By Andrea Bohnstedt
The impact of insecurity in Kenya on its tourism sector should be one of our biggest concerns, not the least because it will further increase overall insecurity if nothing is done about it, soon, and credibly, tangibly so: So many jobs, especially in the semi formal and informal sector, depend on it – and the formal sector is relatively small to start with. Many of those jobs aren’t particularly good or promising ones, just things to get by on. The current situation is particularly bad at the coast.
Still, I find this a difficult one: Two female tourists were shot dead on the streets of Mombasa in two different incidences recently. Do I really want to invite my sister to come to a Coast holiday with me and spend a few days in Mombasa before we run off to Diani? Right now: no, probably not.
Last year, one of the participants in the StoryMoja Litfest, Professor Kofi Awoonor, was among the people killed in Westgate. Not the Litfest’s fault, of course, but particularly harrowing if you’ve been amongst those having invited him. Wole Soyinka had the opposite reaction to me: he told the Litfest people that he’d definitely come this year, after many previous invites (also a reminder to you good people: buy your tickets for the Litfest – Soyinka is coming, and many other amazing people to tickle and tease your brain!).
A few weeks ago, Aidan Hartley wrote a piece in the Spectator titled ‘Please take your holiday in Kenya this year’. I had remembered it as a more nuanced take on the tourism situation, but when I just looked up again and reread it, it actually said little about travel, and more about the people who pass through – foreign journalists, diplomats – and only see the grim. And it’s a reality, Hartley says: ‘I thought a lot about life after being ambushed by a bandit who filled my car with bullets last year. I’ve logged all the newspaper reports of terrorism attacks since the end of the Westgate shopping mall massacre in September. My count of reported incidents gives a total of 60 innocents killed in nearly 30 events, some very close to home. I am concerned daily for my family. The roads drive me crazy. And so does bureaucracy and corruption. The poverty I see disturbs me to the core.’ All that, and also the other part of reality that Kenya is a place with ‘magic and wonder’, a place that has defied the expectations of collapse of especially some of his fleeing tribe since 1963.
The complete (and quite opportunistic) opposite from Richard Branson, also from a few weeks ago when the travel advisories were issued, and who started off with a tree-huggy vision of the United Colours of Utopia: ‘No country should ever post blanket travel advisories warning citizens not to visit another country. We should all be taking steps to reduce the boundaries between people and nations – not creating deeper divisions.’
For starters, there were no blanket travel advisories. They addressed specific areas in Kenya. Then Branson claims that ‘In our case, Virgin Atlantic had to stop flying to Kenya as the dwindling tourism industry made the route highly uneconomical.’ I don’t find that reflected in Virgin’s statements when they cancelled the route – in 2012, well before Westgate, and after flying through the post-election violence. Branson said: ‘A combination of record fuel prices, higher and higher taxes imposed by the Government and a poorly timed slot not providing connections from London, have made it uneconomical to fly from Nairobi. Governments must be more realistic about the aviation taxes they impose and we urgently need to increase capacity at Heathrow.’ Travel advisories? No mention of them. But Branson is now an investor in a very, very upmarket lodge in Kenya, so that may have coloured his current perspective and possibly his memory of why Virgin halted the flights.
I’ve been thinking about tourism again these past few days after I read the news reporting on the elephant ‘census’, a study written by Colorado State University professor George Wittemyer together with colleagues from different conservation organisations, that elephant poaching rates now exceed their birth rates. This is particularly bad in areas like the Central African Republic where this simply no state, functional or otherwise, left, but you just need to follow the news in Kenya to know that it’s a huge concern in Kenya, too, and with little that inspires confidence that GoK is addressing the problem. Just read Paula Kahumbu’s account of how the IG David Kimaiyo kept her waiting for over eight hours before finally finding the time and good grace to accept a petition to arrest a known trader in illegal ivory.
A grim approach to tourism marketing: Book your flights to Kenya now if you still want to see elephants in the wild. If you wait too long, they’ll be gone. Or maybe offer some new products like poacher tours – see those butchered elephants on site?
What I still wonder: The largest demand for ivory comes from Asia, specifically China. Kenya’s good friend China. China, the country that offered to finance the standard gauge railway with around USD2bn. Why isn’t the government making it very clear at every single corner that none of this or any other project will go ahead unless China shows some tangible, clear progress in addressing the demand for ivory in its domestic market, and also clamps down on imports of ivory? Or is that a rhetorical question, given Kimaiyo’s enthusiasm?