International tourist arrivals in Kenya decreased from 1.7m in 2012 to 1.5m in 2013. According to the 2014 Economic Survey released in late April by the Devolution and Planning Ministry, this decline in international arrivals “may be attributed to travel advisories by traditional tourist markets due to security concerns”. Wanjohi Kabukuru reports.
This was the first official confirmation that Kenya’s tourism sector was facing a crunch time. For the last five decades, Kenya’s tourism has largely depended on the European market as its main source. Whenever political disturbances combined with security fears have arisen, the sector has in turn suffered.
Tourism is Kenya’s third-largest foreign exchange earner – after tea and horticulture – and difficulties in the sector directly impact on the general Kenyan economy.
This decrease in tourism had been expected from September 2013 when al-Shabaab, the Somali militant group, laid a terrorist siege in the Kenyan capital Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. The siege, which was played in the full glare of the international media, ended in 67 deaths including some foreigners.
A continued surge in crime intertwined with sporadic terror attacks within the main cities of Nairobi and Mombasa since September last year has seen the situation deteriorating further. In March, gunmen killed six worshippers in Mombasa and an SUV laden with explosives was intercepted.
In April, there were further bombings in Nairobi. In May, bombings struck Nairobi, buses on the Thika Superhighway and coastal Mombasa. In June, gunmen attacked the town of Mpeketoni on the coast, about 30 kilometres from the tourism hub of Lamu, resulting in 50 fatalities, with a further attack the next night.
In the wake of the attacks, the UK, France, Australia and the US issued travel warnings and scaled down staff in their respective diplomatic missions in Nairobi. A day after these travel advisories were issued, UK charter-flight operators evacuated some 700 British tourists who had been holidaying in Mombasa. The UK government closed its consulate in Mombasa due to increased terror threats and heightened political tension.
In early June, the African Hotel Investment Forum, which was to be hosted in Nairobi, was rescheduled for September and moved to Addis Ababa. While the UK organisers have said that “limited space” in Nairobi is the reason they moved, many see it as related to security. Lately, Kenya’s relations with the UK, US and France have hit an all-time low.
The pinch has now begun to be felt with a bleak future facing the industry. More than 20 hotels have already closed in Mombasa and the north coast, with some 7,000 jobs in the hospitality industry being lost so far.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), tourism contributed 13.7% to Kenya’s GDP in 2013 and accounted for 12% of total wage employment. Last year 1,077,000 arrivals were recorded in Tanzania with the tourism sector earning the country Tshs 2.4 trillion ($1.5bn) and contributing 15% of the GDP.
Though Kenya tops the region as the most-favoured destination, its security-related misfortunes have favoured Tanzania, which is a considerably cheaper destination.
The WTTC findings coincide with those of WEF, which notes that insecurity, immigration procedures and infrastructure challenges are dragging the sector’s progress across Eastern Africa.
In 2014 Uganda is expected to lead in tourism growth figures with an estimated 6.4% growth followed by Tanzania at 4.3% with Rwanda, Kenya and Burundi trailing.
Tanzania still leads the region in hotel accommodation with some 30,600 rooms. Kenya follows with 24,000 rooms but leads in terms of bed occupancy. Safari, scenic, beach and birding tourism still remain East Africa’s tourism attractions with conference tourism beginning to take root.