Whenever we think tourism in Kenya we always think of the white tourist, coming from Europe or America to spend their well-earned dollars or euros on a vacation at the coast or the Maasai Mara. But in fact over the last few years the tourism numbers from our international tourists have gone down, and Kenyan tourists are the ones who are supporting our tourism sector.
According to the economy survey 2016 highlights by Zachary Mwangi, the Director General of the Kenya National Bureau of statistics the number of international visitor arrivals continued on a downward trend, contracting by 12.6 per cent from 1.35 million in 2014 to 1.18 million in 2015. Tourism earnings declined by 2.9 per cent from KSh 87.1 billion to KSh 84.6 billion over the same period. The sector’s suppressed performance was mainly due to security concerns, negative travel advisories, and health concerns associated with spread of Ebola. The number of bed-nights occupied decreased by 6.4 per cent in 2015. The number of international conferences decreased by 9.5 per cent from 241 in 2014 to 218 in 2015. However, local conferences and delegates increased by 4.0 per cent and 7.4 per cent, respectively.
Some of our key tourism markets like Italy, and France are stagnating economically, and economists say that Brexit will negatively impact on the economy of UK for the next couple of years. We are already in an election year and history has shown that during an election year our GDP goes down. Elections affect tourism numbers as tourists are weary of coming here when there are elections. Yet our Ministry of Tourism and The Kenya Tourism Board still insist on spending the majority of the tourism budget to attract international tourists and not enough resources on encouraging local tourism.
We should now be concentrating on developing our local tourism market and products. An article by World Travel and Tourism Council makes a case for local tourism – Make or break: 4 reasons why countries should not dismiss domestic tourism. Some of the reasons why we should be put more resources in building local tourism appetite include seasonality, distribution of tourism, precursor to international tourism development and also as shock absorber.
In Kenya, as in many international tourism destinations tourism is seasonal and it coincides actually with the seasons in the US and Europe. During winter, which is the December/January holidays in Kenya is when we get many of our leisure tourists as people flee the winter cold. This is also the most expensive time to book a holiday in Kenya as the costs are really high. What is amazing is that international tourists like those from Italy get good deals with charter flights which end up being lower then what Kenyans are paying for the same holiday here. Prices can be quite steep with hotels trying to take advantage of Kenyans going on holiday so many well off Kenyans are now opting to go abroad to South Africa or destinations like Dubai for holidays that are cheaper with more variety of activities.
Yet most of the year there are low seasons which are not marketed enough. This means that hotels are barely occupied and hotels struggle to maintain staff. This also has negative ripple effect on the economy around areas that traditionally depend on tourism.
By focusing more on local tourism, it can provide a more stabilizing role, as tourism numbers are spread over the year. As the New CEO of KTB said yesterday at an event I attended – local tourists are not affected by travel advisories. Kenya has really been affected by travel advisories due to insecurity which is a big issue for tourists (for Kenyan citizens as well – but we seem to care more about making our tourists safe more than the citizens but that is a rant for another day). Looking at the example of New Zealand suggested by WTTC, we see that domestic tourism has made a substantial contribution to the tourism industry’s overall financial resilience, sustainability, and functionality. We need to encourage local tourism so that we can stabilize the industry, but not just in the traditional tourism destinations that KTB has insisted on marketing over the years. Kenya is more than just coastal beaches or Maasai Mara.
Distribution of tourism
One of the great things about local tourists is that they usually go beyond the marketed itineraries of international tourists. This means that they tend to help spread the benefits of tourism around the counties instead of just in Maasai Mara and the coast. There is an issue though in that sometimes Kenyans tend to visit the same places like Naivasha because that is what they know, they have not been exposed to other places in Kenya they should visit. In this article Travel: Seven Reasons Why You Need To Attend Cultural Festivals, we talk about cultural festivals and how they are a good way to experience both a destination and culture at the same time. There has been no conscious effort to market new places to locals but emphasis has always been on creating products for the international market. But international tourists might not be interested in the same thing local tourists may be interested in and we lose out.
An example is given about Japan and the one village – one product movement. The program encourages individual villages and towns to develop one specialized product or service. This is something to consider for our counties, which can develop tourism products to attract local tourists to visit. This is something KTB is working on but I believe they can do more. It was interesting yesterday to listen to the Tourism Minister for Kisumu County talking about what Kisumu and the neighbouring counties are working on to increase tourism numbers, including the suggestion of having a cruise liner going around the Lake Victoria Basin. She also talked about Homa Bay having beautiful beaches like those at the coast, these are destinations that should be developed and marketed jointly by KTB and the counties. There are so many interesting cultural and historical destinations that can be promoted. This is also a great way to eventually develop new international tourist destinations.
Precursor to international tourism development
As I have said in the point above about developing local tourism destinations, local tourists can start as brand ambassadors for a destination. The example is given of Rwanda’s tourism industry, which as domestic tourism has grown, the people have developed a greater belief in it and they have gained a sense of national pride from it. That kind of pride encourages locals to go an extra mile to ensure that tourists enjoy their stay by providing friendly service and knowledge about the locations. It also encouraged local businesses to invest in industries around the tourist destinations. This raises the GDP of the area.
One of the issues with local destinations at the moment is that there is not enough infrastructure to support tourism activities beyond seeing the normal tourism attractions. So you go to the Maasai Mara for a couple of days, after seeing the animals what else can you do? Are there other things to do in the area apart from visiting a Manyatta or meeting the Maasai? At the coast, apart from the beach and some of the historical attractions what else can somebody do? We should be developing tourism products beyond just the natural wonders. We need to invest in infrastructure, like water or amusement parks. This is something that business people might be interested in, if they can be assured of numbers throughout the year. So we need to encourage local tourism so that more businesses can see that there is money in creating leisure facilities to host these tourists.
Kenya has been adversely affected by tourism advisories. Also, our reliance on international tourists to keep our tourism industry afloat and thriving has come back to bite us as now that many of our key tourist markets are having issues with their economies. When foreign tourists are staying away, domestic tourism can cushion the effect of a crisis and keep the country going. Hotels can be able to be maintained with limited deterioration of facilities and provide locals with jobs. This also impacts on the local economy as people buy curios, and produce to take home as local tourists usually do. The great thing about developing destinations for local tourists is that once the destination picks up, products and services are already in place for international tourism numbers.
An example is given of Sri Lanka, where local tourist provided 64% of spending at the time of the end of the civil war in 2009. Since then tourism numbers have gone up, and international tourism numbers now consist of two thirds of spending in the country. Local tourism during the conflict years helped facilitate this rapid expansion.
A couple of years back the president said that a tax break would be given to companies whose employees go on local holidays. This was an effort to stimulate local tourism as tourism numbers were down after the Westgate attack – Experts question Kenya tourism incentives. Considering that many Kenyans are employed in the informal sector I think there should have been incentives not just for salaried employees but all Kenyans to be able to enjoy and support the tourism industry.
Hungary which I think the president was modelling the tourism incentive on has done this successfully. The Hungarian tax system encourages employers to provide various non-wage benefits to employees, which can be given at more favorable tax conditions than salaries and since 1997, this has included a holiday voucher system. The program started with accommodation but has now expanded to more tourism related activities. In 2010 an electronic card system was introduced and in two years over 840,000 cards had been issued. The cards were filled with over € 353 million, a huge percentage spent on domestic tourism services. This has really boosted the local tourism industry which had largely stagnated.
We can learn a lot from other countries which have focused on developing local tourism. International tourism is important for a country but it should not come at the expense of developing local tourism. One of the issues with tourism is that travelling for leisure has always been marketed as something for those with deep pockets can do but not the locals. For years, the locals have mostly either travelled for business or to go to their ancestral home. People have also travelled to nearby destinations for entertainment purposes (think Naivasha and going to have fun – drinking out of town. The same Nairobians go to the coast to drink in the bar and they can spend a whole trip there without seeing any tourism attractions). Kenya’s tourism destination is affected by many issues e.g. insecurity and political instability so it would make sense to market the destination to local tourists who may just need information and incentives to do more local travel.
Local travel can provide both economic and social benefits. It will provide long term stimulation of the industry and also strengthen communities, encouraging investment in the industry and also preservation of culture and heritage so that it can be showcased as a tourism product.
Some of the key areas that can be developed
Cultural tourism. More counties are waking up to the opportunities that are available and coming up with cultural tourism products including cultural festivals. This year I have been to 3 cultural festivals including the Turkana Cultural Festival, the Marsabit Lake Turkana Cultural and the Lamu Food Festival. I have seen the social and economic impact both on the locals and the tourists as well, it is a great way to start. It also opens up new tourist areas that had not been developed. I am looking forward to the Rusinga Festival in Dec that celebrates the Suba people, and learning more about a culture that is threatened by extinction (because of intermarriage with the Luo) the same as the El Molo people who I met in Marsabit.
Travel packages for single travelers. Have you ever noticed how it is like single people are penalized for travelling alone? It is cheaper to travel as a couple or family because of sharing facilities. The single traveler is discouraged from travelling sometimes because of the high cost of travelling alone. This is something hotels should look into. Single women travelers usually face an even tougher time when travelling because of hotel staff attitudes. Single women travelers are mostly treated with suspicion – hotel staff are known to be hostile behaving as if the women are at the hotel looking for customers if you know what I mean.
Packages for families – many hotels do not provide anything beyond bed and breakfast for families. Most families especially those with small children would appreciate services like children’s clubs where children can be kept busy during a visit. It is sad that many so called big hotels do not bother to give packages for families considering how much they charge for accommodation. Some of these places children are paying as much as adults with no discounts like half off for children, or children under 12 stay for free. This is why countries like South Africa are beating us with their great offers for families.
We need to develop tourism infrastructure. We should have more leisure places with activities. Whether it is water or theme parks, or just green parks we need to invest in this sector. We need to have places where people can go zip lining, or canopy walking over the trees. We need more tourism products catering towards areas that have water bodies, like local cruises and floating restaurants, like why do we not have floating hotels?
Kenya has so much potential for local tourism. Let us not waste it.