Many Kenyans no longer wait for the festive season to go on a vacation, instead scheduling their travels and tours around the year, a trend many industry players consider a desirable replacement for over-reliance on high seasons.
''The sector as we knew it some years back has been disrupted by this new crop of young and innovative service providers who have demystified and simplified tourism, providing a variety of product packages to clients across the year at much more competitive rates than before,'' says Ms Judy Kepher-Gona, founding director of Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda.
She explains that the long holiday season which comes in December has somewhat been left to young families who have to wait until schools close before they can go on vacation as a family. Other categories like young adults, college students and couples without children of school-going age are a lot more flexible in their choice of time, and should be targeted in the promotion of domestic tourism.
''This way, the country does not lose all the years’ worth (of earnings) if unforeseen shocks in the sector coincide with high seasons, as has been the case with the traditional model that rides on high and peak seasons,'' she says.
In the face of a great struggle to acquire the basics, many individuals and families might consider shelving for better days the desire to travel and visit friends and family or go on a holiday.
The World Tourism and Travel Council estimates that in 2017 travel and tourism in Kenya generated Sh769.1 billion. This was equivalent to 10 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. A Nation Newsplex interview with Diani Reef Beach Resort and Spa managing director Bobby Kamani confirms that there has been renewed interest in off-peak seasons.
''We have seen a busy year for all Coast hoteliers because of the new trend. Domestic tourism has allowed us to remain self-sufficient in times of instability and we have had a successful 2018 because of tourists holidaying throughout the year,'' he said.
Hotel bed-nights occupied by Kenyans increased by four percent to 3.6 million in 2017 from 3.5 million in 2016, in a year that saw the tourism sector fetch Sh119.9 billion, a 23 percent rise from the Sh99.7 billion in 2016 Half of hotel bed-night occupants were Kenyans. The Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) is upbeat that the good performance will continue in towards the end of the year, with some new trends being Kenyans embracing advance holiday booking, group and family travel becoming more prominent, and a growing interest among Kenyans for adventure tourism.
Traditional tour and travel patterns indicate that December has been one of the high seasons, and in many instances, the year’s peak. Bed occupancy rates, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), for instance, show that the hotel business climaxed in December 2015 (37 percent) and 2016 (43 percent), a trend that could probably have been repeated in 2017 if not for the disruption brought about by a protracted presidential election and a high inflation rate of over eight percent. It had a 36 percent occupancy rate.
''Our campaign has been geared towards breaking this seasonality trend. More Kenyans especially the middle class have embraced travelling out of their homes for holidays whenever they find the time such as during weekends. The off seasons also offer more affordable rates,'' said KTB CEO, Dr Betty Radier.
Across the year, hotels rely a lot on conferences, workshops and seminars for revenue, but December usually registers low numbers as government offices, NGOs and corporates slow down operations and break for Christmas.
There were 3,841 local and 191 international conferences in 2017, attracting a total of 687,916 delegates. The sector usually hopes that the gap left behind by the stagnation of conference tourism is filled up by a robust festive season, mainly dominated by Kenyans travelling and touring freely, and spending generously.
A good chunk of this revenue could already be in the purse of the government and tour and travel service providers by December as many Kenyans have already executed their travel and leisure plans earlier in the year, in line with the new trend.
Generally, Kenyans don’t holiday much. Only five percent travel for holiday or leisure purposes, compared with 68 percent of international visitors travelling to Kenya for similar reasons, according to KNBS data. If the festive season has indeed lost numbers to hitherto low seasons, then there must be new strategies in place to fill the gap.
In December, the sector will however benefit from increased spending on other types of trips and leisure activities, as the Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey 2015-2016 data indicates that the largest share of Kenyans, two-thirds, solely travel to visit friends and relatives, followed by 10 percent for social gatherings.
In fact, some of the people who will be travelling to meet relatives and friends or to social gatherings are those who have already gone on a vacation earlier in the year, as is the case with 27-year-old Mercy Chiveli, a freelance online marketer, who has, for the last three years, chosen to go on vacation during the low seasons. During the Christmas period, she will be spending time with her family and her husband’s family in Kakamega and Kisumu counties respectively.
''I find the low seasons more peaceful and safe for travel, plus the nature of my job allows me to slot for leisure trips and vacations anytime across the year,'' she says.
High cost of living
Despite new innovative ways of promoting domestic tourism, the high cost of basic commodities as well as those that relate directly to tours and travel is likely to slow down growth.
The latest estimates provided by KNBS show the average cost of electricity for 50KWh as of October this year to have risen by 83 percent from Sh603 to Sh1,105. Also, the average cost of airtime per minute has gone up by eight percent from Sh3.70 to Sh4, and the estimated rent for a single-roomed house went up by five percent from Sh4,187 to Sh4,415. The inflation rate has also been rising since April this year and only dipped slightly in September, settling at 5.5 percent. This is however lower than last year, when the rate hit a high of 12 percent in May, according to the Central Bank of Kenya.
In the face of a great struggle to acquire the basics, many individuals and families might consider shelving for better days the desire to travel and visit friends and family or go on a holiday. A previous Newsplex analysis of the consumption patterns of Kenyans showed that for every Sh100 spent, Sh45 goes to food and drinks.
For those who will not be dissuaded by the high cost of living, the actual cost of moving around during this festive season might be a deterrent, with matatu fares, for instance, having gone up by seven percent, making a 250km journey cost an average of Sh427, up from Sh400 in October last year.
The cost of travelling from Nairobi to Mombasa by train is Sh1,000, which is a 43 percent increase from the promotional Sh700 in May, while by bus in business class is an estimated Sh2,400 and Sh1,550 in economy class. The Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) Madaraka Express is fully booked ahead of Christmas, leading to a rise in Air ticket fares. A similar rise is likely in bus ticket fares.
Travelling is usually an expensive affair, with two in five shillings spent being used on transport, according to the Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey 2015-2016 (KIHBS).
The survey also reports that about a third of Kenyans surveyed said they did not travel in the three months preceding the study because they could not afford it. A quarter said it was because they were in school, 23 percent cited time constraints and 21 percent said they did not see the need.
-Story by Joshua Mutisya, Victor Oluoch and Mohamed Ahmed