Kenyan tourism businesses at verge of despair

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(eTN) – Recent articles in the Kenyan Daily Nation and The Standard are a clear indicator that continued violence in Kenya would wreck their tourism sector probably for years to come. Yet, the opposition has snubbed mediation efforts from high ranking visitors coming from the US, Europe and from Africa, by making astronomical demands.

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(eTN) – Recent articles in the Kenyan Daily Nation and The Standard are a clear indicator that continued violence in Kenya would wreck their tourism sector probably for years to come. Yet, the opposition has snubbed mediation efforts from high ranking visitors coming from the US, Europe and from Africa, by making astronomical demands. Having been told that they needed to moderate too, they once again called for mass demonstrations on three days this week, which is a thinly concealed message for their goon squads to resume the ethnic cleansing, looting and killing spree they engaged in immediately the election results were announced on December 31, 2007. In fact, the Uganda police is now dealing with two cases of poisoning of refugees near the border and has began to separate ethnic groups to avoid further violence spreading across the border.

The fallout is already noticeable in Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda, where jitters over the future of a hitherto booming tourism industry are causing nervous brainstorming amongst tourism business operators, who had hoped for a record breaking season and are now staring at a downturn, which may spiral out of control if Kenya does not come back to normality. In particular, the Ugandan hotel sector, with a doubled capacity of beds since the recently held Commonwealth Summit in Kampala, is staring at Kenyan developments in disbelief and with growing anger directed at the perpetrators, as the investments made over the past years in tourism infrastructure, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, now seem at risk in spite of Uganda itself having become a stable and peaceful country par excellence.

It must be noted however, that no single tourist has come to any harm in Kenya and that the respective associations like Kenya Tourism Federation and Kenya Association of Tour Operators, together with security organs, have ensured maximum caution and prudence in the way they operate their safaris across the national parks of Kenya, without putting tourists, drivers and guides into harm’s way. The ban by British tour operators against sending more guests to Kenya is, therefore, considered to be way over the top and should be rescinded. Sending empty planes to Mombasa to transport departing passengers home, but not bring new visitors to Kenya’s sunshine coast, is – in spite of Odinga’s political and personal follies – an act of economic sanction which is not acceptable. Putting the jobs of tens of thousands of directly and indirectly employed Kenyans at risk in fact plays into the hands of political hot heads and extremists and makes British tour companies almost accomplices in afflicting further ruin on a country already hurting badly.

The Kenyan political opposition party ODM, led by alleged coup mastermind of 1982 Raila Odinga, does however not see things this way. In their greed for power they appear willing to have the Kenyan and East African economies collapse through continued street violence, ethnic and political cleansing, looting of businesses and related crimes, to “force” the government now sworn in to resign and make way for themselves. Odinga himself has denied any “ethnic cleansing” but the new justice minister in parliament gave a different account of the suspected opposition activities and preparations for violence, which may in coming weeks well lead to a court case against leading opposition figures.

The opposition’s collision and obstruction strategy does not speak of their interest for the nation as a whole nor for the region, and the affected countries in the hinterland will not easily forget the damage and harm done by Odinga’s goon squads to their own economies, when the transit routes through Kenya were blocked and trucks destined for the hinterland burnt in a politically inspired frenzy.

Kenyan security forces are expected to crack down hard and harder on the opposition mob, should they once more crawl out of their hiding places to cause chaos and they are to be commended for doing what it takes to keep peace loving Kenyans safe and their property secure. At the same time the government of the day should continue to offer talks and embrace the moderate sections of the opposition against hardliners, who are now seeking to overturn the declared election results on the streets. Taking the matter to court is still the most viable method to seek redress, and while waiting for the outcome of these cases, life in Kenya and the region can go on.

The opposition, however, having earlier in the week captured the posts of speaker and deputy speaker of the Kenyan parliament by 105 to 101 votes, was set to engage once more in street protests across the country, which in any case were successfully prevented, by and large, through the presence of the security forces deployed in numbers on the streets of Kenya’s key cities and municipalities. The disruption of business and the perception (though not the reality on the ground) about such action in the key overseas markets however will be devastating for the tourism sector, unless the opposition comes to terms with the reality on the ground and gets back to work in parliament, leaving killings and ethnic / political cleansing behind them.

In any case, the region was anxiously watching the week’s events unfold in Kenya once more and can only pray, that common sense will prevail and national and regional interests supersede individual ambitions, in particular those of the election losers. Watch this space as news break.

Meanwhile, faced with the sharp downturn of fortunes at the Kenya coast, following the post election violence that has scared tourist visitors away, Kenya Airways has now faced up to this challenge and will take the direct Mombasa to Cape Town and Mombasa to London flights off their schedule by the end of January. At least some of their domestic flights connecting overseas destinations with Mombasa via Nairobi may also fall victim to the development, as few passengers can presently be found willing to visit the Kenyan coast in spite of their security being assured and no tourist having come to any harm. Other airlines operating on the Mombasa and Malindi routes are also said to be considering a reduction of flights from Nairobi, owning up to the reduction in passenger numbers. A change of perception in overseas markets about Kenya and the security situation is the key to eventually turning the sagging fortunes around. The Kenyan tourist industry will have to fork out major money for promotion and marketing in coming weeks and months to achieve this. A market offensive in the regional expatriate market may help, but the high cost of Visa for expats living in Uganda and the hinterland nations may be a deterrent. Having to fork out US$50 per person per visit has long be strongly criticized – after all the expatriates are duly registered in their East African country of residence – and this may be the right time to address this anomaly, to increase travel within the East African community and in particular now to Kenya.

In the meantime the industry is paying extra attention to domestic travel, but this may also lead to slashing the present high season rates to the traditional low season levels at a time, when hotels, resorts and lodges should be raking in the money. Hundreds of staff from coastal hotels and resorts have reportedly already been laid off due to lack of business as charter planes from Europe continue to arrive near empty to ferry the remaining visitors to Kenya back home. Cruise lines are now also said to be canceling port calls in Mombasa for the coming weeks, a decision again influenced more by fear than facts and by consensus of leading tourism experts in the region entirely unjustified.

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