An elder at a Masai Mara village in a visit arranged by the Fairmont Mara Safari Club.
Masai men performing a traditional jumping dance for guests who were on a trip arranged by the Fairmont Mara Safari Club.
NAIROBI, Kenya — When the first nonstop commercial flight between the U.S. and Kenya touched down here at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in late October, passengers were greeted on a red carpet by deputy president William Ruto, traditional Kenyan dancers and plenty of pomp and circumstance.
Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, had been on hand the day before to send off the same Kenya Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner and its 234 passengers on the first westbound trip, which landed at New York’s JFK Airport.
The significance of the flight was clear: After years of decline, Kenya’s tourism industry has been on an upswing since 2016.
Hopes are high that the flight, which Kenya Airways expects will boost its revenue by 10% this year, will make Kenya a top destination in Africa’s tourism market, where it steadily lost share over a period of about 10 years.
Ruto predicted the flight “will open up new horizons for our people. It repositions Kenya as a more accessible destination for the U.S. market.”
Over the past three years, Kenya has slowly but steadily been rebuilding its tourism sector. Kenya’s tourism ministry this month reported that in 2018, tourist arrivals grew 37.3% compared with 2017, to just over 2 million visitors. As recently as 2015, that number was 1.2 million. PwC reports that over the next five years, 13 hotels will open in Kenya from brands including Hilton and Best Western, adding about 2,600 rooms, a 14% increase in capacity over 2017.
Those gains have been hard-fought. According to PwC, the country’s tourist arrivals fell a cumulative 31% between 2012 and 2015, due to a spate of terrorist attacks and ensuing travel advisories discouraging travel to Kenya and an Ebola crisis that never touched East Africa.
Improvement began in 2016, with international arrivals rising 13.7%. That momentum has continued steadily, with only mild bumps.
Kenyan officials are well aware that future bumps might not be so mild. The causes of the country’s tourism misfortunes have often been out of its control — e.g., bad timing and bad geography — while others were homegrown. Its recent problems began with violent political clashes in 2008, followed by the global economic downturn.
But when the world economy recovered and global travel began an unprecedented surge, Kenya was afflicted by a series of deadly attacks by the Somalia-based al-Shabab terrorist group, most famously on a Nairobi mall in 2013, leading to severe travel advisories from Western governments.
That downturn was further exacerbated by the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, even though Kenya itself had no diagnosed cases and is 3,500 miles from the affected countries, a distance greater than that between New York and Los Angeles.
Kenya’s gains began in 2016 when the cessation of major terrorist attacks led to the easing of most travel advisories followed by increased investment in travel products, including by major international hotel brands.
Despite an al-Shabab attack in Nairobi this month, the U.S. State Department has not raised Kenya’s travel advisory from a Level 2, “Exercise Increased Caution,” the same level assigned to countries including France and the U.K., which have also experienced terrorism but that Americans do not shy away from traveling to.
“The combination of new hotels, more flights to Kenya, stronger economic growth, lower inflation and, most importantly, greater security should contribute to growth in guest nights,” asserted the PwC report, Hotels Outlook: 2018-2022.
In terms of the American market at least, the growth has already been happening.
Brian Sanchez of Journeys Travel Group in Menomonee Falls, Wis., said, “I think people feel much more safe and secure traveling to Kenya now than in years past. I know there are some areas along the Somalian border that they have travel advisories for, but overall, especially the areas that we as travel agents send our clients to, it is very safe to travel to.”
That perception has paid off. The Kenya Tourism Board reported that in 2015, 84,759 Americans visited the country, a number that in 2018 climbed to 225,157, making the U.S. Kenya’s largest source of long-haul visitors, overtaking the U.K.
Kenya Airways said traffic between the U.S. and Kenya has grown 20% over the past two years.
Tour operators, travel agents and hotels also report an uptick in Americans booking Kenya.
Craig Beal, owner of Minneapolis-based tour operator Travel Beyond, said U.S. bookings to Kenya have grown tenfold over the past four years.
In 2014, he said, 90% of Travel Beyond’s business went to Southern Africa. In 2018, about 45% of its clients went to East Africa, mostly to Kenya, where in 2018 he estimated he had about $2.5 million in business, up from $250,000 four years ago.
“We sent our staff there, and they really fell in love with it,” Beal said.
Once his staff got hooked, they started selling it, and clients — many of whom initially went because Kenya was then a bargain compared with South Africa and Botswana — bought in.
“I feel like Kenya exceeds clients’ expectations more than any other destination they can go to in Africa.”
“I feel like Kenya exceeds clients’ expectations more than any other destination they can go to in Africa,” Beal said.
Guillaume Durand, group director of sales and marketing for Fairmont Hotels and Resorts Kenya, said that at the company’s three properties here, U.S. visitors now make up 35% of guests, up from 26% three years ago.
And Jean Campbell, a Houston-based Africa specialist with Frosch Travel, said Kenya is now “in.”
“Places go in and out, and Kenya is in,” Campbell said. “There is a lot of investment from hotel chains in Africa and Kenya particularly. A lot of the big names in luxury tourism are focusing on East Africa, which then makes it an absolute no-brainer to combine Kenya with something else.”
Beyond that, she said, for many people, Kenya “is Africa. Its name just conjures up such wonderful images.”
Jenny Gray, regional product manager for Africa at Intrepid Travel, which has seen a 40% increase in Kenya bookings over the past few years, agreed.
“When you envision a typical African safari, the wide-open plains of the iconic Masai Mara come to mind,” she said.
Staying the growth course
The challenge for Kenya now is to not fall “out” again. David DiGregorio, managing director of CornerSun Destination Marketing, which was recently appointed the marketing representative for the Kenya Tourism Board, called 2018 “the year of Kenya.”
“They’ve overcome quite a bit in the last five years, many incidents that made tourism take a beating,” DiGregorio said. “The new flight is the crown jewel in the opportunity for Kenya. It’s not only the first flight from New York to Kenya, it’s the first nonstop flight from the U.S. to East Africa, which is a big deal for the whole region.”
DiGregorio has a lot of experience marketing different areas of Africa and spent five years working with South Africa Tourism, starting in 2009.
“At that point, we looked at Kenya as our big competitor in safari,” he said. “We needed to figure out how to differentiate South Africa from Kenya, because Kenya is what people consider the real safari. Since then, South Africa has so eclipsed Kenya as far as awareness of product and sheer arrivals.”
As its No. 2 source market, the U.S. in 2017 accounted for more than 370,000 visitors to South Africa. U.S. visitors to Kenya, meanwhile, began “falling, falling, falling,” down to a low of about 70,000 arrivals, while South Africa’s U.S. visitor numbers were rising, DiGregorio said.
“It’s really come back tremendously in the last year or two years,” he said, citing the 225,000 American visitors to Kenya in 2018. “I think what Kenya needs to do now is start to differentiate its product in a similar way that South Africa did.”
DiGregorio thinks Kenya has an opportunity to showcase what it has to offer beyond its iconic safaris, something South Africa does well, promoting its wine trail and, of course, Cape Town. Other Southern Africa destinations, such as Zambia and Botswana, can market proximity to Victoria Falls in neighboring Zimbabwe.
But Kenya has its own points of distinction.
“The safari and the wildlife is going to be the anchor of why someone wants to go to Africa, and Kenya is going to deliver that, probably better than any other destination can,” DiGregorio said. “But you also have the experience of being in Nairobi and the culture and food that comes with that.
“There is a national park in Nairobi; you can be on a game drive and see the city skyline in the distance. That’s pretty unique. You have the access to the beach. … Kenya has its own islands off the coast that present a better option in some cases than flying off to Zanzibar or some farther destination. You can stay in Kenya and have all those different elements.”
Travel agents and tour operators also mentioned the growing popularity of “beach and bush” vacations, something the Kenya Tourism Board is promoting more broadly.
Campbell said, “I think that is becoming more of an interest. The American market tends to think, ‘I have beaches close,’ but the safari-beach combination is becoming a good choice and a popular choice among some people, because they do like the idea of a few days [to relax] before coming home. A safari can feel really busy. I think it is a very attractive aspect to end with a few nights at the beach.”
The new nonstop flight, Frosch’s Campbell said, only makes that option more attractive.
“If they are going through Dubai or Europe, the tendency is to add a couple days there,” she said. “So now, with the opportunity to go straight to Kenya, why not add those days at the beach or in a different area of Kenya or a neighboring country? It’s opened that opportunity.”
Beal said his clients are also increasingly adding Kenya’s beach at the end of a trip, with his favorite option being the Alfajiri, which he calls the “nicest beach resort on the African coast.”
But improved flights not just to the continent but within it are also inspiring travelers to add visits to other parts of Africa. Beal called recently added flights between Nairobi and Victoria Falls and Cape Town “game changers.”
He added: “For the first time ever this year, because of that flight, we do trips combining Kenya and Botswana or Kenya and Krueger on the same trip. Or we finish in Cape Town.”
Kenyan culture beyond the safari
A visit to Fairmont’s three Kenya properties gives a visitor a good taste of the breadth of what the country has to offer.
According to Durand, Fairmont guests are given the opportunity to experience both Kenya’s history and modernity.
Fairmont’s historical Nairobi property, the Norfolk, built in 1904, offers guests a real “Out of Africa” sort of Kenya experience. The Fairmont will arrange any excursion in which guests are interested, which usually includes the city’s famous elephant orphanage and giraffe center and the Karen Blixen Museum. But Durand said there is much more to Nairobi.
“If a client wants to meet a fashion designer, we can introduce them,” he said. “If they want to go to art galleries, we can do that for them. All these elements are things that we bring to the table. Even the nightlife is fantastic in Nairobi. When Kenyans go out, they go out until the next morning.”
The Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club is also rich in history, having been founded by 1950s film star William Holden, a hunter turned conservationist. Holden also opened the on-site Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, which raises and rehabilitates orphaned and injured wildlife with the goal of releasing them back into the wild.
Here, guests can encounter wildlife in ways beyond a traditional safari vehicle, such as seeing elephants and zebras from horseback and bicycle. They can also play golf along the equator on the property’s nine-hole course.
Finally, the Fairmont Mara Safari Club offers the iconic Kenyan safari experience in the Masai Mara Game Reserve, where game drives bring guests as close as they’d ever want to be to the Big Five and much more wildlife plus, in season, a chance to view millions of wildebeests crossing the Mara River as part of the Great Migration.
And although Fairmont doesn’t offer its guests a beach resort, Durand encourages U.S. visitors to take advantage of the Kenya Airways flight and stay longer.
“Now you can come direct to Africa and spend two weeks on the continent,” he said.
CORRECTION: The Kenya Airways flight between New York JFK and Nairobi, Kenya, is a nonstop flight. A previous version of this article incorrectly used the term “direct” to describe the flight.