TOURISM: WEATHERING MPEKETONI ATTACK

Urgent amends are called for, particularly given the continuing withdrawal of western travellers from Kenya.

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By Ciugu Mwagiru

Just when frantic efforts were being made all round to rescue Kenya’s tourism sector from the vagaries of mounting insecurity, the mid-June terrorist attack on the coastal town of Mpeketoni and its surroundings added more fuel to the raging fire.

The attack on the town, which lies in the perennially volatile Lamu region, came at the worst possible time. In the event, it delivered stupefying body blows that nearly sounded the tourism industry’s death knell. It did not help matters that the Sunday night Mpeketoni attack that left at least 60 people dead and scores wounded came about a month after the industry had been pummelled senseless by a flurry of cataclysmic travel advisories.

The travel warnings issued by the UK, the US and Australia had culminated in the evacuation of 500 British tourists from the Coast and the globe-wide blacklisting of some of Kenya’s most popular tourist destinations, particularly in the coastal region. Consequently, there were already fears that such warnings could result in travel phobia among potential western tourists.

Some wags were probably asking why there were no advisories about such mortal dangers as attacks by wild animals, fatalities resulting from road accidents or even the possibility of succumbing to malaria

In the meantime, the more cynical watchers of events in Kenya, particularly its relationship with the western world, were busy expressing their take on the perceived risks awaiting western tourists. Not unjustifiably, some wags were probably asking why there were no advisories about such mortal dangers as attacks by wild animals, fatalities resulting from road accidents or even the possibility of western tourists succumbing to such African epidemics as malaria and HIV-Aids.

It goes without saying that such regional phenomena are mega killers in Africa, and obviously afflict greater numbers of victims than those who succumb so such dreaded fevers as the rare though extremely virulent Ebola, which western embassies have routinely alerted potential travellers about.

That aside, it is certainly true that the mid-June Mpeketoni attack came just days after the British Government closed down its Mombasa consulate over security fears, a move that reportedly sparked jitters over tourist bookings for the high season. According to early media reports, Somalia-based Al-Shabaab militants claimed responsibility for the unnerving incident and allegedly said they were on a revenge mission for the killing of Islamic clerics at the Kenya coast.

Pointedly, the deaths of a number of Muslims clerics at the coast have been widely described as extra-judicial executions and are still surrounded by mystery as the Kenyan authorities seem unable to sufficiently explain them away. In the meantime, the mystery of the Mpeketoni attacks heightened when Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Tuesday June 17 dramatically averred that the attacks were not carried out by Al-Shabaab, and could have been the work of other enemies of Kenya.

As for western governments that routinely issue travel advisories and alerts, gracefully their messages to respective nationals are, they argue, meant to provoke thoughtful consideration and assessment of risks so that decisions to travel to a particular destination are more rational. That simple fact does not however detract from the fact that travel warnings and alerts often have devastating financial losses for the destinations cited.

Clearly, exaggerated assessments of the dangers involved call for concerted efforts by investors in the targeted destinations in order to counteract them and reassure potential clients of their safety. At the same time, the affected players need to address such matters as risk management, while also identifying and quantifying operational, market and country-specific risks to their trading activities.

While focusing on broader investment dynamics, the local tourism sector players also need to spread their wings and look into the more complex global economic trends. Further, as they seek to widen their horizons they must consider the impact of global and regional dynamics on their markets, while also engaging in such capitalist favourites as competitor analysis.

Additionally, potential visitors need to be objectively informed about the real levels of the risks involved, and how they compare to the benefits offered by such exotic destinations as the Kenyan coast. Moreover, in the face of dwindling and evidently unreliable western markets, there is an urgent need for local stakeholders to delve into the possibilities offered by alternative domestic, regional and continental markets.

Given the prevailing insecurity in countries like Kenya, there is also an urgent need to make existing destinations attractive to local, regional and continental tourists, particularly those interested in reciprocal deals. To attain that objective, the stakeholders obviously need to deodorise their fare and deal with some of the nastier by-products of tourism, including western decadency and promiscuity, which are arguably as viral as any genetically African maladies, social or otherwise.

Among the most salient aspects of the downside of international travel are sex tourism, the scourge of low-spending backpackers, environmental degradation, drug use, the spread of paedophilia, pornography and over-dependency of local populations on the tourism sector at the expense of other areas like agriculture. Clearly, local operators need to appraise the gains of local populations from tourism, while aspiring to give citizens more ownership with a view to growing the sector.

At the same time, taxes levied on tourism must be reduced as an incentive to all players in the sector, particularly given the need for greater local control. The latter may prove crucial following recent developments, which have made it evident that Eurocentric packaging of Kenyan and other Third World tourist destinations may not be too wise in the long run, and could expose the sector to all sorts of manipulations by the multinational behemoths that control the local tourism trade.

Local tourism honchos undoubtedly may have to urgently address the spread of such negative by-products of foreigner influxes as sex tourism, paedophilia and the sector’s association with drugs and prostitution, both male and female. In the process, they may also have to disabuse Africans of the western-bred notion that white people are civilised and peaceful, and that it is always the ‘ethnics’ who always cause trouble.

Amid all the prevailing hullaballoo about the perils of travelling to destinations like the Kenyan coast, there is the prevailing question about who really are the major beneficiaries of the global tourism trade, including Kenya’s. One does not need to be a tourism or global economics aficionado to tell you that among them are foreign multinationals that own air charter companies, shipping lines and massive cruise ships, hotel chains, car hire and land travel companies. Also benefiting from international tourism are branded gambling chains and other attractions of the travel trade.

In the past, allegations have been made that western-based travel companies have retained the lion’s share of the benefits of Kenyan tourism. This has allegedly been done by ensuring that most of the payments for packages are paid for outside the country, with foreign charter companies also pocketing a major proportion of the benefits, while denying local carriers like Kenya Airways the lucrative returns from the market.

This has allegedly been done by ensuring that most of the payments for packages are paid for outside the country, with foreign charter companies also pocketing a major proportion of the benefits, while denying local carriers like Kenya Airways the lucrative returns from the market.

Deaf ear

Fortunately, many die-hard foreign tourists turn deaf ear to their respective countries’ advisories, arguably because they find that the benefits offered by the targeted destinations far outweigh the inherent or imaginary risks. Such are the veteran tourists’ love affairs with some destinations that they sometimes permanently settle there, often forsaking their original citizenship in the presumed western havens.

As many of them today happily ensconced in such exotic coastal locations as Malindi and other places along Kenya’s coast will tell you, they would not settle anywhere else in the world. As for those visitors who pay heed to the pervasive travel advisories, many live to rue the fact that they have to sacrifice the opportunity to live it up as they are cajoled to give up the chance to enjoy the dust cheap rates available as a result of very favourable exchange rates given the currently very weak Kenya shilling.

Back to the recent attack in Mpeketoni and its surroundings, it ultimately left the already beleaguered tourism sector gasping for survival, and was ample evidence that the spectre of terrorism was not leaving Kenya any time soon. Even more alarmingly, the attackers reportedly targeted local non-tourist hotels, restaurants, banks and government offices, and, in what appeared to have been a fit of fury, some of the targets were burned down, alongside motor vehicles parked outside them.

Following the attack, which was reportedly carried out by about 50 heavily armed men riding in three minibuses, there were palpable jitters among the tourism sector players, who reportedly warned that it was the latest in a series of events that were continuously rocking it. According to them, the attack could only aggravate a situation already made bad by the adverse effects of the earlier travel advisories.

Chillingly, the attack could not be termed as totally unexpected, as there had been prior warnings that some locations in Kenya, Uganda and elsewhere in the region could be targeted by terrorists during the World Cup season. That the Kenyan security machinery was caught flat-footed during the attack was also worrying, as was the swiftness with which the operation was carried out, giving the attackers sufficient time to make a clean escape despite some evidently lack-lustre repulsion by the local security forces.

Even more alarmingly, the attacks continued on Monday night, reportedly raising the casualty figures as the perpetrators made an absolute mockery of Kenyan security forces. Worse still, the fact the massive assaults were aimed at non-tourist targets was sufficient proof that terrorism directed at Kenya by groups such as Al-Shabaab is not selective, and that its targets could be extremely unpredictable. Slowly, the message was becoming clear to all that a country without guaranteed security could not expect to have a robust and thriving tourism sector, travel advisories or no travel advisories.

Ultimately, the jitters that have rocked the Kenyan tourism sector so far are clear indications that its entire dynamics needs to be urgently reviewed. Evidently, the industry urgently needs to resort to the time-tested strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) approach to challenges, while also analysing the major dynamics within the tourism sector itself and within the broader political, economic and business environment.

Questions should be asked, for instance, as to why there has been over-dependence on Western source markets like the UK, the US, Italy and Germany. Given the volatility of the tourism sector and its evidently very fickle nature, there is clearly a case to be made for the urgent diversification of its markets and a reassessment of its real potential, still largely untapped.

As for marketing, Kenyan tourism would no doubt benefit from harder work by its stakeholders, including the reining in of independent strategists to undertake assessments and forecasts for the sector, with special focus on all the major industry, economic and demographic indicators. As already pointed out by professionals, such an undertaking would involve painstaking analysis of such relevant factors as tourist expenditure, government expenditure on tourism and passenger arrivals and departures. Also to be looked into should be areas such as mode of transport, reason for travel, origins and destinations of tourists and the status of the local accommodation market.

Instead of over-dependence on clearly unreliable so-called western core markets, Kenyan and other Third World tourism strategists would do well to focus on such other areas as alternative market opportunities and the scope for new investment or sales growth via their own proprietary markets. As matters stand, queries remain as to who are the real beneficiaries of the sector.

Clearly, urgent amends are called for, particularly given the continuing withdrawal of western tourists from Kenya.

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