Tourists enjoy extra space at Kenyan game reserves

A row of empty pool-side benches stretches beside a lone tourist at a luxury lodge in Kenya after post-poll turmoil cut travel to one of the world’s most famous safari spots.

“We were really hoping our safari would not be cancelled,” says Canadian tourist Debbie Shillitto, stretching back on her sun lounger at the Samburu game reserve, about 250km north of the capital Nairobi.

She is one of the rare tourists who did not cancel her high-season holiday to Kenya.

Most of the 62 rooms are empty at the lodge, which lies next to a crocodile-infested river on the vast plains of the Samburu.

“Nobody is willing to make any fresh bookings,” says Paul Chaulo, the Samburu Serena lodge’s manager. “We had projected a bed occupancy of 69%, now we have an occupancy of 15% for the month of January.”

Riots that blockaded some of Kenya’s main roads also cut off supplies to the lodge, forcing the facility—already hobbled by low revenues—to use expensive air transport to bring in provisions.

Shillitto drove through roadblocks to reach the site just days after riots erupted across Kenya over the disputed December 27 presidential election.

Although the unrest was confined to specific areas, particularly the west of the country and the capital’s slums, safety fears sparked by violence have affected almost all hotels and lodges within less than a fortnight.

But Shillitto says she feels sad rather than scared.

“We watched the news, a lot of it is very sad. We were saddened by how many lives were taken.”

At least 600 people died and a quarter million were displaced in clashes sparked by the December 30 announcement that President Mwai Kibaki had been re-elected amid widespread allegations of fraud and claims by opposition leader Raila Odinga that he was robbed of victory.

For now, political deadlock remains, as well as international travel advisories warning tourists to stay away.

“We are talking of cancellations from January to the end of the year,” Chaulo said, adding that in the interim they would be forced to send casual workers home.

Many warn that tourism—which earns Kenya nearly $1-billion a year—may remain shackled for a long time.

At the Masaai Mara reserve south of Nairobi, which extends along the border with Tanzania and the Serengeti, the head of the Kenya Association of Tour Operators, Duncan Muriuki, predicts the immediate future is bleak.

“With time you will see hotels completely empty,” he says as he travels in a jeep around the reserve.

“Travel advisories are really going to kill us.”

The head of the Masaai Mara Conservancy, Brian Heath, agrees.

“Many of us cannot comprehend how quickly it [violence] has devastated the tourism industry,” he says.

The Kenya Tourism Federation said Friday that hotels had lost around $60-million in cancellations so far this month due to safety fears.

But for now, the handful of tourists remaining in the largely deserted hotels and lodges say they relish the extra calm and close attention they are receiving.

“I don’t feel I am in any danger at all,” says Briton Steve Burgin, on the tail end of a two-week vacation with his wife in the Masaai Mara.

“We can’t think of any view other than that,” he adds, gazing across expansive savannah from the hotel lobby.

Back in Samburu, Shilito agrees.

“We get all the attention,” she says.
“It makes me feel special.” - AFP

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