The beaches are as I remember them, beautiful and white. The people are still friendly and in their entrepreneurship spirit still looking for some extra cash by doubling in other small jobs to supplement their income. The only different thing this time is the lack of tourists on the beach walking around or in the beach bars having some cold tusker or cocktails. Hotel occupancy is at an all time low according to the locals, some of the hotel staff I meet. I don’t even have to be told, the evidence is out there to see.
I am at the coast for holiday, spending a couple of days camping at the beach in a place I have never been to before, Tiwi beach. A good friend of mine Njooro who lives at the coast and does tours as part of his business has organized this camp at Tiwi which is in its third edition. There is a mix of both Nairobi and coastal crowd, this camp being a great way to detox. This is the kind of camp where you are free to do as you will, we wake up to meet the sunrise and take pictures. We bond and talk as we await the sunrise. Later if we want we can pick shells because the tide is out. there are a lot of local people doing that, out in the early morning to pick shells to sell, although they are not sure of which clients will buy their shells, as it is tourists, both local and international who buy the shells, and those now are very few.
During the day we drink madafu, swim in the ocean, eat locally made food, and swim some more or take a nap in the shelter of the coconut palm trees. The night is alive with laughter as we share stories and play some games.
The last day of my vacation I spent the night at a beautiful boutique hotel in Diani called Flamboyant hotel. I am the only guest there. The manager tells me that business is low. Ali Barbour bar which is next door and which is part of flamboyant does have some traffic, mostly local. This is a hotel that has always done so well. It is situated in a prime part of the beach and it offers sky diving and surfing among the activities one can do.
My friends and I go to a beach restaurant Bidi Badu about 20 minutes away. It has some delicious food that goes down well. There is only one tourist there. As we walk around the Diani beach I can count the number of tourists on 2 hands.
The tourism industry in Kenya is suffering. It has been hard hit by terrorism, insecurity and the very dubious distinction of being in the “Ebola belt” just by fact that it is in Africa. To some tourists Africa is one country so if Ebola is in one area you are likely to get it in another. It may seem ridiculous to some that Ebola which is mostly confined to one area of West Africa could affect tourism in East Africa but it does. Many tourists have cancelled their travel plans citing the risk of getting Ebola. This has brought to its knees an already crippled economy.
I have been told some hotels have closed and are not likely to open, an indicator being the fact that they are not taking bookings for Christmas, which is a goldmine for the industry. In some hotels staff have taken a pay cut just keep their jobs. Many hotels are running a skeleton crew; many have had to send staff home, many of them who have worked at those hotels for decades. The situation is dire, although there was abit of a reprieve during the long mashujaa weekend, when Kenyan tourists went to the coast in droves.
Insecurity has long been a slow acting poison on the tourism industry. Before when it was in small doses it was possible for the government to ignore it. But now the doses have become toxic and the industry is on its knees, the industry is dying. For a country that prides itself that tourism is the 2nd largest exchange earner we are in a very bad place. It is not that agriculture is also in a great place. Change in weather patterns is causing farmers to lose millions of shillings when it doesn’t rain when it is supposed to. We may soon have a food crisis if nothing is done.
The dying tourism industry has further implications on the already precarious security situation. Youth at the coast without jobs are at a loose end. They are likely to turn to drugs, stealing or becoming radicalized and join some of the terror organizations that have become a huge splinter in the government’s backside.
The tourism industry is key to growth of Kenya’s economy. It is not only that. It is the only bread and butter very many people know. Insecurity is the biggest threat to tourism in Kenya. Nobody will want to come to a country where people are at war with themselves or are part of terrorists’ targets. Tourists have so many options, as much as some of them love Kenya, they will not risk their lives or the lives of their families to come here when they are not sure about their safety.
To the tourism recovery taskforce I have said this before. In order for our tourism to recover we need to deal with issues of security. Bringing a foreign strategy consulting company to market Kenya will not work as long as there is insecurity. We will spend millions of dollars to market Kenya and tourists will not come. The famous Lamu festival it seems may be cancelled due to the curfew imposed on the coastal town and this will be a shame, as this draws numerous tourists to the town and brings much needed revenue to Lamu.
For the government the time to act is now. It cannot be business as usual. Every time there is an attack the government promises action. But when things die down life goes back to “normal” until there is the next crisis. We need better crisis management; we need to have a security masterplan that works. Otherwise we can say goodbye to tourism shillings and dollars, both from Kenyans and international tourists.