• Sabi Sabi

    Photo credit by Sabi Sabi Game Reseve, Kruger National Park, South Africa

  • Tswalu

    Photo credit by Amakhala Game Reserve, Eastern Cape, South Africa

  • IMG_3851

    Photo credit by !Khwa ttu San Culture and Education Centre, Western Cape, South Africa

  • Amakhala

    Amakhala Game Reserve, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Plunging tourist numbers raise tempers

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“Did you see those figures?” asked a regular source from Nairobi yesterday, when the arrival details for the first quarter of 2015, compared with 2014 and 2013 came to light. While not officially published yet, there has nevertheless been some satisfaction expressed that with the hard figures now gone public there will be no opportunity to doctor any of those data nor put any sunshine spin on it.

The statistics though make for some grim reading as the level of downturn in particular at the Kenya coast is becoming clear for all to see, leaving many individuals spoken to during the day wondering why the government is still sitting on its hands.

For the calendar year 2014, arrivals at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) showed an overall decline by 17.5 percent, reducing from the already downward year of 2013, when only 901,145 passengers arrived at Kenya’s main airport to only 743,600 passengers in 2014. The data for Mombasa makes even grimmer reading as the downturn was more than twice as fast. The year 2014 closed with just 117,796 passengers compared to 2013 when 189,632 arrivals were recorded from abroad, a reduction of 37.9 percent. Countrywide combined, the two sets of data still show an average reduction of arrivals by 21 percent.

The hammerblow though came when the first quarter 2015 data were leaked, which in average show a further downturn by 31 percent over the already sharply lower 2014 figures.

In Nairobi, at JKIA, this translates to a 25 percent loss in passengers to just 152,138 – down from the 2014 figure of 202,737, but it is again Mombasa which is bearing the brunt of the onslaught.

The first quarter loss is a staggering 53.1 percent which in real figures reads only 24,947 foreign passengers arriving at Moi International Airport from January 1 to March 31 this year, compared to 53,228 a year earlier.

Country average, when combining the two sets of figures, stands at a 30.9 percent downturn, almost a third compared to an already depressed 2014 which itself was way down from 2013.

The “Report of the Taskforce on Tourism Recovery” which was handed to the Cabinet Secretary overseeing tourism already several weeks ago, remains a closely-guarded secret, and stakeholders are reportedly getting increasingly impatient that apart from acknowledging that the report has been received, especially in view of these depressing figures, no official announcement has been made yet by the government as to the implementation of the report’s recommendations.

A glossy “abridged version” of the report comprising 24 pages, has been seen by this correspondent, presently only reflecting on the need for speed. This comes after literally wasting the past two years under the new government and an additional year under the former government, when all the industry got was neglect aplenty, taxes galore, and sunshine speeches making no impact whatsoever other than having the tourism fraternity shake their combined heads in utter frustration.

The industry now shows a mix of emotions and reactions, none too positive to the government, which according to every single person spoken to over the past week in Nairobi, has let the sector down. There is a clear feeling that the government was ripping the carpet from underneath what was once the backbone of Kenya’s economic success. What remains of it today is but a hollow shell, only kept together by what one said was “the recognition that we now have nowhere to go and face stark choices. We either close down and see our life’s work destroyed by incompetence and an attitude of ‘can’t care less’ by government, or we just dig in and endure whatever else is thrown at us, depleting our last resources in the hope of better times ahead.”

The appointment earlier this month of an international PR agency, while cautiously welcomed by the tourism sector, was also greeted with a wait-and-see attitude, putting the newcomers Grayling on the spot to perform nothing short of miracles and on the double.

Going by recent visiting experiences, which included a two-week, fact-finding mission to the Kenya coast, when I traveled from Malindi over Watamu and Kilifi to Mombasa’s north coast beaches of Shanzu, Bamburi, and Nyali, it quickly became evident that even under these trying circumstances, the resorts and hotels offer the traditional warm Kenyan hospitality. Every resort visited had lowered their rates, giving visitors some exceptional value for money, as unprecedented low tariffs and value additions for guests were aiming to lure visitors back to these shores.

Never in 40 years has a downturn lasted that long and been that sustained, but after past down cycles, the Kenyan tourism industry also rose again, often in spite of the negligent attitude from various past governments. The sector has in the past shown great resilience but, candidly told, also never faced such a multitude of challenges as they do now. Apart from insecurity, a problem squarely laid at the government’s doorstep no matter how hard politicians try to blame it on the people failing in their “citizens’ responsibilities,” is to some extent also the tired product which needs an overhaul, upgrade, and modernization.

Other destinations have kept up with the latest trends in hospitality offerings while in Kenya too many resorts stuck to the “same old, same old” for too long before getting caught in the present downturn. This perfect storm left hardly any cash left in their coffers to stay afloat, leave alone to upgrade, refurbish, and modernize their resorts, putting them between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

The Kenyan beaches are still award winning, as are a number of resorts that perform at the top of their profession and need not shy away from international comparison as witnessed during the visit to the coast in March. At the same time, the Kenyan game parks are still ranked as among the best in the world, and those who come to Kenya to play golf, go big game fishing, or climb Mt. Kenya go back home full of praise about Kenya’s golf courses, the world-class fishing from Malindi to the Pemba Channel, and the country’s great outdoors.

Two game drives last weekend inside the Nairobi National Park, just a long stone’s throw from the city center, produced nothing short of spectacular results in terms of game viewing. The Nairobi Tented Camp, the only accommodation facility inside the park, showcased Kenya from its Sunday best when the Kenya Tourism Board brought a group of UK travel writers and journalists to the camp to let them sample and see that the country still has what it takes.

The answers to the question if there is hope is that a silver lining at the distant horizon or a little flickering light deep in the tunnel are inevitably mixed.

I tend to believe, if only the government can finally show some statesmanship and jump over its own shadow, it could reform the fragmented tourism administration. The present set-up needs replacing with a strong tourism authority, led by a dedicated ministry overseeing tourism, wildlife, and perhaps natural resources, instead of being bundled with alien portfolios like commerce, so that the corner can be turned.

This will take money, a lot more than before had government heeded the advice that a stitch in time saves nine, but alas, they too apparently need to learn things the hard way at times and take their bitter medicine if they want to remain in office after the next elections.

Source: Prof. Wolfgang H. Thome, Ph.D., eTN Africa Correspondent

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