The 2018/19 budget has been read at a whopping three trillion shillings. It seems to have left those who understand the world of figures, numbers, arithmetic and economics divided along very clear lines. On one hand is a group that believes that Kenya should trim her budget and ease off capital-intensive projects such as the standard gauge railway that seem to lead to almost crippling public debt. The other lot believes that such infrastructure projects result in social economic multipliers.
But the World Bank predicts that the Kenyan economy will grow in the coming year, subject to, among other things, strengthening of the global economy, which Kenya does not have any control over, and tourism.
According to Kenya’s development blueprint, Vision 2030, tourism is one of the country’s key economic drivers, along with agriculture and manufacturing. Tourism was allocated Sh4.5 billion in the current budget, while heritage, which falls under the Ministry of Sports, Culture and the Arts, was allocated a paltry Sh1.9 billion. The tourism budget is likely to be directed to international marketing while the real measure of worth for the tourism sector as a product would be consumer spending.
LIMITATIONS OF DATA
This means that Kenya’s priority should not be to send delegations to international fairs or burn the money in advertising on international channels, but rather, the nation should be interested in the proportion of tourism expenditure that stays in Kenya and contributes to economic growth. This can only be improved if and when Kenya diversifies her tourism products and continuously improves on the existing ones – wildlife, beaches and heritage.
Whereas keeping track of the statistics of entry figures at JKIA is a worth activity, it is more important to ensure that once the tourists are in Kenya they have a diversified, safe and accessible product to enjoy. At the point of entry, no matter how impressive the figures get, the likelihood that a visitor has not contributed a dime to the Kenyan economy is quite plausible. Unless they have flown Kenya Airways and used a local tour company to develop their itinerary, their input into the economy is still minimal.
We are now operating in a county constitutional dispensation. It is therefore not enough to know who entered Kenya and where they are from. Kenya must develop a detailed county value survey to be able to understand tourism performance and current trends. The historical approach of generating data at the national level may not help improve tourism spending at the county level. Yet the ideal would be to create products that are representative of the 47 regions while still taking pride in those that are flying high at the national level, such monuments of national importance, our wildlife and our sportspeople.
DIVERSIFYING THE PRODUCT
The hotel and food industry is predominantly privately owned and run. Some of the local enterprises are struggling to stay afloat in hard economic times. Where exactly does Kenya propose to host the tourists that we draw in if mechanisms to support their overall experience are not well thought out in advance? And here reference is not being made to grants to the private sector, but affordable loans on which small and medium enterprises that support the tourism industry can grow.
It is not possible for government to be the sole player in the industry. This will not create any economic multipliers as anticipated. The tourist may eat a meal in a small restaurant, buy a souvenir made of Kisii Stone or Kenya’s well-known Kamba wood carvings. All these components have a direct impact on the tourism industry and are directly related to visitor experience.
There are some obvious ways to diversify the tourism product without trying to reinvent the wheel. Taking better care of our heritage and culture and investing in tourism products such as home stays and cultural centres at the county level would translate tourism earnings to the local economy, improve on the economic take by small and medium enterprises and create repeat customers in the tourism market. Investment in national monuments along the coast would also increase the number of days tourists spend on our sandy beaches and improve on the expenditure per tourist.
INVEST IN ATHLETES
Kenya also has a world-established brand of athletes and rugby players in whom a better investment would translate to a sterling reputation, than establishing a parastatal to create brand, while ignoring that which has already established a brand through their chosen life careers. Kenya must financially, in terms of marketing, and in word and deed, support these outstanding members of our society and compensate them adequately as well.
It might be that the budget cannot take care of other socio-political details such as the fact that a combination of poaching and licenced game hunting can decimate Kenya’s number one tourist product – wildlife – to zero. In any event, the tourism and heritage sector needs more investment, not less.