The ruggedness of our tourist location used to be a competitive advantage. It attracted a particular kind of tourist: the nature-loving, intrepid, outdoors traveller clad in a multi-pocketed khaki safari suit, camping from game reserve to game reserve, ferried by vintage British-made SUVs.
This tourist was a hunter, not unlike Theodore Roosevelt or Earnest Hemmingway, only that he now carries a camera with a folding photo lens instead of a gun.
We have sold Kenya as a tourist destination for this kind of tourist for a long time. The fact that tourism tastes have evolved with the times is one that we have not contended with. And so we continue to sell a 19th century product to a 21st century tourist.
To compete globally we must update our tourist products. While we saw the change coming when we developed vision 2030 ten years ago, we did not do much to change our products.
There is a whole lot that we can learn from Dubai. A few years ago, Dubai was a desolate desert outpost with cranky air conditioners. Today it is a different world altogether. They have built world-class infrastructure, from airports to highways and seaports.
Tourists can come using different modes of transport. The iconic Dubai Marina stands out. With 4.6 million square metres of new spaces, several kilometres of public walkways and 200 restaurants, that has created thousands of employment opportunities. Several other parts of Dubai are undergoing impressive transformation that will convert them into tourism attractions.
Transformation doesn’t always require money. More than anything, it requires passionate leadership and a vision that everybody subscribes to.
Our beech tourism is lacking in creativity. No wonder it has few tourist products. The Dubai Marina is in my view a case study for our coastal counties. In Mombasa, the English Point Marina was not the works of government.
Its expansion, however, requires the governments to create the necessary space for public walkways and a wider variety of restaurants to create more inclusive tourist products. Even without considering international tourists, the annual migration of domestic tourists to Mombasa means there is a ready market for a variety of products.
The current land use policy in the coastal areas is exclusive. Yet such land should provide for riparian land that the public could utilise for a common purpose. Transformation should, therefore, begin with a new land use policy. Land speculators that hinder expansion of tourist products with a potential to create more jobs and attract more tourists should be heavily taxed.
By now we should accept that there is something fundamentally wrong with our tourism sector. We keep on celebrating year-to-year increases in the number of visitors, but no one reveals the fact that in the past we have performed better than where we stand today.
Such headlines as “visitors arriving by air and sea jumped from 752,073 in 2015 to 877,602 in 2016, representing a 16.7% increase” are deceptive when in 2011, only 1.8 million tourists visited Kenya. We should be on the upward trajectory and aim for five to 10 million visitors by investing in more tourist products and facilities.
Our biggest downfall is the love of excuses. A common excuse is that due to the political situation, we were not been able to attain our goals.
We surrender and leave it to the visitors to decide on their own safety. Yet there are countries such as Turkey with even worse political uncertainty that see the number of visitors increase every year.
Those who promote tourism in such countries never undermine their own countries by recommending that the time isn’t right to visit. In 2017, despite the political crisis, tourists kept on arriving against the recommendation of local promoters who wanted them to postpone their visits.
The future of tourism will also depend on how much investments we put into infrastructure, especially airports, to avoid dependence on the two main airports in the country.
NAIROBI CAN BE AVOIDED
Nairobi, which is always a hotbed of political activity, could be avoided if tourists could land in Nakuru or Narok to allow tourists to enjoy the tranquil Maasai Mara of the Northern tourist circuit. Similarly, Mombasa can be bypassed if Ukunda airport is expanded.
It is also necessary to conduct a comprehensive study to understand our sources of tourists, what they desire, what we need to do to improve their experience and what products they want.
In Dubai, the United Kingdom, which used to be our top source of tourists, ranks third, with more than one million tourists visiting the city. Several other countries that used to be our top sources of tourists are among the top 10 in Dubai’s source of tourists.
We are indeed losing to new destinations that have built the infrastructure and products that appeal to modern customers. In an era of big data, we are once more being beaten by those who have understood tourist trends.
We must revisit Vision 2030 and revive some of the dreams we had. In the coastal region, we thought of a major conferencing facility. To date, Kenya cannot bid for a conference of more than 1,000 delegates for the coastal region, as there is no facility to handle such.
The current mindset is that tourism in the coastal areas is about eating and sleeping while a few may go for deep-sea fishing. There are no provisions for simple exercise like walkways to stroll with children.
SPEAKING WITH ONE VOICE
Several resort cities were also planned but that too is never in the discourse of upgrading our tourist products.
Whilst we are held captive by coastal hotels, Dubai has democratised its tourist offers with multiple tourist solutions. These range from hotel rooms to apartments, with several restaurants and supermarkets within the marina.
There is a price for everyone who wants to stay within the Marina. Similarly, those who want to go for site seeing from the sea have multiple options, from expensive yachts to simple boats, all offering hundreds of jobs.
Employment in Kenya, especially in the tourism sector, has been elusive. It is clear that without investments, there can be no jobs.
There are billions of private sector resources seeking good ideas. It requires exceptional leadership to attract such resources. For a start and for the sake of the young people in this country, we must put off our differences and talk to investors with one voice.
Investment in the tourism sector is overdue and any failure to revive it now means it may never return to its glory days. Meanwhile, its contribution to GDP will significantly drop in the coming years as we keep on loosing tourists to new destinations.
SELFISHNESS AND GREED
Somehow we must deal with our own selfishness and greed. Much of public land in the coastal areas was grabbed and many of the grabbers are keeping it for speculative purposes and denying genuine investors an opportunity to invest and create jobs.
Following President Kenyatta’s inauguration speech, such lands must be heavily taxed to force the “owners” to surrender them for investment to take place.
Nothing will happen unless the country’s leadership provides exceptional political will to allow investment in the country.
We must do more than what we have done in the past. We must develop new tourist products to improve on the choice available to tourists especially at the Coast, which has the greatest unexploited tourism potential. To a large extent, a holiday on Kenya’s coast means sleeping and eating since there are very few choices.
Times have changed. We too must study and provide more current products as a strategy to attract more tourists.
The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business.