Kenya has many tourist attractions but mainly relies heavily on three: natural heritage, the big five and our sandy beaches.
The country has not been able to properly utilise or optimise cultural heritage, despite the existence of a rich panorama of cultures and traditions.
Every time there are initiatives in this direction, such as was initially proposed in Vision 2030, with creative suggestions like diversification of tourism products into these area, there is always a flop, either due to clueless national institutions or competition from what is considered to be more pressing issues.
Recently, I visited the Empire State Building in New York City and realised that Kenya has all but lost any hope of creating an impression if not viable portfolio in build heritage.
The Empire state building held the prestigious position of being the tallest building in the world for almost 40 years between 1931 and 1977. In 1986, it was designated a National Historic Landmark by the United States government, joining a list of other landmarks recognised for their historical significance to the United States.
The Burj Khalifa, in the United Arab Emirates, has been designated the tallest building in the World since 2010 by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, an international body specialising in tall buildings and sustainable urban designs.
The Empire state building gives a visitor a panoramic, breath-taking view of many New York landmarks from over a thousand feet above ground. And for that privilege one has to pay $38 for a ticket bought online in advance, and whose shelf life is one month. This ticket takes a visitor to the 86th floor, which has a small museum with an exhibition on the building.
One cannot help but be in awe of the minds behind such commercially and economically viable thoughts with which they created a cultural heritage icon with a booming visitor economy that interests not just international visitors but New Yorkers as well.
Generally, cultural heritage tourism tends to attract high-yield tourists who not only spend more, but in general tend to stay longer compared to other kinds of travellers, according to global tourism statics.
It is therefore amazing that in spite of all sorts of calls to make Nairobi a twenty-four-hour economy, many supposedly astute business people only think as far as bars, restaurants and discotheques.
Nairobi has grown in the areas of tall buildings since the Kenyatta International Conference Centre of the 1970s (Now Kenyatta International Convention Centre). The Empire State buildings, for example, operates as late into the morning as 2am.
The tallest building in Kenya at the moment is the 32-storey Britam Towers, in upper Hill. One cannot help but wonder what possibility exists for heritage tourism, given the building’s elevated position.
Kenyan businesses continue to be one track-minded, without giving due consideration to emerging and globally well-tested areas.
Aside from the economic benefits, tall buildings have other social benefits such as creating usable space in a world where land, a non-renewable resource, is getting scarce and, in Kenya, prohibitively expensive. Building higher maximises land use rate, while providing living and working space for the ever-growing urban population.
They also give space for human creativity, with the possibility of creating cityscapes that are to behold. Since urban migration is not about to stop in Africa, cities might as well be thought out in the most aesthetically viable formats.
Build heritage also drastically improves the identity and memorability of a city, which kind of increases its visibility on the global tourism outlook and in the mental map of tourists.
The Eiffel Tower, for instance, cannot be separated from Paris, nor the Burj Khalifa from Dubai, the Taj Mahal from India or the Sydney Opera house from Australia.
Aside from all these benefits, build heritage being manmade does not suffer the devastating effects of human activities that natural heritage is prone to. It is generally easier to preserve and conserve as this can be inbuilt into its development and management plans from the word go. This is a privilege that natural heritage, which Kenya heavily relies on for tourism, does not enjoy.
The boom in real estate also provides opportunities for those willing to venture into cultural tourism.