New York-Nairobi flight builds on Kenya's tourism comeback

The business class on Kenya Airways' Boeing 787.
The business class on Kenya Airways' Boeing 787. Photo Credit: TW photo by Johanna Jainchill

NAIROBI, Kenya -- The Oct. 28 launch of the first nonstop flight from this city to New York JFK coincides with a welcome increase in U.S. travelers to the East African nation after years of decline.

The 14-hour Kenya Airways flight from JFK to the Jomo Kenyatta Airport on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner had been five years in the making, according to the airline's chairman, Michael Joseph.

He said the route was already performing "better than expected" and that flights were mostly fully booked for December and January. November is Kenya's rainy season, a normally slow time for tourism.

The direct route saves travelers departing New York a time-consuming transfer, usually in Europe, Dubai or South Africa, in order to get to Kenya. An additional boon to the safari set is that they can transfer at Jomo Kenyatta to domestic flights to places like the Masai Mara as well as to more than 40 destinations in greater Africa.

The 234-seat 787 offers 30 lie-flat business class seats on a flight that departs JFK at noon daily and lands in Nairobi at 10:30 the following morning. In Nairobi, the flight leaves at 11:25 p.m. and arrives at JFK at 6:25 the following morning.

Kenya Airways' first New York flight arives at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta Airport.
Kenya Airways' first New York flight arives at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta Airport. Photo Credit: TW photo by Johanna Jainchill

Speaking at Jomo Kenyatta after the plane landed here on Oct. 30, Kenya's deputy president, William Ruto, called the route a "game changer" and said that for the remainder of 2018 alone, it would bring an additional 20,000 passengers from the U.S.

"It repositions Kenya as a more accessible destination for the U.S. market," Ruto said.

Signs of growth

The travel community hailed the flight's arrival, which comes at a time of growth for Kenya tourism. Arrivals plummeted by 31% between 2012 and 2015, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), driven by a spate of 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.

The downturn was exacerbated by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, even though Kenya itself was not affected.

Since 2015, arrivals have been on the upswing. The U.S. State Department now lists Kenya as a Level 2 country, on par with Mexico, France and the U.K. PwC reports that in 2017, tourist arrivals grew 9.9%, while Kenya Airways says that traffic between the U.S. and Kenya has grown 20% over the past two years.

Further, PwC expects tourist arrivals to increase 8.8% this year and rise to 2.1 million in 2022 from 1.5 million in 2017.

Investment in Kenya's hospitality sector is also growing, according to PwC, which reports that around 1,800 rooms will be added to Kenya over the next five years as 13 hotels enter the market. Last year, Marriott International opened its first Kenya property, the Four Points by Sheraton Nairobi Hurlingham.

In another testament to Kenya's increased level of security, Kenya Airways was only able to launch the JFK flight after Jomo Kenyatta Airport went through a long process to achieve Category 1 status for safety standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a requirement for direct flights to the U.S.

"We've had the slot for some time," he said. "We were confident the airport would get" the Category 1 status.

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