A new tourism development in Kenya combines tradition, luxury and sustainability.
It’s all a matter of perspective, says Nigel Rowley, managing director of the Kenya coast’s latest luxury development, Medina Palms.
Rowley first visited Kenya 25 years ago with his wife, Lesley-Anne, while she was designing game lodges in the country. “I instantly fell in love with Kenya, and perhaps because I don’t live there all the time and therefore see it with fresh eyes every time I visit, I saw tremendous opportunities and a very bright future.”
But one of the problems he encountered during his visits was the shortage of top quality places to stay on the Kenya coast. “While Kenya caters for large groups of tourists, there are considerable pockets of well-heeled visitors who would like to stay in relative luxury on the beach after their safaris,” he explains. “The lack of this type of holiday accommodation meant that we were losing visitors to the Seychelles and to Mauritius.”
Najib Balala, Kenya’s Minister for Tourism, is in agreement. He wants to get better value for the country’s wonderful natural attractions by making inroads into the highly lucrative upper end of the tourism industry.
In the meanwhile, Rowley and his wife solved their accommodation problems by building their own dream house, inspired by Swahili and Omani architecture, on the north coast. They rented out the house during holiday periods, “the return was excellent”, says Rowley. They sold the house after three years at a better rate of return than available in the UK. Suddenly, all the different strands came together into one idea – create a luxury resort that will blend in perfectly with the local environment and culture. The concept of Medina Palms was born.
The Watamu area, between Mombasa and Malindi, in addition to possessing stretches of pristine, white beaches, is also steeped in history. Nearby are the Gede ruins, once containing an opulent palace for the 12th century Omani rulers who held sway over the region.
The Rowleys bought a six-acre plot of land with a beach and ocean front: “We wanted to create boutique-cum-Four Seasons-style luxury ocean residences.” The idea was to build 50 houses and sell them; and also manage the properties, including marketing to the top end of holiday visitors for the owners.
The design is a combination of Omani, Mughal and Swahili styles – for example, the magnificent gateway opens onto a series of linked swimming pools that cool the air as it flows past and provide a natural form of air conditioning. The interiors maintain the coastal theme but are thoroughly modern in all other aspects.
The Medina Palms project began two and a half years ago but construction started only last year and the resort should be ready by the end of this year.
When the houses were first brought to the market in 2010, “We sold 11 units on the first evening,” recalls Rowley. The demand came largely from local investors. At the time of going to press, 35 units had been sold.
What is most significant about this project is that it not only lifts an aspect of Kenyan tourism to a new level, making it much more competitive in the global market, it is also very environmentally sensitive. Medina Palms is the founder member of Sustain, comprising the world’s leading sustainable residential and leisure developers.
The beach area is also a haven for turtles and other wildlife and this sort of small-scale boutique development, as opposed to the huge hotels catering for mass tourism, will go a long way in supporting the ecology. The project has received generous praise from the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Born Free Foundation, and it received the Kite Mark for Excellence from What Green Home.Com. It has also won the Best Development in Africa award at the International Property Awards event.