How seriously does Kilifi County in Kenya take tourism?

Hopes for more multi-billion Kenya shilling investments in Malindi by Flavio Briatore, the former Formula 1 figure, are hanging by a thread it was learned over the New Year holiday from a source in Malindi.

Briatore, initially enchanted by the flair of Malindi just like many other Italian investors and vacationers, poured money into the development of two major resorts, the Lion in the Sun and the Billionaires’ Resort but plans to expand the latter appear to be headed for the bin in favour of other investment destinations.

It is clear that Briatore and his team were given assurances by local authorities on a wide range of issues, including the expansion of the Malindi’ airport runway as well as other infrastructure support, none of which however appears to have happened.

Word from Malindi is that Briatore but also a number of other Italian investors in real estate and resorts developments are now fed up to the teeth with the local authorities, after a municipal rubbish dump was moved precariously close to their resorts and villas, roads have deteriorated, members of the Italian community been murdered and apparent promises on a range of municipal services been reneged.

At the end of last year were crippling anti travel advisories against Malindi and its environs finally lifted, giving fresh hope to the town which was hard hit and saw many smaller hotels close. This latest twist however, should Briatore indeed pull the plug on new investments, could inflict serious damage to the town’s image, especially in Italy, one of the main markets for tourists. With the runway too short to accommodate larger jets on nonstop flights from Europe do visitors have to travel via Mombasa and then face a long journey to reach their Malindi based resorts, something even other resort operators keep criticizing. The airport building in Malindi has been expanded by the Kenya Airports Authority and is capable to handle charters from Europe were it not for the runway length which makes it impossible for larger aircraft to land and take off with full loads, effectively denying Malindi the opportunities given to Mombasa where charter landing fees have been waived and incentives are being paid now to charter operators following the announcement in December by Cabinet Secretary for Tourism Najib Balala.

‘If the airport had a long enough runway Malindi could benefit a lot from the new incentive scheme. As it is, this will only benefit Mombasa now because by the time the runway will be expanded the incentive will have expired’ said a Malindi based source before adding ‘When you talk of the challenges we have in Malindi, do remember that Mombasa County or Kwale County have similar challenges. Waste collection, sewage lines and treatment plants, piped water, roads etc etc pose the same problems there as we have it in Malindi. But it is true, there are incompetent officials and we should try to accommodate investors, especially when they come in such a big way. They must have exhausted all possible avenues and in complete frustration spoken out a few days ago. Kenya must try to keep people like Briatore happy and maybe the Cabinet Secretary can intervene because he knows what makes or breaks tourism at the coast. He also knows Briatore from the time he was in office between 2008 and 2012 so maybe not all is lost. But for sure county and town officials must pull up their socks because the bulk of the complaints is true and that is pathetic’.

It is unlikely that Briatore’s existing investments will be under immediate threat of selling out but the additional phases of real estate developments by his group clearly are now more uncertain than ever before. Other competing destinations for such investments, be it along the Eastern African seaboard – with in particular Mozambique in mind – or on the Indian Ocean islands offer a wide range of incentives for large scale investments, especially in the hospitality sector, and of course varying from country to country, leaving Kenya with the challenge to either offer the same or superior deals to retain existing and gain new investors from around the world.

‘Coast tourism must re-invent itself. Many of our resorts are tired and as you said when we met at the Magical Kenya Expo, it is same old same old. The English Point Marina is a good example how world class developments can be done at the Kenya coast. We need to take a close look what the Gulf destinations have accomplished over the past decade or two with their waterside developments. Zanzibar has attracted big names from the hospitality sector but the same can be said for Mauritius and Seychelles. We in Kenya need to take a fresh look what it is those places offer to investors and where we fall short. If a coast revival from within is difficult we may have to look for new ideas and investments from abroad. The airline incentives is a good start but to attract that sort of clients we need to get the airlines into Mombasa which fly to Zanzibar, to Mauritius and to Seychelles. We need the roads from and to the airport to bypass the traffic bottle necks. We need to bypass the areas which make tourists hold their noses like across the Changamwe Causeway or stare in disbelief about the state of buildings and the neglect we apparently got used to.

We need to basically have an express way to the resorts which has to be maridadi [a Kiswahili expression of first rate or exquisite] all the way. If we want those high spenders to come back to the Kenya coast, we just have to match what other Indian Ocean destinations have accomplished while we slept’ did another Mombasa based source then add, clearly outlining the challenges his sector is faced with but also clearly showing that there is awareness of the opportunities and the huge potential the Kenya coast has, from Malindi via Watamu, Kilifi, Shanzu and Nyali / Mombasa all the way to the south coast and the border with Tanzania.

Added another source, also declining to be named: ‘Dongo Kundu bypass from the airport and the Nairobi to Mombasa highway is very welcome and long overdue. So is the road from this highway via Kwale to Ukunda and Diani. But we are all grateful that Hon. Balala has finally come out and threw his weight behind the plans to build a bridge over the Likoni Channel. The ferries are a constant hazard and hassle for us but also for the tourists. The most recent breakdowns were again a complete disgrace and the ferry management should be sacked, they no longer have any credibility. If we get a bridge across Likoni, a lot of problems will be solved. But we also need a second bridge to the northern mainland and new highways like they got in Nairobi. We cannot afford, Kenya cannot afford, to have Mombasa remain inferior in infrastructure terms. We are talking of the biggest port in East Africa and one of the biggest resort hubs in Africa. We need big investments in infrastructure and we need them now’.

No doubt will this be music in the ears of the Briatore team but it might even sound better if the Kenyan government would reach out and not just embrace such a vision but actually make it happen.