To ordinary Kenyans, 76-year-old Isler Hildegaard is a typical mzungu on holiday, but make no mistake, she is not your usual tourist.
Hildegaard is a Swiss national who is probably Kenya’s most loyal tourist. She first came here on holiday in 1971, and 43 years later, the pensioner is not about to end her visits.
She has come to know Kenya as her second home — her home away from home. Ignoring the travel advisories issued by the UK and the US governments, Hildegaard is now on her 32nd visit to the country.
A keen culture vulture with a penchant for traditional Kenyan foods, such as mukimo and the indigenous chicken popularly known as kienyeji, Hildegaard is always armed with her camera to freeze special moments. She also loves to shake a leg with traditional dancers.
“Every time I come to Kenya, there is always something different to see,” she says between sips of Kenyan tea, which she says she can’t get enough of.
ONLY FOUR RHINOS
“You will see something in the morning and when you come back in the evening, you see something different.”
When she first arrived in the country, she was a 33-year-old artist who expressed her feelings on canvas. Back then, she recalls, there was not as much wildlife as she sees today. The Meru National Park, for instance, had only four rhinos. She was with her sister on her first visit and they stayed at the Serena Safari Lodge.
Since then, she has spent a record 694 nights in the country.
From the pristine, white sand beaches at the coast and the national parks teeming with game to the lively traditional dancers, Hildegaard has probably seen more of Kenya than most Kenyans.
But it is not the game nor the beaches that keep her coming. “It is the warmth of the Kenyan people. Kenyans are generally nice and friendly.
“Young people in the West don’t like old people like me, but here, everyone is very welcoming.”
After working as an artist for years, Hildegaard worked in the finance department of several chemical industries in Switzerland.
Although she has never been married and has no children, Hildegaard has forged lasting relationships wherever she goes. She speaks highly of her Kenyan tour guide, Shafiq, who has been with her for five consecutive years.
She is also very fond of Mr Timothy Kitenge, who has been organising her trips and itineraries for all these years.
While tourists were rushing back home during the 2007/8 post-election violence, Hildegaard was running in the opposite direction — to Lake Nakuru National Park, where she was the only tourist at the time.
Is she not afraid of going against travel advisories? A little bit, she says, but “nothing compares to the thrill of having breakfast down the river”.
“I understand that there are travel advisories, but I don’t think it will help to take away from others what they have.
“Peace in the country is very important, but it takes time for diverse people to live together in harmony,” she says.
The latest travel warning to Kenya, updated on August 13 by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, advises UK citizens against all but essential travel to Mombasa, Lamu and Tana River counties. It further warns against travelling to areas within 60km of the Kenya-Somali border, and Eastleigh in Nairobi.
As a result, Kenya’s tourism industry has been on the brink of collapse as the number of visitors declined by four per cent since January, according to the Kenya Tourism Board.
During the high season of January and May, Kenya received 381,000 visitors this year, compared to last year’s 398,000.
According to Ms Rosemary Mugambi, the regional sales and marketing director at Serena Hotels, travel advisories and the withdrawal of charters from UK companies at the coast has hurt the leisure business.
“This is why we are working closely with the Kenya Tourism Board and the Government of Kenya to assist the UK, US and French governments to revise these advisories,” she says.
The campaign to restore Kenya’s reputation as a top tourist destination has received a boost of Sh500 million from the government to market the country.