Kenya’s tourism industry is back in rude health, says Najib Balala, the country’s tourism minister. “It is one of those ‘must see before you die’ destinations.”
Back in 2007-08, the negative publicity in the wake of the post-election violence drove Kenya’s tourism industry to its knees. “We were down 47%,” recalls Tourism Minister Najib Balala. “This year, however, we expect to hit 2 million arrivals, the highest since a peak at 1.8 million in 2007.”
How was this remarkable turnaround achieved? “We went on an aggressive marketing campaign,” Balala explains. “Our traditional markets in Europe had dried up – partly as a result of the negative publicity, partly due to the economic squeeze.”
Balala and his team set off on a meticulously organised sales drive to woo back visitors from the traditional markets as well as attempt the difficult task of breaking into new markets. They took a two-pronged approach – appealing directly to consumers through advertising and features on international TV channels and radio stations.
“Fortunately,” Balala says, “Kenya is relatively easy to sell. Most people have seen wonderful documentaries of our landscapes, wildlife, birdlife and our fascinating cultures. It is one of those ‘must see before you die’ destinations.”
On the trade side, the ministry worked closely with tour operators and airlines and offered sweeteners such as cutting visa fees by half. They also turned their attentions to markets that had been ignored in the past – Russia, the Middle East, China, Japan, Canada – and the rest of Africa. In 12 months, seven new offices were opened in the new markets, including one in South Africa. The response was remarkable – visitors from India now surpass those from France.
“Africa has a tremendous potential in terms of visitors,” Balala contends. “We have opened an office in South Africa and are opening offices in Ghana and Senegal; we are also easing visa regulations.”
In addition to arrivals from new markets, some of the traditional markets have also rallied. “While visitor numbers from the UK and France are down, Italy and the US have fully recovered while Germany is well on the way up.”
In Vision 2030, tourism is one of the key sectors that will be relied on to drive the economy to higher levels of development. It contributes around 11% to the national GDP, is a large employer, and generates a good chunk of foreign exchange.
The 2030 strategy calls for the sector to treble earnings from Kshs65.4bn in 2007 to Ksh200bn by 2012, increase international arrivals from 1.8 million in 2007 to 3 million by 2012, and increase average spending per visitor from Ksh40,000 to Ksh70,000 by 2012. To achieve this, Balala says, the country will upscale Kenya’s already famous and fabulous attractions – its national parks, its stupendous game lodges, its pristine beaches, its magnificent cultural diversity and historical legacy – and also diversify its products.
“We are constructing three resort cities – one on the south coast at Diani, one on the north coast at Kilifi, and one at Isiolo to tap into the rich potential presented by Mount Kenya, the Meru National Park, the Aberdares Forest, and the Samburu National Park.”
Other plans include an amusement park at Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi, the development of World Heritage sites at Lamu, Mount Kenya, and Sibiloi National Park where Koobi, regarded as the Cradle of
Humankind, is located.
Health spas will be located at naturally occurring hot springs in the Rift Valley, and a nine-hole golf course and city, complete with a five-star hotel, shopping mall and an Imax theatre, is planned to be located at the current Railway Club site in Nairobi.
Following two totally unexpected attacks by bandits from Somalia on visitors enjoying the privacy of relatively remote sites on the southeast coast of Kenya, Balala said the whole nation had been deeply saddened that anything like this had happened at all on Kenyan soil.
A round-the-clock armed patrol and helicopter surveillance was immediately installed in the area. “This is a huge tragedy; we will do everything possible to make sure it never happens again,” Balala promises. “As a tourist destination, Kenya is paradise; we want to keep it that way.”