murders not in Nairobi but in Paris.

From potential to reality

"We need to stop talking about the potential of Africa and make that a reality now," Ruto said, citing issues from transport to hotel construction.

There's work to do for that to happen. While 14% of the world's population lives in Africa, airlift share is just 3%. High operating costs reduce net profit per passenger to a fraction of what it is elsewhere. And while a rising business class and some local tourism exist in Africa, intra-continent fares can rival an intercontinental ticket's price.

Nevertheless, Ron Mracky, managing director of Africa Consult Group, said that Africa can compete with cruises and big-ticket consumer purchases because it is "unique and innovative." During and after his module titled, "The U.S. Africa Travel Market," Mracky named the Los Angeles/Southern California area as the top departure point for Kenya trips, followed by New York, Texas, Chicago and Vancouver/Seattle.

"California travelers have gumption," the L.A.-based Mracky said. "And in California, everyone's an immigrant."

Distance and cost suggest an older travel constituency with both money and time. Since there's no Concorde to shrink a day-plus in the air from the U.S., Mracky suggested that agents consider adding two or three travel days to African itineraries. Even with a nonstop from the U.S. becoming a possibility, airlines could consider a free stopover.

Within Kenya, help might be on the way. The Air Kenya flights we took between destinations featured competent and cordial crews and even a dash of air-pioneer romance when landing on semi-wilderness (but safe) airstrips.

Moreover, aviation upgrades are occurring countrywide. A new Nairobi international airport, scheduled for completion in late 2017, promises better capacity, service, online access and payment systems. Near Lake Victoria, the Kisumu airport can now handle 747s, affording an international gateway to Africa's interior. Along the south coast, the Malindi airport, nicknamed "Little Milano" for its Italian visitors, is also being upgraded. An East Africa visa is now available for Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, and there's talk of extending the Borderless Borders program.

Yet, it's "a crying shame [that] we still have a challenge" on intra-Africa visits, said Mbuvi Ngunze, CEO of Kenya Airways. Kenya, he said, could become the regional hub, linking landlocked neighbors. Other speakers described opportunities to attract non-Western tourists.

That said, road transportation requires Zen-like patience. Nairobi is Gridlock Central, and it took five hours each way to spend three hours at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy and its Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary. At least I bought a nice mask at a roadside stop.

Conservancy on the Mara

Two posh resorts vivified the concerns and solutions voiced at the conference.

Resting within southwest Kenya's Mara North Conservancy, which in turn borders the Maasai Mara National Reserve, the Karen Blixen Camp offered a study in environmentally responsible tourism. Twenty-two spacious tents resembled luxury cottages, replete with soft beds and large, well-appointed bathrooms, and friendly staff escorts ensured safe trips back to the units at night. At a seasonally adjusted $443 to $621 a night, the camp isn't for everyone's wallet, but it certainly was special to stay so close to such a cornucopia of fauna.

The Blixen camp embraces the nationwide conservancy idea, which for the Mara links 11 member camps and more than 800 Maasai landowners to establish long-term biological and cultural sustainability. While the final night of the stay featured a screening of the glamorous Blixen biopic "Out of Africa," a walk-around earlier that day revealed ecofriendly gardens, solar energy panels that power the camp, waste management facilities and a school for hospitality, cooking, forestry and computer training.

Blixen generates 120 jobs with permanent contracts, and its bed fees provide $70,000 a year to the 11 Maasai families who lease land to it.

But as we breakfasted on the savanna, Tina Frisk, Blixen's affable general manager, noted the difficulties involved in maintaining this level of commitment. Business was down 20% year over year in the Mara, she said. Lodges had closed, and jobs had been lost.

"The model takes its toll," she said. "But it matches the people's need and their wishes for the future."

Conservancies also reduce poaching, and compensation is available when lions kill cattle, reducing retaliation by Maasai warriors. As a spokesman in the village we visited said, "They are making us friends with the lion."

South Coast eco-opulence

Watamu, a village north of Mombasa, is home to the lavish Medina Palms, where 50 contemporary units range from suites to villas. The resort features sequential pools as well as access to a fine beach, snorkeling, dolphin-watching and tag-and-release sport fishing.

Tsavo National Park, Kenya's largest reserve, is a two-hour drive away, and a visit to the closer-by Gedi Historical Monument, the ruins of a 15th-century Arab-African town, testified to the region's multicultural history, today enlivened by monkeys that jump onto heads and shoulders in search of snacks.

A hardly baseline, one-bedroom Medina Suite runs from $242 a night in "green season" to $435 in "peak season"; selling 80% of the units within three years has provided Medina with a marker of success and a financial cushion.

But the Westgate slaughter happened just two months after Medina opened, and occupancy during this prepeak visit was a wan 27%, including vacationing Kenyans.

"The perception is 90% security, 5% infrastructure," said director Max Cheli.

Still, high-end hospitality was pervasive. The staff is "wonderful, very receptive to learn," Cheli added. Training, fueled by Kenya's 2% catering levy, has turned villagers into unfailingly able and charming professionals.

Medina Palms and several other reserve resorts belong to the Watamu Marine Association, which resolves tensions between resort operators and local residents, fishermen and environmentalists to keep the reserve pristine. The association also supports a community recycling center. Touring it sounded like a root canal but turned out to be a charming, through-the-looking-glass experience.

A 25-member "Blue Team" consisted of locals who enthusiastically operated several Gyro Gearloose-like but effective waste management and recycling machines. The trunk of a 30-foot-or-so palm tree was clad with plastic flip-flops, whimsical representatives of the flotsam that plagues oceans and beaches worldwide. A long wall of the facility was dominated by 1,000 wine bottles shaped into a larger-than-life -- wait for it! -- bottlenose dolphin.

•   •   •

Beginning with a perimeter perusal well outside Jomo Kenyatta Airport, five checkpoints had to be traversed to reach my departing plane. It was a security souvenir of Kenya's situation, though one greatly exceeded by the trip's moments of awe. At journey's end, the words of Africa Consult Group's Mracky seemed, on balance, an apt summary:

"Africa is not expensive; it's priceless."