There couldn’t have been a better way to announce to the world about one of Kenya’s largely ignored tourism attractions than a live video stream of Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala skydiving from a plane at 11,000 feet and landing on the white sands of Watamu.
The spectacle of the Tourism minister in white shorts and a matching T-shirt splashed with the colours of the Kenyan flag and strapped to a guide was relayed live through HerdTracker — an online app. Once he landed safely, Mr Balala said he wanted to show that Kenya was more than sandy beaches and wildlife. The minister was alluding to “adventure tourism” — a niche involving adrenalin-inducing travel and other experiences.
“Besides beach and wildlife products, Kenya is rich in other tourism attractions and this will provide an opportunity for tourists to sample diverse attractions,” says Mr Balala.
Kenya’s steep ascent from the Indian Ocean to Mt Kenya and descent to the Rift Valley and Lake Victoria was famously described by German explorer Ludwig Krapf in the 1840s as “second to none”.
But there has been little attempt to consolidate and market the country as an adventure tourism destination despite its huge potential. Instead, the country’s reputation as a magnet for tourists has largely been based on its attraction as a top safari and beach destination.
Indeed, UK travel publication, Rough Guides, recently ranked Kenya ninth globally and first in Africa in the top 10 places to visit in 2016, “largely due to its world-famous national parks, white sand beaches and the rich culture.” Earlier, the country was voted as the world’s leading safari destination in 2015 by the World Travel Awards.
However, a string of travel advisories by key markets like the UK and the US owing to security concerns have left the tourism industry on its knees.
But interwoven with Kenya’s traditional attractions, the lure of adventure tourism appears to be growing. The United Nations World Tourism Authority (UNWTO) defines adventure tourism as, “a trip that includes at least physical activity, natural environment and cultural immersion.” Popular activities include mountaineering, trekking, bungee jumping, mountain biking, canoeing, rafting, kayaking, zip-lining, paragliding, sand boarding, caving and rock climbing. These are now scattered across the country as operators fight for a piece of the pie of millions of dollars that the tourism industry brings each year.
WALKING WITH MAASAI
For instance, about 100km north of Nairobi in Murang’a County is the Sagana Rapids Camp where people who get a rush from performing near-death stunts or terrifyingly thrilling activities can get their fix by a 45-foot jump into a waterfall. Visitors can kayak, too, on the rapids of the Sagana River, bungee jump 60 metres into the river or take a night walk in the forest along the waters where they are likely to run into grazing hippos.
In November, the camp hosted the Africa canoeing and kayaking Olympics qualifiers with participants from 15 countries. The same month, a team of 23 Dutch, at least 15 Kenyans and three Britons walked more than 60 kilometres through a forested area of Maasailand — from Amboseli to a village near Kajiado town. Save for the railway line, the distance covered was through virgin land.
The expedition was to retrace the footsteps of Joseph Thomson, the explorer credited by the British for establishing the route between Mombasa and Lake Victoria in the 19th century. Among them was Mr Thompson’s grandson, 69-year-old John Hasting
“It’s such a privilege to walk with the Maasai and to learn from them. For me, they are one of the great ethnic groups in the world,” he told Lifestyle. It cost the explorers Sh3 million to take part in the walk.
Back to Murang’a, a stone’s throw away from Sagana Rapids Camp, the Bungee Walla has also taken advantage of the wild waters of the Sagana to offer bungee jumping. Its owner, Mr Andreas Reblin, says he started the venture in 2001 as a way of expanding adventure tourism in Kenya.
“I was hoping that the people who come here for white water rafting are brave enough to face the bungee and vice versa,” he says.
But the task of promoting the venture has been an uphill one.
“The first three years were so slow that I almost gave up,” he says. “To top it, the local travel agents were not willing to promote it.”
Today, the numbers have increased tremendously both for international and local tourists.
“Most of them, especially Europeans, have done it. There are those who try it again because it is in a scenic location, not off a crane in a parking lot,” he says.
Further west of the capital near Eldoret at Kerio Valley, the area famous for its scenic views, tall cliffs and steep escarpments is of late becoming an increasingly popular destination for paragliding — which involves jumping from a high place using a special parachute to float down to the ground.
It costs Sh8,000 for a flight that lasts about 20 minutes and Paraglide Kenya, a company involved in the venture, says the high season is from December to March.
“Almost 90 per cent of the paragliders who come during the high season are from Europe since it is winter in their countries,” it says on its website.
And in Nairobi those who wish to undertake rock climbing, an exciting but dangerous affair, can do it at Climb Blue Sky, an indoor park, or try one of the many expeditions outside town.
A number of online trading websites too are now competing against each other marketing rock climbing as one of the must-do activities for those seeking an adventure outside town. An upcoming trip to Mt Longonot is among those currently being advertised.
It is such developments that have led the government to agree that adventure tourism is the next big thing.
The Tourism Cabinet Secretary cites Kilifi County, which has become a water sports haven attracting thousands of tourists each year.
“More than before, kite surfing, scuba diving, fishing, kayaking, sailing, white water rafting, windsurfing, snorkeling, water skiing, wakeboarding are among the activities that have placed Kenya amongst the top watersports destinations in the world,” he says.
Operators, however, think the government and private sector marketers have taken a long time to realise it.
“Most of the activities that we have been marketing to the world limit tourists to the level of being passive spectators. Trends have changed; today’s modern traveller is a risk-taker and wants to get the full experience of the area they are visiting,” says Mr William Kinuthia, CEO Sagana Rapids Camp.
He adds: “Further, with more options, the whole industry will not be susceptible to shocks like what we are seeing with all these travel advisories and with dwindling wildlife numbers as visitors will have more choice.”
Earnings from tourism fell from Sh94 billion to Sh87.1 billion between 2013 and 2014 due to frequent terror attacks and travel advisories. And in the last wildlife survey of 2014 by the Department of Resource Surveys and Remote Sensing, wildlife numbers had dropped by a quarter in just five years.
But tourism arrivals rebounded by 6.7 per cent during the just concluded high season to 62,548 in November from 58,663 in the same month in 2014, a fact that has made the government optimistic.
Nevertheless, Mr Balala sees a future in adventure tourism.
“These excursions indeed provide the diversity that is needed in the tourism sector and to maximise on diversity, the government is encouraging product developers including county governments to identify their niche in tourism attractions for marketing and promotion,” he says.
On the international scale, UNWTO – the global forum that addresses tourism policy issues – ranked adventure tourism as the fastest growing travel segment in the world hitting a global value of $263 billion in 2014. This was a monstrous increase of 195 per cent from 2011.
In its last “Global Report on Adventure Tourism” released in December 2014, the organisation predicted that this segment was poised to overtake all forms of tourism. Further, arrivals of tourists seeking adventures in emerging markets would have exceeded developed markets by the start of this year.
“By 2030, about 57 per cent of arrivals will be in emerging economies. To accommodate this surge in demand, supply is expected to increase but to do this the make-up of the sector in these markets will have to change from being predominantly small owner-operated and be pushed by governments,” said the report.
This, the report added, was because adventure travel requires less development than traditional industry: Paved roads, large airports, and expensive infrastructure are not always required by the adventure customer or product.
“This is especially ideal for emerging economies who can maximise what they already have,” it advised.