It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Kenyan government and in particular for a Cabinet Secretary under siege, when, as data for the year 2013 were finally released, it was instantly obvious that the targets set for the past year were missed big time. Campaign and inaugural speech promises made had given a clear indication at the time that tourism was to be a priority sector, one which was to create additional jobs by the thousands, attract foreign investments and contribute to economic growth and to increased foreign exchange earnings. Nothing of the sort, however, happened and to the contrary, few sectors of the economy feel so betrayed by the new government after their first year in office as tourism did, which found itself underfunded and overtaxed while having to listen to speeches which clearly lacked any resemblance of the reality on the ground.
Cabinet Secretary Phyllis Kandie yesterday finally made public the figures as pressure from the tourism industry in recent weeks had grown over the lack of data and the delay in making them public, to a point that suggestions were made the inexplicable silence served to buy time to doctor figures and “beautify” them.
Having already lost ground in 2012, when in the second half of the year the markets went soft and demands for an instant recovery marketing program met with stony silence by the powers that were at the time, the trend accelerated in 2013 with a loss of 12 percent in arrivals, down to below 1.1 million visitors from 1.23 million visitors. Revenues, according to the figures given, dropped to less than 94 billion Kenya shillings, a decline of 2.1 percent, raising eyebrows and prompting more questions over the wide gap in percentage terms of the visitor decline vis-a-vis the revenue decline.
While Kandie blamed security concerns, a sharp rise in poaching figures, the tax increases and an alleged drop in service quality and delivery, much of that is actually within the domain of government to influence or control, only serving to underscore what the sector has been saying for months now, that it was government inaction on one side and government action like taxation on the other side which brought about these devastating consequences.
Demanded last year already and more vocally asked for this year by the industry was the holding of a national stakeholder forum to take stock and map out the way forward, a call ignored by the ministry, before eventually a tourism recovery advisory board was hastily convened, tasked with creating a road map for recovery, a move described by many as coming the proverbial 5 seconds to midnight after wasting a year.
Leading tourism stakeholders meanwhile have also consulted widely and made a range of recommendations, which cover such diverse grounds as restoring a cabinet post exclusively dealing with tourism, wildlife and closely related departments like natural resourced (forests) and even environment, while fast tracking the overhaul of the tourism parastatals and bring them under one new tourism authority, to cut down on the waste the present structure with several separate entities is causing.
“You have pointed that out time and again, and I am not sure if you sowed those seeds in people’s minds or if indeed your sources have come up with the issue of restructuring the tourism public sector independently, that change is needed. I know you fought those battles in Uganda for your sector and remember you were a skilful operator in engaging your government over such issues. It is remembered here that you managed to stop merging the Uganda Tourist Board with investment promotion and other functions and we agree that merging KTB [Kenya Tourist Board] would be another catastrophically bad and wrong move. If tourism is to be the priority sector Kenyatta said it would be, let him own up to it and provide it with a sound structure, its own cabinet secretary post, one tourism authority where all those several parastatals, some of which are not even functional for lack of boards, are combined. Then perhaps we have a fighting chance, provided KTB gets the money. Our present cabinet secretary yesterday blamed so many things but in essence it is at her desk where the buck stopped for the past year. She just failed to prioritize tourism and put up the sort of fight Balala was known for in cabinet. Change should start right there if you ask me,” contributed a regular Nairobi-based source.
There were, however, also voices of reason and hope, with one writing: “I am confident that if our recommendations are acted upon and if we all work together in full cooperation then we can recover just as we have done in the past when we bounced back fairly quickly after some serious temporary set-backs! Tourism stakeholders are trying to galvanize the government to join with them in taking the requisite action. The key thing is that we are still receiving thousands of visitors from overseas who are having a great time in Kenya and enjoying our unsurpassed attractions and so we need to communicate this to an international audience to attract visitors back in growing numbers.”
It is understood that among the measures proposed to be taken immediately, and not in another year or two, were the launch of a “Smile Initiative” starting at the airport and across the duration of a tourist’s stay when she or he comes in touch with Kenyans, officials and wananchi alike. The reductions in visa fees was added as was the case in 2008, as was the repeat of the mega fam trip organized in mid-2008 by Kenya Airways and the entire tourism trade to showcase the country as a safe destination for tourists – not one has come to harm it should be pointed out over the past year in relation to Kenya’s security issues. Recognition and respect for the efforts by airlines and overseas tour operators which have continued to support the destination through thick and thin should be included, too, in any action plan the industry and government agree to in order to give them incentives to upscale their flights and destination marketing in key European and other source markets.
Added the same source in conclusion: “I think the industry is now sending a unified message to the relevant government authorities, and it appears that the message is getting through. It looks now as if finally there will be an action plan to be implemented to reverse the current decline and to help Kenya’s tourism sector to recover in the months ahead,” certainly wishing for that joining of hands between public and private sector, though according to other feedback not a hope universally shared by everyone. “If government can be brought to the table and reeled in by providing the resources, fair and good. I will not look a gift horse in the mouth, I do not care if they do it with an eye on the next elections or over genuine concerns and a renewed understanding that the sector is in a do or die situation now. Either way, as long as they cough up the money and implement what our industry leaders have put to them, we have a fighting chance. Will it happen? The next days and weeks will be crucial and I am sure you have your ears to the ground as usual. Thank you by the way for giving us a platform to voice our positions over the past months when the mainstream media toed the government line and few dared to openly express disappointment, anger and dissent the way you did on our behalf.”
The publisher of eTurboNews has indicated that eTN will be happy to extend support to Kenya alongside any unfolding media campaign as was the case before, so that increased positive reporting from the country can put things into a better perspective and counter the negative press and the anti-travel advisories which are often slapped down without any second thought of the damage they can do – including embassy directives to staff not to travel from Nairobi to the Kenya coast for a shorter or longer local vacation.
This correspondent will in coming weeks embark on at least two fact-finding missions to Kenya, to hold one-on-one discussions with tourism industry leaders and sample the attractions and service delivery across the country and be able to tell the world that “Magical Kenya” remains open for business and continues to provides her visitors with great holidays, on safari and at the white sand beaches.