The Tourism Secretary, the Hon. Najib Balala is seen by many as a key figure and leader in the African travel and tourism industry. He is also a member of the new African Tourism Board COVID-19 Task Force.
His message during times of great concern and crisis is that tourism in Kenya and Africa must have a paradigm shift not only in products but mentality and markets as well.
The year has begun on a positive note for Kenya’s tourism with the country receiving 1,444,670 arrivals between July 2019 and February 2020; compared to 1,423,548 over the same period last year.
What followed is the greatest health emergency of our times: The Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) – an emergency that has almost brought the entire world to a standstill, with sectors that contribute to the thriving of economies being affected, tourism being one of the industries hit hard globally.
The disease which first broke out in Wuhan, China in November of 2019, has now found itself across the globe with over 1.3 million infections as of the last count. This has resulted in total lockdown in some countries and with this, the closure of businesses and travel.
Governments around the world have also put in place stringent travel and social restrictions to curb the spread of the disease. The Government of Kenya has in turn taken bold, but necessary steps to fight this scourge which include stopping of conferences and events, as well as halting international flights from coming to the country as among a raft of precautions against the spread of the disease.
Consequently, the tourism industry in Kenya is predicting losses in the Billions owing to the disruption that has been occasioned by COVID-19 globally. Currently, several hotels and hospitality establishments have temporarily closed as human traffic to the outlets has significantly reduced as a result of the limited movement and restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the disease.
This said, it is not all gloom and doom for the travel industry. We first need to accept that recovery from this pandemic will take time and we must be patient as we recover from it.
Secondly, we need a paradigm shift on the mentality that we have if we want a quick recovery and better tourism. It is no longer about waiting for international visitors to come in for tourism to thrive. As a country, we must start appreciating the domestic market and offer them products that are right for them. Therefore, we need not be dependent on foreign tourism and start investing heavily in the domestic and regional markets. Many of the international markets established initially with first their own domestic and regional markets, before looking further. For instance, most of the 82 million tourists that flock into Spain are domestic or from the neighboring countries in Europe.
Also, we need to start thinking about promoting intra-Africa tourism. Africa has a population of about 1.2 billion people, but only receive 62 million tourists, which is disappointing. As the African adage says, ‘if you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.’ Now is the time for Africa. African states must unite and form a federation to promote tourism within the continent. If we can just have 300-400 million people traveling within the continent, we can surely boost each other’s jobs and generate revenue without being dependent on international tourists. As a continent, let us have a strategy on connectivity within the continent, open sky policy will increase travelers, trade and investment, we should also think about infrastructure development within Africa from road network, maritime as well as the railway network. Once we have done so, the region is going to open up and the improved infrastructure is going to upscale the economy.
Free movement of people is another key aspect we need to look into. We need to ensure that people can travel from one country to another without any hindrance of Visas and travel bureaucracy. In Europe, most of the people can move around in about 27 countries with neither visas nor border posts. This is the way to go for Africa. This will take time to implement, but if we start now, in 5 years we will be resilient from any shocks whatsoever, even travel advisories imposed by the western countries.
Tourism is a leading foreign exchange earner, contributing to about 10% of Kenya’s GDP. But the impact of tourism goes beyond 20% as it cuts across other sectors, ranging from manufacturing, agriculture, financial services, education and many others. The more we focus on promoting traveling within the continent, the more we shall create jobs and develop our economies.
So, in Kenya, for the next 2 years, it is imperative for us to look into the opportunities in our domestic and regional markets. This can only be achieved when we rethink our marketing strategy, redesign our products and make the destinations affordable and interactive.
COVID-19, can be an opportunity to act now and expand further to create more jobs and be self-reliant. This time we should also take care of the communities around us and be sensitive to the environment.