Kenya’s tourism sector was good last year with more than two million visitors. Not only is this performance being sustained, but there is steady growth.
After the ups and downs it has been through over the years, this major economic player looks as if it’s back on track.
On paper, this looks the case, but, in reality, it is in need of major decisions. It’s time for a candid appraisal about its weaknesses and strengths and what must be done for it to continue growing holistically.
First, Kenya is blessed with a gem of a product with enormous variety. I recently spent some time beside the Galana River, adjacent to Tsavo East Park and not far from the North Coast tourism towns of Malindi and Watamu. Not only is there something fascinating about rivers, but the birdlife and wildlife was plentiful. Yet the real eye opener for me was how a number of camps and lodges had low occupancy, or were even closed, at a time when it is supposed to be the peak season.
This brings me to one of my major complaints about the tourism industry. Internationally, Kenya is known as a pricey destination — which does not bode well for the country in the increasingly competitive global industry.
Late last year, I was asked to check the prices at certain lodges for a relative of mine for the Christmas holiday period. I was shocked at the supposed ‘residents’ rates’ proffered to me. So was the person I apologetically passed them onto, who, in turn, came back to me and responded with the same shock as me.
Two events later took place, which show the rates were excessive to the extent of being greedy. The establishments were not even full over the high season and, as Christmas neared, some of them offered cheaper, but still pricey, rates. They had wanted to make a Christmas killing, but it backfired. That’s why there were reports that some hotels were far from full at that time.
The other side of the coin was that hotels that gave more reasonable prices and value for money were full and remain so.
And there are many middle-class Kenyans who would like to enjoy our gems much more, but do not because they are overpriced and unaffordable. The local tourists would patronise them more often, even in the low season. Sustained higher occupancy leads to greater income and return.
Another watershed issue is that the industry is too dependent on its beach and bush products. Our country offers a great variety of attractions. Thus, when I next go to a river destination, I’ll take some bird books with me.
Let us develop and promote the many other products this country offers. The government and stakeholders of areas that could do better on tourism must thrash out a way forward.
What else is holding tourism back here? It is officialdom, bureaucracy and even corruption. Regulations are, of course, necessary but overregulation and excessive bureaucracy is not. When one engages tourism stakeholders on the paperwork required to run anything, be prepared to listen to a lengthy tirade.
When one asks tourists what we should do, many invariably reply, “Fix the roads.”
And then, a number of times, I’ve seen tourist minibuses being flagged down by traffic police. I’m sure many of them had the required paperwork and were in good condition as international tourism entities are strict on this. You can guess why they were flagged down so frequently.
Last, and importantly, we need to look at the administration of this sector. Tourism and Wildlife ministry is responsible for the good running of the parks and for its core tourism portfolio.
While the two operations dovetail each other, they need two distinctly separate administrations with arguably separate skills. There is a strong argument that because of the distinctly unique demands of wildlife management and conservation, it should be separated from tourism.
Let’s take a long hard look at this sector, take stock and decide on how to keep it on the up and up.
Mr Shaw is a public policy and economic analyst. [email protected]