Kenya tourism hurt by images of violence

Kenya’s game parks usually teem with camera-toting tourists at this time of year. Now they are all but empty after images of deadly clashes that rocked the country were beamed around the world.

Operators say pictures of machete-wielding youths battling riot police and of a torched church that evoked nightmares of the Rwandan genocide, have sent some tourists packing and others delaying trips or scrapping planned visits outright.

A minority have bravely chosen to see out their holidays.

“We have never felt like we were in danger,” said Debbie Shillito, a Canadian relaxing by the pool of a lodge in the Samburu Game Reserve, the only tourist in sight. “Our biggest fear was that our trip would be cancelled.”

Protests and clashes following President Mwai Kibaki’s re-election have killed about 500 people.
His rival, Raila Odinga, believes he was cheated of an election win and the controversy has triggered bloodletting displacing more than 250 000 people.

Tourism industry players say the violence, which has been in isolated places and usually far away from where tourists stay, has portrayed the whole country as a basket case and no-go zone.

Tourism is Kenya’s biggest foreign exchange earner and supports about a million people.

Many Western countries, including Britain—Kenya’s biggest source market—have slapped travel bans on non-essential visits, meaning insurance firms won’t cover anyone going there.

As a result, bed occupancy across the country has fallen to around 20%, when it would normally have been above 85% at this time, the industry’s peak season.

“Phones are not ringing with new bookings. That is the main concern for us,” said Peter Mbogua, sales and marketing manager for the Serena Group of hotels. “And the phones will not start ringing until the perception created is changed.”

Mbogua said the Mara Serena in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, famous for its annual wildebeest migration, was just 40% occupied. Usually in January it would be nearly full.

Tourism down, economy down

Those in the industry see attempts at a political deal as half-hearted and say if the impasse remains unresolved much longer, all their first quarter bookings—worth an estimated 30-billion shillings ($460-million)—may go down the drain.

“We are telling the politicians: take your toys and play with them elsewhere,” said Duncan Muriuki, chairperson of the Kenya Association of Tour Operators.

“If tourism goes down, the economy will go down big time and the multiplier effect will hit everyone,” he said.

The private sector Kenya Tourism Federation asked political leaders to find a quick solution, warning in a newspaper statement on Friday that its members may have to lay off about 20 000 workers in the next three months alone.

Kenyan tourism has bounced back from previous scares. Ethnic clashes in a suburb of the resort city of Mombasa in 1997. Bomb attacks the following year and in 2002 also cut visitor numbers.

The Kenya Tourist Board (KTB) said it had just managed to get Kenya back onto international tour operators’ itineraries.

“To see all these gains wiped out overnight due to this crisis is very unfortunate,” said KTB’s managing director Achieng’ Ongong’a.

“Kenya had regained her place on the tourist map. All of a sudden, just because of the perception that it is unsafe, we receive all these cancellations.” - Reuters

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