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June 2003

Tourism suffers over terrorism alerts

Zachary Ochieng

he Kenyan tourism industry-the second foreign exchange earner after tea-is headed for the doldrums following persistent terrorist threats. Although the industry managed to withstand the November 2002 terrorist attacks on Mombasa s Paradise Lodge, it was dealt a severe blow by the terrorist alerts issued by the US, UK and German governments mid May.

Only within a week pf the issuance of the alert, the country had lost a whopping US$ 15 million. The alerts came hot on the heels of 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, planning a terrorist attack. According to the government, Kenya was being targeted for terrorist attacks because of its friendship with the US a situation that has led the government to seek for compensation from the US, following losses incurred as a result of terror alerts.

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 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 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. Besides terrorist threats, 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.

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. According to Cook, the government also needs to waive the visa requirement for tourists coming from key source markets such as the UK. Other industry players also believe that scrapping of the visa fee could help revitalize the industry.

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. The federation has also called on the government to review current airport charges and refuelling costs, which currently make Nairobi as expensive as London.

Still, the new Kenyan government is under pressure to assure the industry that security measures have been put in place to safeguard against terrorist acts that could have negative impact in the fluid sector that employs over 500,000 people, both directly and indirectly. However, Mr. Raymond Matiba, the KTB chairman, who had earlier expressed fears after the November attacks, is now upbeat that the sector is set for a major boom in the face of increased confidence the new government is enjoying among its development partners. The government is very supportive of our efforts to promote tourism. With aggressive marketing, the revenue from this sector is bound to rise steadily , he noted.

Much of Matiba s confidence could be attributed to the recent undertaking by president Mwai Kibaki to revamp the sector while acknowledging that the sector is till reeling from the negative publicity occasioned by the 1992 and 1997 ethnic clashes. We plan to market Kenya more effectively as a global destination, said president Kibaki on February 18 during official state opening of the ninth parliament, where he also outlined his government s priorities.

Famous for its hospitality, sandy white beaches, snow-capped mountains, the Great Rift Valley and incredible flora and fauna, Kenya s share of the global tourism cake will largely depend on the implementation of the marketing initiative spearheaded by the Kenya Tourist Board, the Ministry of Information and Tourism and other stakeholders. With 742 000 tourist arrivals in Kenya in 2001, income from tourism exceeded Kshs 24 billion (US $300million), making it the second top foreign exchange earner after tea.

The Mombasa terrorist attack, however, has left some lingering apprehension, following the refusal in February, by the New Zealand cricket team to honour an International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup match against Kenya in Nairobi, citing fears of terrorist attacks. These fears turned out to be unfounded and mainly fuelled by bad publicity by the international press, an area the current government must work hard to counter.

Similarly, panic reactions by some Western countries such as US and Britain over pending attacks on their facilities in Kenya, have acted as an impediment in the effort to enhance the growth of the sector.

Notably, following the November attacks, the UK, US and Israeli Embassies in Nairobi were closed for a couple of days, ostensibly after receiving some threats.

Western powers have been quick to point fingers at Kenya s security agents for what they term as inability to act on early information on a pending attack.

Most of top security officers, despite claims of early warnings, maintained that the information they had received was vague and did not pinpoint specific targets.

A section of Kenyan leadership lament that some Western countries said to be key targets act unilaterally on perceived threats without consulting local authorities, thus hampering efforts to avert the attacks. They are also accused of only pointing fingers at Kenya, despite the fact that terrorism is a global problem.

The industry could also be threatened by consistent reports that Kenya s Coastal Strip-the hub of tourism-could also the hiding dens for the said terrorists.

Former Deputy Commissioner of police Mr. William Langat, immediately after the Mombasa incident, revealed that the bomb used in the attack was assembled in a house at the plush Tudor suburb of Mombasa.

Local security agents, who by and large have had little experience in dealing with terrorist threats of this nature, are often accused of adopting knee-jerk approaches as opposed to pro-active and long-term programmes. Human rights groups, both locally and overseas, have taken great exceptions at the indiscriminate manner in which police have been arresting and detaining Kenyans of Arab descent and Somali refugees, an event that could further heighten the existing feeling among Muslim minorities over discrimination.

Encouraging, though, is the fact that president Kibaki, recently established a special anti-terrorism police unit for the first time in the history of Kenya, lending credence to assertions by the new government that it has embarked on major efforts to avert future terrorist attacks. A Bill - the Suppression of terrorism Bill which details measures for the detection and prevention of terrorist activities in the country has also been published.

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