By Antony Mutunga
“A simple way to take measure of a country is to look at how many people want in” – Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Agriculture may be the backbone of the country, but without tourism, the Kenyan economy would probably not be where it is right now. Because it has a lot of beautiful sights to offer, Kenya has become a hotspot that is visited by a large number of tourists, making the tourism sector the second largest source of foreign revenue after agriculture. The Kenyan Coast has regularly been voted one of the best tourist attractions in Africa and among one of the best to visit in the world.
However, recently the number of tourists has begun to reduce. Worryingly, this is not just for overseas tourists but for domestic tourists as well. Kenyans have cut down on leisure travel, and two factors are behind this: increased costs and insecurity.
During the Tourism Summit held in State House, Mombasa, last month, the stakeholders stated that increased costs, occasioned by taxes and inflation, had caused a decrease in the number of people travelling.
The stakeholders complained that the prices of accommodation and travel were not favourable as they had been increased almost twofold. They felt that instead of lowering the prices when it is favourable for people to travel, facilities tend to hike their prices, which causes people to put off travelling. The price hikes are so worrying that some attendees said they would prefer to pay more and go overseas rather than pay what they are being charged to travel within the country.
Insecurity was the other reason cited; the country has been victim to acts of terrorism, causing tourists to consider the country “unsafe”. This has been the trend for the past four years at least. Besides, tourists have also complained of being harassed on the beaches by operators who force their products on them, causing them to have a bad experience and hence causing them to change destinations.
Apart from making (sometimes fickle) effort to deal with the question of cost and addressing insecurity, more needs to be done to promote our country to the global market. As things stand, enough is not being done to market what our nation has to offer to tourists. It is unimaginable that we can just sit back and watch as other markets gobble up our share of tourists.
Speaking at the summit, Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala, called on stakeholders to make domestic tourism affordable by reducing prices. “We need to be dynamic in pricing; eighty per cent occupancy at a lower rate is more profitable than forty per cent at high rates,” he suggested. This was especially directed towards hospitality industry, whose players usually hike their rates during peak season.
National carrier Kenya Airways (KQ) was also not spared as stakeholders complained that it had really hiked its prices. The Kenya Coast Tourists Association chairperson, Mohamed Hersi echoed the Cabinet Secretary’s sentiments, pointing out that KQ urgently needed to reduce its prices to attract more domestic travellers.
A tale is told of the chair of a constitutional body travelling to a central African country – state officers are required by government to use the national carrier – who got the shock of his life when, during check in, learnt from another traveller that Ethiopian Airlines charges half what KQ charges for a return ticket for the same distance!
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In order to reach more people, media houses are required to market and promote the country more, instead of being reeled into politics, by showing what we have to offer. But they cannot do this alone, or free, because they are in business, and this is where the Tourism Ministry and the Export Promotion Council come in. In conjunction with reduced prices, this would definitely help put the industry back on track to its old glory days. As well, delegates who usually go out to represent the country in international conferences too need to do their best to market the country, ensuring they leave an impression on other delegates, to give them a reason to want to visit.
The many conferences that have been held in Kenya in the past six months have helped market the country as they have shown global citizens that the country is safe. This, in addition to United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) Secretary-General Taleb Rifai’s endorsement of Kenya as safe has, to some extent, helped allay fears about Kenya.
The industry also needs to work hand in hand with the county leaders to ensure work is put in to transforming their regions into places people would want to visit. An example is developing accommodation, security and transport infrastructure. It is necessary as well to ensure that the tourists in the country are treated to adventurous activities that will make them want to come back again and even go as far as to share their experiences once they go home, and encourage others to visit as well. For example, the introduction of water sport known as fly boarding at the Diani Beach in Mombasa has since become a major attraction. More such innovation is needed.
Also worth noting is that industry players have begun to develop a cruise ship terminal that that can accommodate large vessels. In 2016, 1,880 cruise ships have been recorded so far and the new cruise ship terminal, which is expected to be completed by late 2017, will definitely ensure this number increases. Besides helping boost visitor numbers, the dock will also create job opportunities.
Government has so far spent almost Sh100 billion on projects that include the construction of the Narok-Sekenani Road that leads to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, which had been in a deplorable state. Balala also reported that the JKIA is close to attaining Category 1 status, which will allow it to begin direct flights to the US as early as next year. This is a welcome step.
It was announced at the summit that the country will be hosting the 2017 American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) that looks to bring almost 4,000 travel agents. This would be a chance to connect local hoteliers to overseas tour operators and market the country more.
This is commendable, but government needs to ensure the summit was not just a dialogue of empty promises, and they are really going to work on the discussed matters to ensure the growth of the sector. The media also needs to play its part and market the country because this is a winning combination that will make Kenya a one-of-a-kind tourist attraction in Africa, indeed the world. ^