The Star (Nairobi)

30 June 2012

Kenya: Advisories Aren't Hurting Economy, It's the Blasts!

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Photo: IfYouGolf.com
Tourism in Kenya.

This is probably one of my all-time favourite pieces of writing in the Economist - a 2004 article on tourism in Somalia.

Back then, Somalia had a tourism minister: 'He has perhaps the world's hardest job, but very little to do. Abdi Jimale Osman is Somalia's minister of tourism. His inbox is always empty; unsurprisingly, given that his anarchic homeland has not had a single officially acknowledged tourist in 14 years.'

The author notes that Somalia does indeed have its attractions: great weather, lovely beaches, plenty of seafood, and some unusual bargains in the markets, for example hand grenades for a very affordable USD20. Safety is, of course, a bit of a concern. One hotel recommends hiring at least ten armed guards for the trip to the airport - maybe less attractive to people who like the usual complimentary hotel shuttle routine.

Similarly, Mr Jimale's spirited attempts to showcase the country's attractions will possibly not convince the more conservative travellers: '"Tourists can still go and see the former beautiful sights," he says. "The only problem is they're all totally destroyed."' And: '"Most of the animals have disappeared too," he concedes, "Because we have eaten them."' Then there's this: '"I'm sure tourists would leave Somalia alive and I'm hopeful they wouldn't be kidnapped," he says. "At least, we would try to make sure they were not kidnapped, although it can happen."'

So there were a few issues. These days, there's a bit more talk of possible Somalia tourism. Like many other people, I hope that the recent improvements in Somalia's security situation will last, and will deepen, although I suspect that talk of Somalia's tourism potential are still a bit premature: No doubt that it might have potential offer, but if the country is to attract the more mainstream, plain-vanilla tourists in significant numbers, a lot still has to change.

Tourists, like finance people, have different levels of risk tolerance. Kenya isn't Somalia (Duh. And Spain isn't Uganda). Despite its problems, it's nowhere near as much of a failed state, and despite its problems, Kenya has a very active tourism industry, not just for leisure tourism, but also for business tourism. It's a stunningly beautiful country with a lot of features that will make tourists willing to accept some of Kenya's trickier bits, and that help travel to Kenya bounce back after crises like e.g. the post-election violence or the Likoni clashes.

But particularly because Kenya does have this well-established track record, I was taken aback by the head of the civil service's recent comments on the US travel advisory: "It is a reckless advisory and it was totally uncalled for. It is aimed at sabotaging the country's economy.' Francis Kimemia also said that Kenyan officials had written to the US embassy requesting them to reverse their decision.

And I was amazed how much traction this argument actually got, especially given that there was actually a grenade blast just shortly after this complaint. Probably not the one the US had been concerned about, but still - there had been several such incidences over the past few months, and little clarity to date who was behind them, and why.

This is not a trade off of pursuing the safety of US citizens at the expense of Kenyan citizens: I am very sure that the US will share any concerns and specific information about a suspected attack with their Kenyan counterparts, especially given the long co-operation between both countries on security issues after 2001.

And there is nothing to be gained for the US in 'sabotaging' Kenya's tourism, and accusing the US of doing so completely ignores that travel advisories are what governments typically do as part of their services to their citizens. One Focus Group Member (i.e. Facebook friend) complained that 'in the US, the bigger concern is about the possibility of one of theirs dying in Mombasa especially if the awareness was there'.

Duh again - it's a government's basic obligation towards its citizens, and since you can't track down every single tourist individually, this is how you communicate any concerns. Just as importantly, travel advisories are standard practice, basic housekeeping. The UK's Foreign Office does this, Germany's Auswaertiges Amt does it, and plenty of other countries, too. Of course travel advisories are always conservative and if you followed them to the letter, you probably wouldn't do much travel, but that's their very nature: like insurance firms, governments will cover their behind. Ultimately, it's every traveller's decision how much risk they are willing to take. Tourists continue to come to Kenya and other emerging markets, so they are willing to take some risks.

There was a good bit of whining on the internet about the UK and the US also having had terrorist attacks and riots. Fair enough, really. Is the Kenyan government providing its citizens with some travel advisories that bear this in mind? I'm still looking for the website. It's not advisories that are wrecking the economy, it's blasts.

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