Good news at last as tourists flock back to Mombasa’s beaches

Sunday March 27 2016

Tourists at the port of Mombasa. They arrived in the town on a cruise ship Crystal Serenity. PHOTO | LABAN WALLOGA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Tourists at the port of Mombasa. They arrived in the town on a cruise ship Crystal Serenity. PHOTO | LABAN WALLOGA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Daudi Godana walked more than 300 kilometres from his village in Bura Tana to find work giving visitors to the beach a ride on his two camels named Mr Mombasa and Jamal.

Last year was the worst experience he has had in the five years he has been in business.

Foreign tourists kept away from the Coast and even local arrivals in Mombasa slowed to a trickle. But he says things have picked up at last with the recent improvements in the security situation offering a respite to a tourism industry which had been seriously battered by a succession of crises.

We are buffeted by bad news in Kenya but at least there are some rays of light on some fronts, not least in the resurgence of tourism at the Coast.

Arrival numbers are back up and the shock of the al-Shabaab attacks and the travel advisories which followed has probably made the industry more adaptable and resilient.

Many hotels which previously did not have conference facilities have added that feature to their offering and some report that they now get up to 60 per cent of their business from local customers.

Local tourism providers are also marketing more aggressively to countries in the region, with a noticeable uptick in beach tourist arrivals from markets such as Uganda and Ethiopia.

Mohammed Hersi, the chief executive of the Heritage Hotels which owns the Voyager hotel told me of a new offering which sees tourists from Uganda get a return trip on luxury buses from Kampala to Mombasa and favourable rates to stay at the hotel.

Travellers Beach sales and marketing manager Wafula Waswa said the recent travails had built in more resilience to the industry, forcing players to aggressively target the conference tourism market.

In the traditional low season from April, for example, he expects a large proportion of his beds to be taken up by school parties and church delegations.

It is easy to underestimate what impact downturns such as the sharp slump in tourism can have on wananchi.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation estimates that for every nine tourists arriving at a destination, one job is created.

When numbers fall as sharply as they did in 2014, thousands feel the pinch which has many spill-over effects.


So credit is due to industry players such as Hersi, Jake Grieves-Cook, Mike Macharia, Jaideep Vohra and others who led the lobbying to lift the travel advisories.

The national government and the leadership of Mombasa county also did a great job of tackling security problems, including getting a handle of the Old Town, traditionally one of the safest parts of Kenya, which had briefly become a haven for criminals.

It is a shame that the two governments have gone back to their old habits of fighting each other because the benefits of cooperation between them are obvious.

Stakeholders in the tourism industry routinely make the point that Kenya can still do much more to make the country attractive to tourists.

Air fares are punishingly expensive, something which can be tweaked through government policy, such as waiving landing fees for charter operators.

The cost of doing business for hotels remains high. The electricity bill for someone running a beach hotel in Egypt, Turkey or Morocco, for example, is probably 60 per cent lower than that of their Kenyan counterpart.

A focused discussion is needed to find out how the likes of Egypt (before ISIS emerged) and South Africa have historically managed to pull in 10 million visitors annually while Kenya struggles around the two million mark at best.

For visitors from Africa, it doesn’t earn the country many friends when they are charged the same excessive park entry fees, for example, as tourists from further afield. There should be a protocol regularising this so they pay the same as Kenyans.

More work needs to be done to secure the gains made on the security front because there is no other single factor that matters in determining arrivals than that.

The investment to draw visitors from non-traditional source markets should be intensified. It struck me on this visit, for example, to find that Polish visitors and others from the former Eastern bloc countries such as Romania and Bulgaria are arriving in significant numbers.

Daudi Godana, the camel tours guy, had one request for the national leadership: Najib Balala (the new Tourism minister) is doing a good job. The work he does helps us feed our families. Don’t move him from that position.