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Tourism back on the brink of collapse

The travel advisories issued by the US and UK governments almost brought the tourism industry to its knees just as it was recovering from the effects of previous terrorist attacks.
Zachary Ochieng

The Kenyan tourism industry-the second foreign exchange earner after tea-is headed for the doldrums following persistent terrorist threats. Just when the industry was slowly recovering from the effects of the November 2002 terrorist attacks on Mombasa s Paradise Lodge, it was dealt a severe blow by the travel advisories issued by the US and UK governments mid May, warning their citizens against travelling to Kenya.

The enormous loss suffered by the industry, which employs about 3 million people 500000 directly and the rest being suppliers - cannot be gainsaid. Every week, for the six weeks that the travel advisories remained in force, the country lost a whopping 1 million dollars in tourism earnings and other revenue. The effect t is disastrous. We have had a lot of cancellations. But the major worry is the potential traveller, who never had a chance to contact us because of the travel warnings in Europe and America , laments Gerard Besseling, Managing Director, Amicabre Travelling Services, which caters for the US, Holland and Italian markets.

Somak group one of the largest tour operators in Kenya says it lost between US $500 000 and 700 000 in revenue due to cancellations by more than 500 would be tourists, each spending about US$1000. The travel warnings thus flew in the face of the new government s pledge to create 500 000 jobs annually as a number of establishments sent their staff parking while the rest asked their employees to accept a 50 per cent pay cut.

The advisories, coming partly due to a revelation by Kenya s internal security minister Chris Murungaru that a key member of the Al-Qaeda cell was holed up in the country and was planning a terrorist attack, elicited instant protest from industry analysts who viewed it as economic sabotage.

Whereas Murungaru and his cabinet colleagues defended his action, a cross section of Kenyans chided the minister for irresponsible utterances regarding security matters. But while the accusations and counteraccusations raged, the tourism industry suffered an instant blow as the British Airways, other British airlines and the Israeli national carrier El Al suspended their flights to Kenya. The government also lost substantial revenue following the cancellation of the 52nd global media congress, organized by the International Press Institute (IPI) and scheduled for Nairobi early June.

Yet, these alerts and subsequent reactions from the international community couldn t have come at a worse time. Before the November 2002 attack on Mombasa s Paradise Lodge, the industry was just struggling to recover from the effects of the1998 terrorist attack on the American Embassy in Nairobi. Only a year before that, the industry witnessed the biggest crunch ever, following the 1997 inter ethnic clashes at the coastal districts of Mombasa and Kwale, which led to the cancellation of bookings and closure of a number of establishments.

Though the Kenya Tourist Board (KTB) the state corporation that manages the country s tourism affairs had expected two million visitors this year, it may now be a tall order, even though the UK government has since partially lifted the advisory and the ban on its airlines flying to Kenya. Sadly, the high season, which was to kick off in July, may not be realized, as worried stakeholders paint a grim picture of the industry.

Terrorist threats aside, industry analysts observe that making Kenya a better destination has been hampered by lack of funds from the government to enable KTB carry out overseas advertising campaigns. Critics also point out that KTB is a government body with government appointees, some with no experience in tourism.

Notably, every year, KTB spends millions of shillings in tourism promotion at the world travel market in London, Berlin and Paris, leaving nothing to explore new markets. Unlike other destinations such as South Africa and Egypt, Kenya spends virtually nothing on overseas advertising , says Jacques Grieves Cook, the chairman of the Kenya Tourism Federation (KTF) an umbrella organization that brings together airlines, hotels and tour operators.

KTB managing director Mrs Betty Buyu concurs, citing financial constraints. Last year, for instance, KTB received US$ 2 million from the government as opposed to its budget of US$ 6.8 million.

According to KTF, the government needs to encourage more airlines to fly to Kenya, especially those that cancelled their operations such as Lufthansa, Alitalia and Air France, since they operate from countries that are important source markets for long haul tourism destination. Of significance, though, is the return of Italy s national carrier Alitalia after more than a decade of absence.

Industry observers are of the view that the national carrier Kenya Airways ought to fly directly to continental Europe Italy, France and Germany and open up new routes to Turkey and South East Asia. But the Kenya Airways management argues that the daily passenger traffic between cities like Rome, Paris, Frankfurt and Berlin has not yet reached the critical mass required to introduce direct flights.

However, a major challenge to the new government is to waive the visa fee currently standing at US$ 50 - for tourists coming from key source markets such as the UK, not to mention the high airport charges and refuelling costs, which currently make Nairobi as expensive as London. It is noteworthy that four times as many British visitors go Malaysia or South Africa, where they are not required to have full entry visas.

The terror alerts, while posing a devastating effect to the economy in general and tourism in particular, have served as a wake up call to an industry always known to keep all its eggs in one basket. Always focusing on the UK and the US markets, ignoring the rest of Africa, Middle East, Far East and India, stakeholders have now turned attention to these untapped markets to counter travel warnings coming from the UK and US. Also encouraging is the industry s efforts to promote domestic tourism.

Still, the government is under pressure to ensure security of visitors as well as its nationals to attract investors. Significantly, though, is the publication of the anti- terrorism Bill which details measures for the detection and prevention of terrorist activities. The Bill, soon to be tabled in parliament, has however drawn the wrath of human rights activists, who point out that it is being forced down Kenyans throats by the US, as it borrows certain sections from the US Patriot Act, enacted soon after the September 11 twin attacks on the World Trade Centre.

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