23 January 2013

Kenya: Tourism May Be a Double-Edged Sword

Photo: Ted Kinyanjui/Flickr
Kenya Wildlife Service attend to a poached elephant (file photo).


Wildlife in Kenya is gaining global attention as recent incidents involving large scale poaching of elephants and rhinos and the broader crisis of habitat loss and subsistence poaching are appearing in the international media.

The local tourist trade has made some official statements of concern for the potential impact of declining wildlife numbers on their businesses, but at the same time some in the industry have voiced objections to the potential negative impact of the publicity of these poaching incidents. Their view is that the destination image is damaged and potential tourists may perceive that the country and our National Parks and Reserves are insecure.

Yet this presents a double-edged sword for the travel trade. With relentless pressure on protected wildlife habitat from human population expansion and development and new channels for illegal wildlife products into Asia, the need for active conservation and greater enforcement of environmental law is stronger than ever. Increasingly, gaining support and raising funds for conservation relies on public support and this means making the global community aware of the crisis facing our local environment.

The media is a vital channel for the raising of awareness and gaining support, and is impossible to either ignore or attempt to block. Social media makes this point even more academic and the battle to conserve wildlife is now often being fought online with frontline reporting from the field feeding into support groups, communities and fundraisers.

The onus is upon the tourist trade to join this conversation and community to show their potential clients that they too play an active role in the preservation of Kenya's wildlife. In simple business terms this is obvious. When so much of our tourism depends on our wildlife, it is vital that this resource is protected or else the industry will die alongside the animals.

Fortunately many in the trade recognise this and Kenya has become a pioneer in sustainable tourism, particularly the establishment of conservancies and community partnerships for conservation and has created not just opportunities for protection of wildlife but of sustainable livelihoods for people.

By strengthening these partnerships and spreading their benefits to more individuals the number of voices supporting these causes locally will inevitably increase.

But just as we are seeing that not all development is good development when it comes to sustainability or tangible local benefits, it is equally true that not all tourism is good tourism. Tourism developments when not properly managed or maintained can be environmentally destructive and the quest for immediate short-term gain can fatally damage the potential for future growth and sustainability.

The negative impact of tourism falls under the same media scrutiny and concern as poaching and insecurity and we will be held responsible and accountable by a global community- including our present and potential future visitors.

As much as we seek new markets and new forms of tourism development, we must also be aware of our market image and competitiveness. When we hear reports of new resort cities, massive scale hotel developments and even theme parks in Kenya, we should also realise that these are generic products that exist everywhere across the world and face tough competition in the marketplace.

What makes us true market leaders is what we have to offer that is uniquely Kenyan, our cultures, traditions and the land itself. These are not the natural resources we can dig up, farm or sell to the world. These are the natural resources that bring the world to us. Our wild lands and wildlife are our greatest resource and heritage. At this all-important moment, everyone should be joining the call for their protection.

Damian Cook is the founder and CEO of E-Tourism Frontiers and works in tourism and media development in many emerging destinations. 

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