Tourism remains one of the leading sectors of Kenya's national economy and therefore demands priority in policy formulation and implementation. To contribute to the Vision 2030 goal of attaining a sustained 10 per cent economic growth rate, the current Government has initiated the development of resort cities in Isiolo, Kilifi and Diani, branding popular parks, promoting lesser-known parks, formulating policies on heritage sites, as well as pursuing niche tourism around Lake Victoria, the Western Region, North Rift and the North East.
For most of the last four years, the Government has had to invest heavily in marketing Kenya's tourist attractions to counter negative information to the effect that our tourist sites are insecure. This effort has paid off, as indicated by the steady growth in the number of tourists which has strained existing capacity. Increased tourism earnings from Ksh 21.7 billion in 2002 to Ksh 97.9 billion in 2011 confirm this fact.
More recently, however, disruptions originating in Somalia have threatened vital tourist sites on the Coast, despite Kenya's longstanding policy of respecting all our neighbours and avoiding entanglements in their internal affairs. For these reasons, the next Government will have to collaborate with the Government of Somalia to support on-going efforts to protect the country and ensure our security, including all tourist sites. No efforts should be spared in this regard.
The next Government must also support the expansion of hotel space, the development of new tourist sites, especially in Western and North Eastern Kenya, as well as the expansion of eco-tourism and cultural tourism. Above all, we must continue with aggressive marketing to outshine other tourist destinations particularly in the continent.
It is my conviction that business skills and resources among Kenyans who live and work outside the country have reached a stage where Kenyan-owned travel agencies can be established overseas to enable us to service the entire value chain - from promotion of Kenyan destinations in the local media, through hotel booking and travel arrangements, to completion of the tourist experience when clients return safely to their countries. Working through a trade-centered foreign policy, the next Government must endeavour to support Kenyans overseas in establishing small businesses and travel bureaus as components of the tourist industry in Kenya.
Emphasis should be placed on Conference Tourism, which is not dependent on the seasonal temperaments that affect the flow of visitors into places associated with tourism and tourists. In other words, Kenya must devise ways of ensuring that tourism is not a seasonal affair but customized hospitality services to cater to tastes beyond sunbathing, debauched sexual escapades and so on.
In this endeavour, let us aim at international and regional participants. To do so successfully, let the sector focus its training on conference hospitality, because conferencing is a niche service. We need to invent innovative activities around the existing tourism spots and brand them so that the tourist is introduced to both variety and novelty. We must brand our tourism circuits and at the same time ensure that we showcase each facility in a manner that allows the visitor to discover the uniqueness of the facility or circuit. The classification intimated here could be based on regional idiosyncratic features - natural, design, quality of service, culture, and so on and so forth.
Besides, it is critical that we evolve ways of luring new categories of tourists into visiting Kenya - the Chinese, for instance! And all other economies that are on the road to economic greatness, Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa (the BRICS) must be on that list. By 2020, some 20 million more Chinese will have been lifted out of poverty and a good number of them will want to travel and see the world, Kenya included. The challenge now is to begin tapping into that market. There are many questions that beg answers in this regard. The biggest of them all is; are there special incentives for tourists from certain regions that cater to their unique if peculiar tastes and preferences? Let's find out and act accordingly!
Local management of tourism, too, must up its scale. The Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) must aspire to international standards and so should the accrediting bodies of hospitality facilities in this country.
South Africa and Egypt must be our benchmarks. We can no longer benchmark ourselves on the East African region as this is setting our horizons too low. Consider the statistics: South Africa attracts about 6 million tourists annually, which is 5 times more than Kenya, and 10 million tourists visit Egypt, or 10 times those we host. A way has to be found for us to create the employment opportunities which are well within our reach if we would only adopt the right policies.
Given the opportunity to lead this country, my Government would pursue nothing but the best policies if we are to run against South Africa and Egypt in the international tourism stakes, a prospect I clearly foresee.
Raphael Tuju is the Party of Action presidential aspirant