18 February 2018

Kenya: Insecurity Killing the Once Vibrant Tourism Industry


Sitting in a corner in his shop at the Malindi Tourist Curio Market, 33-year-old James Matiro ponders his next move.

He looks at his soapstone carvings, unsold for the last one week.

The dead stock is the stark reality of the dwindling tourism sector in Malindi, and a reflection of the bigger crisis facing the tourism industry in Kenya.

"I have not sold even a single carving for the last one week," he says. "Business is bad and there are no tourists."

When he ventured into the business in 2006, Mr Matiro had hoped to cash in on the revival of the tourism sector that had seen a dramatic increase in numbers after a period of drab earnings.

The numbers were promising after a 51 per cent increase in earnings recorded a year earlier, in 2005.


Virtually all the sectors were showing a dramatic recovery.

After nearly two decades of zero-to-negative economic per capita growth, Kenya turned the corner in 2004 with an aggregate growth rate of 5.1 per cent.

This rose to 5.7 per cent in 2005 and 6.1 per cent in 2006, when Mr Matiro entered business.

Then the worst happened and the country was plunged into violence after the disputed 2007 General Elections; GDP growth slumped to 1.7 per cent while international tourist arrivals fell by 31 per cent -- the biggest fall ever recorded in Kenya.


After the violence many tourists avoided the country, marking a long journey of pain for the sector, the mainstay of Malindi and the coastal region in general.

And then, just as the sector readied itself for recovery, the Somali terror group Al-Shabaab struck, abducting tourists and leading to travel advisories by Western markets.

"When business was brisk I would make sales worth as much as Sh50,000 per day," he recalls.

But that is history, and today goes even a week without single sale.

Malindi has always relied on the tourism sector and most of the businessmen who ventured here to cash in on the sector now appear to have made a miscalculation.

We found Thomas Osoro taking a nap in his shop. He was elated when we walked in -- hoping we were customers.

Sadly, we weren't. We wanted more than his curios; we wanted his story.


In Mr Osoro's mind, the curios inside his shop do not sell because of a simple yet powerful reason: Bad politics.

Were it not for the combative political ping pong of 2007, he would be at a better place today, he believes.

"My plea to President Uhuru Kenyatta and Mr Raila Odinga is that they should always remember that, when they fight politically, it is we, the small fish on the ground, who suffer the consequences."

Mr Osoro says some curio traders have altogether left the tourism value chain and opted for other sources of income, including casual labour.

Another trader, Grace Hisibori, in the curio business for more than 30 years, says the last 10 years have been particularly tough for her business.

"When the tourists left, they took with them our livelihoods," she says.

"I could make as much as Sh20,000 daily, but nowadays I can hardly earn Sh1,000 in sales.

"It is not easy for us, and the future looks ever bleaker as hotels have started closing shop, meaning the sector might never recover."

Malindi Tourist Market Association chairman Thomas Motondi says sales volumes against stock at the market now stand at 20 per cent, down from 80 per cent before 2007.

"This is a sector on its knees," he says.

"We have 500 individuals in this market who wake up every day and walk here but they can hardly make ends meet," he added.


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