Nairobi — Hopes that Kenya's tourism sector would witness a rebound by Easter this year were dashed as people in the industry described scenes of empty hotel rooms and deserted tourist destinations.
Solomon Matiri, general manager of Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi, said he expected the bulk of the hotel's bookings over Easter to come from domestic tourists but fears of terror attacks over the holiday period appeared to scare them away.
"Most star-rated hotels were seen as prime terrorist targets and despite our heavy advertisement of our special Easter offers in national newspapers and on social media, the outcome was not satisfactory," he told Sabahi.
"Out of our 204 rooms, we had 103 occupied," Matiri said. "Four years ago, this hotel was always overbooked over the Easter period."
General Manager of Nairobi's Jacaranda Hotel Margaret Maingi also had high hopes the Easter holiday would boost hotel bookings.
"Our hotel projected to attain an average room occupancy of between 70-80%, which is the comfortable level a hotel should [achieve] to make profit, but it appears the threat of terror attacks kept visitors away and sadly, we managed a [daily] occupancy of between 40-65%," she told Sabahi.
"Despite the government scaling up security measures by posting armed policemen and sniffer dogs in tourist hotels and other social places, fear [of terrorist attacks] held back both local and international guests, and it appeared most people preferred to celebrate Easter at their homes or away from crowded tourist places," she said.
Tarnish of insecurity:
"The security challenges facing the country today have worsened an already bad situation," said Mohammed Hersi, chairman of Mombasa Coast Tourist Association, an organisation that promotes tourism in Kenya's coastal regions.
"In 2011 and 2012, the industry was suffering due to the global economic meltdown," he told Sabahi. "We thought we would pick up last year but we were faced with the security dilemmas that have since compounded the crisis."
Hersi, who is also chief executive officer of Heritage Hotels Kenya, said that insecurity has caused average hotel occupancy in the coast region to drop from 70% in 2013 to below 30% in 2014, reflecting a trend nationwide.
Robert Shaw, a Nairobi-based economist, said the negative impact on the tourism sector would likely spread to other sectors.
"Insecurity of any type affects various sectors of the economy, but in Kenya's case the first casualty is always tourism," he told Sabahi. "Unless the government moves with speed to reverse this trend, this ghost of insecurity will collapse the tourism sector."
Tour operators and hotel owners are facing rising operational costs associated with the need to hire more private guards to put tourists at ease and ensure their security, he said.
"This means reduced earnings from tourism which will a have spiral effect on Kenya's national economy," he said, adding that the industry accounts for about 14% of Kenya's gross domestic product (GDP) and provides direct jobs to over 150,000 people.
According to the African Development Bank, Kenya's economy is projected to grow by 5.2% in 2014.
"But with major key sectors of the economy already hurting due to insecurity, I doubt if we will manage to get even a 5% growth this year," Shaw added.
Diversifying the tourism sector:
While acknowledging that terror attacks have had a negative impact on international tourists visiting the country, Kenya's Tourism, Commerce and East African Affairs Cabinet Secretary Phylis Kandie said the administration was focusing more on how to enhance domestic and regional tourism.
Even though international travel to Kenya dropped by 7% last year, domestic travel increased by 4%, she said.
"We launched the East African tourist visa and introduced use of identity cards as travel documents for East African citizens instead of passports," she told Sabahi. "This will ease cross border movement and we will exploit such opportunities to attract locals from the region to visit us."
Kandie added that they have started marketing Kenya not only as a destination for its beaches and safaris, but also as a venue for business related events.
Plans are under way to build two conference facilities that meet international standards in Mombasa and Nairobi, she said, adding that despite the Westgate attack last September, Kenya has hosted 31 international conferences since January, an indication there is potential in the sector.
"Apart from that, we are working to boost agro-tourism and sports tourism. With all of this in place we will be able to weather the storm," she said.
But according to Kenya Tourism Federation chief executive officer Agatha Juma, domestic tourism will not close the gap.
"During this season we were anticipating 70% bookings, but as we talk hotels are rarely recording above 30% booking, meaning things are tough for the industry," she told Sabahi.
The tourism ministry should embark on a more aggressive marketing campaign to promote Kenya, she said, adding that hotel owners and tour operators should also bring down their prices to increase sales.
"We should see more Kenya Tourism stands erected at all international events; this will increase our visibility," she said. "Also [tourism should be promoted] through our foreign missions abroad."
A continuing downward trend
Kenya Tourism Board public relations manager Kimutai Ng'eno said the board has yet to tabulate hotel performances for Easter, but he fears the government's projected increase of 1.2 million visitors by the end of 2014 appears dim.
"When we finish compiling the January-March 2014 figures, we do not expect any increase in tourism arrivals or hotel bed occupancies because tourism has been on a downward spiral since last year," Ng'eno told Sabahi.
"For example, the country received 398,203 tourists from January to May 2013 which is a 14% decline compared to the same period in 2012," he said.
Nonetheless, a few hotels in Kenya's coastal region recorded steady business over the Easter period, but at a cost.
"We experienced around 90% occupancy, but after heavy security investments," said Michael Kamau, general manager of Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort and Spa in Mombasa.
"I think hotel bookers and other client services agencies helped book guests with us after being satisfied with our visible security measures," he told Sabahi. "We have invested in modern [closed circuit television] cameras, walk-through screening machines, and hired armed and private guards who patrolled around the hotel and along the beach."