Con artists posing as tour agents have swindled hundreds of tourists from various parts of the world, threating Kenya’s image as a tourist destination.
The con men use fake online campaigns, complete with sweet reviews and budget tourism packages to lure foreigners who make advance payments before they are abandoned in Kenya once they arrive and pay the rest of the cash.
The Sunday Nation has also learnt that the cartel, which runs deep in the industry, has perfected the art of evading law enforcement officers by changing names, staff and tourist vans before resurfacing during high seasons to mint millions from helpless tourists visiting the country.
One of the latest victims of such a scam is Mr Chen Dong Yuan, a 51-year-old Chinese engineer from Changsha, who could not have been more excited to take advantage of the direct flights launched by the China Southern Airlines in June to visit Kenya.
Kenya had lauded the airline’s bi-weekly flights from Changsha and back to Nairobi with its 330-200 Airbus planes, added to the non-stop flights to Guangzhou, as one of the biggest boosts to its tourism sector with prolific tourists from China, ranked by United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) as the world’s top spender on tourism in 2017.
Mr Chen had no idea what awaited him and his five friends in Nairobi after planning and paying 50 per cent deposit to Kenya Walking Survivors Safaris Limited for the eight nights in different tourism spots around the country. That was in early July.
Their plane touched down on the morning of July 31 and what was their lifetime dream to take a nine-day tour of Kenya began with a driver from the company promptly picking them from the airport.
“We went to their officers where I paid $2,820 (about Sh295,000), which he insisted should be in cash. We then set off for Amboseli for two nights as per the itinerary. We had the vehicle but the driver changed outside Nairobi. On our way back, the driver told us the company that handed us to him had suddenly closed and our trip could not continue unless we made fresh arrangements,” Chen told the Sunday Nation, beginning his tragic tale of tourists in the hands of con men. In a foreign country and in the middle of a tour, a sudden stop was unimaginable. Their online guide (Mr Otieno Lysaniash) who also received the money when they arrived, had switched off his phone and true to the driver’s words, the office located at Vision Plaza was closed.
Mr Chen chose to complete the trip when the driver suggested that if they paid more, he would take them to the Maasai Mara, Naivasha and Nakuru as per the previous plan. They agreed and paid, doubling their tour budget and turning an otherwise happy trip into a struggle to beat the cons and survive any other attempt to fleece them. The driver, Stanslaus Ongeri, told the Sunday Nation that he was only hired as a freelancer by the firm and did not know the whereabouts of its owner, Mr Otieno, who he also claims made him to lose Sh25,000 in unpaid expenses.
The con victims had only Mr Ongeri after they were abandoned. Given the limited time they had and the shock that came with the first attempt to scuttle their trip, they had little choice but to rely on him even to report the matter to the police, despite the mistrust they developed towards him for having been part of the company that swindled them.
In Maasai Mara, they met another group of tourists who immediately identified the driver and attempted to beat him up.
They had been swindled by the same company and it took Mr Chen’s group to protect their driver from the angry tourists, an experience Mr Ongeri admitted but again claimed to have been an innocent freelance driver. It was getting worse and they could not trust him again.
“We hardly slept and every time we had to leave the car, we took the car keys so that he doesn’t abandon us. It is very sad that so many other tourists could be going through such an experience. The Kenyan government must save this situation because it will dampen the desire among those coming to visit the country. We are going back to China very bitter,” Mr Chen, whose case was booked at the Industrial Area Police Station under OB65/2/8/2019, said.
True to his words, many people have suffered under the travel agency, which seems to have mastered the art of swindling foreigners, closing shop and re-emerging only during high season.
The plot involves creating attractive packages and engaging foreigners online in a manner suggesting good customer service. Once they are in the hook, the tourists, who in many cases have fixed schedules and have no other contact people in the country, are abandoned sometimes at the border crossings between either Kenya and Uganda or deep in the game lodges to find their way back and travel to their home countries.
The con men also change the key contact people once the tourists arrive, including a different driver to cut links before leaving them stranded.
Travel sites have already blacklisted the firm with its reviews, which are said to be doctored to mislead tourists.
“TripAdvisor has grounds to investigate that individuals or entities associated with this property may have attempted to interfere with traveller reviews and/or the Popularity Index for this property. Please take this into consideration when researching your travel plans,” the travel site flagged on its website this week.
The Sunday Nation could not reach Mr Otieno as his Mombasa Road office remained closed as adjacent shops either feigned ignorance or were too scared to talk about the firm.
Online, tens of tourists from around the world complained of bitter experiences after their trips were cancelled just before their departure dates while dealing with Kenya Walking Survivors Safaris Limited.
Some of those affected from Canada, Argentina, Taiwan, India, US, Brazil and the United Kingdom have reported the cases to the police with little action taken.
“Our honeymoon trip is in three days and we just received an e-mail that the company has technical problems and therefore cannot give the required services. Mr Otieno just wrote that we will receive the funds between 45-90 working days. I’m really panicking,” a couple from the US wrote on Friday.
Kenya received some 2.1 million tourists in 2018, with the US remaining the top source. China, which was ranked sixth, sent 81,709 representing a 4.03 per cent growth from the previous year.
Attempts to reach Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala on the happenings that are now a big threat to tourism in Kenya were futile as it emerged he had accompanied President Uhuru Kenyatta on a tour of Jamaica.