The 17th edition of the Lamu Cultural Festival, held last month, will go down in history as the first one that local tourists outnumbered foreigners. And there were enough attractions to keep the visitors entertained for the four days when the Coastal town hosted the event — from henna paintings to the popular donkey race and dhow racing competition.
According to one official, 80 per cent of those who turned up for this year’s festival were domestic tourists from Lamu, Tana River, Garissa, Mombasa, Kilifi and Nairobi counties.
Faisal Miji, the Lamu Cultural Promotional Group secretary-general, said there is more to tourism than just visiting game parks and beaches.
“It is a great accomplishment that after all those years we still have our culture intact and we are doing everything to sustain and preserve it,” he said, drumming up support for more cultural tourism.
“People are normally surprised that there is a town at the Coast, where instead of enjoying fancy rides in automobiles for transport, people prefer to use donkeys. This particular aspect of our culture continues to attract people from all around the globe,” said Mr Miji.
The donkey race is one of the festival’s most popular events. It attracts hundreds of spectators from across the globe who come to see young men ride the beasts of burden along the seafront. This year, the race was won by 18-year-old Annas Abdalla. The race was sponsored by Silverstone Air, a charter airline that has announced its first daily flights from Lamu to Nairobi’s Wilson Airport via the Malindi Airport.
The Lamu Old Town was listed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2001, a year after it started hosting the cultural festival, the brainchild of Tourism Cabinet secretary Najib Balala.
The Old Town is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Its architecture and urban layout demonstrate the diverse cultural influences that have come together over several hundred years from Europe, Arabia and India, all incorporated into traditional Swahili techniques.
The town is characterised by the simplicity of structural forms enriched by such features as courtyards, verandas and elaborately carved wooden doors.
MODEL FOR TOURISM PROMOTION
Mr Athman Hussein, the Coast Region Deputy Director for the National Museums of Kenya, said Lamu County has become a model for the promotion of cultural tourism across the county.
“The Lamu Cultural Festival has provided a solid platform for the county to take its tourism and cultural agenda to new heights,” said Mr Hussein.
This year’s festival kicked off and ended on a high note with residents and visitors mingling to witness the magical lifestyle of the Swahili communities.
Some of the visitors had the opportunity to get their hands painted with henna while all were treated to traditional Swahili cuisine. Swahili foods are usually rich and have been heavily influenced by Arabian and Indian cuisines. Some of the dishes that cut across cultures include pilau, biriani and various fish, beef and vegetable curries.
“We made sure our menu consisted only of special traditional Swahili cuisine for the entire four day period and the guests loved it,” Ali Bunu, a hotelier in Lamu town told the Saturday Nation.