By Ahmed Hassan
There have been many articles written on the fate of tourism in Kenya. Despite its perceived recent comeback, some experts contend that the industry is on its knees and ailing. Others even go further to say that the industry died long time ago and needs a miracle of biblical proportions to revive it.
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The picture is bleaker in the coastal area, particularly in the County of Kilifi, where more than 25 hotels have been closed and thousands have been laid off. From being one of the most preferred destinations in Africa to the state in which we are now, one cannot help but ask the question: what went wrong? Again, many experts wrote about the reasons why the industry collapsed. Many recommendations were put forward. The government got into a high gear and came up with initiatives to revive the industry. Two year ago this month, the president gave directives to help with recovery. The cornerstone of his speech was to ask Kenyans to invest in the industry and support it.
Having listened to the President’s speech, I decided to heed his call and rise to the occasion. I opened 200 million beach resort in Malindi when everybody else was closing down their hotels and laying off staff. As I look back, I cannot help but wonder if the government was really serious about encouraging local investors to come the rescue of the industry.
The President’s directives – nine it all – were announced on May 23, 2014, and they included Kenyans (at least 25,000) working in corporate and business entities who would enjoy paid-for vacations, where employers would cover the cost and in return get tax rebates from the national government; revoking of an earlier directive banning government events in hotels as part of cutting costs, a promise that the Malindi Airport would be expanded to allow large planes to land safely; and a reduction on value added tax on air ticketing and park entrance fees.
Few of those directives had positive impact. For example, the decision to lift the ban on restricting the public service from holding conferences and meetings in private hotels worked well. While other directives, like the one asking companies to pay for employees’ vacation for tax rebates, did not have any noticeable impact on the industry. I haven’t read of or know of any single company that applied this directive.
Two years after the promise to expand Malindi Airport, this expansion is still to take place. Recently, a friend of mine had to spend 11 hours from Italy to Malindi. His flight landed in Mombasa, and he then had to travel to Malindi by road, a journey that took over 3 hours. On that day, there were road blocks manned by KDF soldiers. He had to get out of his car and walk while the car and the driver were searched. By the time the guy arrived in Malindi, he was not only tired, but also scared. The picture he got was that if soldiers were manning the highways, then the security situation must be really bad. Try to imagine the frame of mind for a tourist from the Middle East if one were to make the same journey, under the same circumstances.
The global trend
Tourism is the second largest foreign earner in the country, after tea, coffee and horticulture. The overall global outlook remains okay. Last year was a good year for world tourism, with a 4.5 per cent rise in outbound trips in the first eight months of the year [translating to $1.45 trillion (Sh144 trillion) in revenue]. According to industry experts, the outlook for 2016 remains healthy and further growth of 4.3 pc is expected. Those were the key results presented at the 23rd World Travel Monitor Forum in Pisa, Italy. Europe, recorded a robust 5pc increase in international tourist arrivals, the highest across all regions, and a notable result for a rather mature region.
Asia and the Pacific, the Americas and the Middle East all enjoyed 4pc growth, while limited data available for Africa points to an estimated 5pc decrease in the number of international tourists. At home, according to Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala, “there has been an 18 pc increase in arrivals in January and February of this year and we anticipate a 20-30 pc growth in the summer season starting July and August. We hope to see the same percentages over the winter season as well, said the Cabinet Secretary.” The CS recently announced several initiatives to supplement the President’s earlier directives, some of which are, frankly, outdated.
What we need to stop doing
The curse of the tourism industry is that it is one that takes many years to build, and a few hours to obliterate. What the industry needs is action, not rhetoric. Tough questions need to be asked, such why the President’s directives were not implemented. Do these directives take more than 24 months to roll out?
The recent campaigns launched by CS Balala will bear little fruit as they are not well thought out. First and foremost, our strategic direction is wrong. Our main focus is the number of tourists we want to visit Kenya; this is wrong. Our main focus should be the value of tourism rather than quantity of tourists. It would be better to say “tourism needs to/will bring in X billion dollars annually by 2020 than” as opposed to setting target numbers of visitors for any given duration.
Second, our campaigns and the money spent are misplaced. For example, the Balala announced that charter airplanes will get direct cash for flying to Mombasa or Malindi from Europe. What the CS was not told is that charter planes in Europe are almost going out of business. According to the latest statistics, the market share of chartered flights in Europe is 3pc currently, down from 13pc just five years ago. Budget airlines such as Ryan Air have basically driven them out of market. Chartered flights mainly offer packaged tourism where the traveller does not have any control of where they will sleep, what they will eat, which park they will visit and even what entertainment they will be treated to. All the activities are pre-planned, and the money is paid to the travel agent directly in Europe. They offer pre-wrapped and microwaveable products that do not have any taste, hence their decline.
Third, our hotel standards are below the international standards. 1986 was a turning point for the industry. It is the year that the number of tourists coming to Kenya crossed the 1 million mark. It is the year the Out of Africa movie hit shot in Kenya was released. It is the year that gave us classic local hit songs such as “Jambo Bwana” by Mombasa Roots. And today, visit any beach resort and you are bound to hear the same song playing everywhere. Where is the creativity that we now have to rely on one or two songs as our signature tunes?
We need to be more creative when it comes to marketing tourism to the world. We need to showcase our unique hospitality. We don’t need the famous picture of a chef holding a plate of fruits as a welcome sign on our brochures. Growing up in Malindi in the 1980s, I have seen this one chef’s photo over and over. How many tourists will come to Kenya because there is good chef and fresh fruits?
Our hotels are not only expensive but are still stuck in the 1986 “look”. The few modern hotels (The Kempinski and Crowne Plaza, for example) are found mainly in Nairobi. Hotels need to have 2016 standards. Such as free Wi-Fi. It is reported that more travellers use the Internet to communicate with family and friends. In the Middle East – a market that has not been penetrated by Kenya Tourism – there are estimated 41 million people active on social media – mostly on Facebook and WhatsApp. More travellers now use the Internet to make bookings, and travel agencies are having hard time surviving while some (like Germany’s Arcando) have gone out of business.
It is estimated that each person using the social media is connected to at least 250 people. Imagine the frustrations of the guests when the hotel does not have Wi-Fi or, where there is, connection is frustratingly slow. I know I would get pissed off if I failed every time I try to send a photo of my hotel to my friends. By just providing free fast Internet, an establishment gets free advertisement to thousands of people across the globe instantly.
Our news media like to showcase our loyal repeat guests to our country. For example, an old couple has been visiting Kenya for the past 20 years. That is good news to hear and see. What is better news to hear is that their children and grand children also love Kenya and visit us. We cannot continue to depend on older repeat tourists, much as we may love them. We need to reach out to younger, more hip and frequent travellers.
We need to clean up our environment and make our cities and towns livable and “visitable”. Recently, a wealthy investor threatened to pull out of Malindi due to the piling of garbage near the main hotels and the beach.
During the opening of my new hotel, I invited Madam Phyliss Kandie, the former CS for Tourism to attend the opening ceremony. She wasn’t available. I spoke with her PS; he was busy. I invited my own Governor, Amason Kingi. He never showed up. Until now, I have not had any government official come and congratulate me or just to encourage me to soldier on. Or even send me a congratulatory note.
Instead, there has been a parade of revenue collection agencies from both levels of government, knocking on my door. I had to pay for certificate of incorporation and business permit. Then showed up people from Regulated Tourism and Hospitality Activity, Tourism Act Fund, Liquor License, and PRISK–Kenya, and only God knows how many more will show up to demand some sort of license fees.
At some point, I asked one of the license officers what service I will get once I paid the license fees. After a long pause and scratching of head, he said “nothing.” Imagine that. Nothing! At least he was honest. I have no problem paying what is due to Caesar, but couldn’t we simplify it and just make me pay one license fee? I bought some promotional materials from Europe. Once they arrived at the port, I had to pay all kinds of fees as part of the customs duty. The strangest part of the computation, was the Railway Development Levy. Malindi does not have railway!
Why do we have so many licenses instead of one “super” license for all revenue collectors? Who is looking after the welfare of the thousands of staff who have been laid off? Surely, it wasn’t their fault that the industry collapsed. Many recommendations and suggestions have been put forward by stakeholders, which need no repeating here. Why haven’t any of these recommendations and suggestions been followed?
Writer is the proprietor of the African DADA Resort in Malindi