22 July 2014

Kenya: Remedies to Transform the Industry Within 36 Months

Beneath all these beauty and more then, what could be ailing tourism at this paradise that is Kenya's Coast?

Well, it is obvious that despite all the talk about "beefing up security" in the region, security agencies have lost grip of the situation. It is getting worse by day; what with the repeated attacks and kidnappings within the same area.

Should the country even try selling tourism as a product when it can't quite protect life and property - two of the basic duties of any government? Today, if the country went for six months without a terrorist-related incident, wouldn't that now make the big story? Would product pricing even be part of the talk if security was taken care of?

"We have had various challenges of late... especially marketing the coast, because of perceptions on security, and also pricing of the product - these are the areas we are aware as government that are the core problem," says Phyllis Kandie, the Cabinet Secretary for East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism.

Insecurity - it's on every investor's lips at the coast. Look at recent events in Mombasa and surrounding towns like Lamu, Nyali and Malindi.

Initially, foreign tourists were scared by numerous kidnappings. That's almost forgotten now. The bigger issue are the increasingly frequent attacks - incidents that have become one too many.

Recent killings of sheikhs by snipers have not helped matters. Muslim youth hold demonstrations in protests that scare off many potential tourists - domestic and foreign.

Yet, many of those running hotels at the coast, tour operators and officials in the sector, including Kandie, would prefer that local media 'goes slow' on reporting these unfortunate events. Apparently, they believe reporting these facts accelerates the sector's downfall.

When a battery of journalists visited the coastal strip in mid-March, a tour operator asked me why journalists must always report these incidences.

"Must you report? Aren't you affected too as a Kenyan?" he posed.

It's rhetoric that I had heard many times over; in fact, CS Kandie asked journalists to be "patriotic, own the tourism product and guard it jealously". For the record, we all do. We love our country and we will do the best to guard it - but State agencies must wake up, they have let down the country we so love.

I asked the tour operator whether he would prefer that only international media reports on the incidences. Would it be in the sector's interests best when potential foreign tourists receive overhyped and one-sided reporting - with headlines like 'Kenya Burning' - or isn't it better when local media report objectively on the same incidents so that the reader (especially potential foreign tourists) can have alternatives to turn to for factual information to judge for themselves?

Isn't this the reason that some tourists have defied travel advisories from their countries to visit anyway - after they weigh the situation?

Once the security agencies get hold of the situation, we will shout about it. In fact, the hospitality industry players at the Coast have some thoughts on what would further turn around tourism fortunes once security is guaranteed so as to earn the extra dollar.

According to CS Kandie, one of the areas would be to increase collaboration between national and county governments.

"We need to partner and prioritise in terms of infrastructure, product quality and pricing (hotels), and initiate the beach cleaning exercise started by the KWS a while back - we'll enlarge this programme to cover the whole coastal strip to clean the beaches together.

"Clean beaches will attract tourists. We need sustainability in tourism. We appreciate that the coast is a unique tourism product," Kandie says.

She says marketing and rebranding efforts have been geared up, and that the recently launched East African tourist visa marks a significant step in the ongoing integration of EAC, and "will encourage a trans-boundary economy" that will be good for tourism.

Yet, marketing and rebranding tourism will not work if security is still a big issue. If I were her, I'd be really mad at Cabinet Secretaries for Interior and Defence, because they hold her fortunes.

"You can see the effects of this sector going down, a lot of jobs are lost, and we cannot afford this as a country," Kandie says.

Chris Modigell, a hospitality and tourism industry professional with over 30 years experience in the Kenyan market, says that "for each 10 additional tourists, you generate one more job".

The tourism dollar, he says, is not just a dollar coming in but three, because there's one for the guy who makes beer, the seller of vegetables and the fisherman.

"The world out there does not take tourism for granted, they put up a fight for it," says Modigell, a director at Absolute Kenya Ltd, the developer of Leopard Beach Resort and Spa in Diani.

The full service all-inclusive hotel he oversees - with 300 beds and 300 staff - has just completed an expansion project at a cost of over Sh600 million to add 310 beds by this month. It sits on 28 acres.

"It's borrowed money at a time tourism is on the decline... you wouldn't want to be in my shoes. It's only that we started this two years ago when operations were profitable, otherwise we would not start now - we are bleeding, we are losing," he says.

The new villas dubbed 'The Residence' are of the quality you find in high-end hotels in Dubai, UAE, or in Mumbai and New Delhi in India.

"We must provide what our guests out there want," he says.

According to Modigell, resuscitating tourism should be easy - if the government plays its role; what with security, infrastructure (roads and lighting), beach cleanliness, ferry management, direct flights to the Coast, and so on.

"We know what's ailing, we know what the problem is, we know we have the answer... but we need to be in partnership with the government to turn this around," he says.

George Barbours, proprietor of the farm-to-table Ali Barbour's and the Forty Thieves Cave Restaurant, says: "We should ban all trading on the beach and beach boys. We could build small markets off the beach.... Tourists want to relax on the beach."

Barbours doesn't believe product pricing could be keeping away price-conscious tourists, arguing that "we are no more expensive than anybody else," and the one thing to do is give value for money.

"This way they (tourists) will pay and they'll come back," Barbours says.

Kenya needs an open-sky policy to boost access to Mombasa by air through international flights, Modigell says, but this is only on paper.

"... the days of charter are gone, they are declining," Modigell says.

Part of increase foreigners visiting the Coast would be not to neglect Kenya's traditional source markets in Europe, even "as we increasingly look at growing markets such as China and Russia", he says.

"We also don't have a single direct flight from South Africa's Johannesburg to Mombasa yet there are three flights from Johannesburg to Zanzibar which is one of our fiercest competitors."

Modigell says Kenya needs to restructure the whole tourism policy and create one umbrella tourism sector authority to handle licensing and regulation.

"The Deputy President at inauguration said he wants to increase tourist numbers to three million by 2017, at the moment we are going backwards and not forwards - that's the reality on the ground."

Other solutions are such like having a convention centre in Mombasa to take away some traffic from Nairobi.

"Most importantly we need Kenya's coastal tourism to reinvent itself because we are living in yester years if you look at some of the hotels - they are old and run down. Zanzibar's give Kenya's a run for their money because they are new and Zanzibar is a mystic name and anybody who wants to fly there can land there."

Modigell says if stakeholders and the government committed to see through some of the suggestions, Kenya's tourism sector would all be different within 36 months.

"If there is political will, if the government and the industry work together, in three years' time, we can sit here and point at what we'll have done. Because nothing written and said cannot be done within a very short time to turn around the industry," he says.

"We are not asking for the moon, we are taxpayers, all we are asking for is for the taxes to work as they should."

And this means that taxes must be used to do the right thing - what of starting with protecting life and property then the rest?


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