Kenya: Tourism Sector Feels Pinch as Measures to Curb Virus Take Shape

The cancellation of major international conferences slated for this month over fears of coronavirus (Covid-19) has dealt a major blow to the tourism sector.

This is coupled with lower arrival numbers for Moi International Airport (MIA), the country's tourism hub, in December last year, sending the sector into panic.

The latest data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that arrivals at the Mombasa airport slumped by more than 6,000 passengers during the December 2019 peak season compared to the previous year.

Tourism stakeholders are now warning of worse projections this year due to the virus threat globally.

Arrivals at MIA, Kenya's second-largest airport, dropped from 18,403 in 2018 to 12,373 in 2019. The numbers are expected to drop even further in the first two months of this year, as travellers call off plans over the illness.

Three major conferences planned for this month in Mombasa and Diani have been called off, prompting over 600 cancellations, even after advance preparations had been initiated. This has led to uncertainty in the hospitality industry.

Apart from the cancelled meetings, others have been postponed and the fate of other conferences is yet to be known.

With virus denting returns in the hospitality sector, hotel owners now want the Kenya Bankers Association (KBA) to be flexible to all the businesses that have loans.

Hosting prestigious global events could have cushioned them during this low season, the players said.

Pride Inn Paradise Beach Resort and Spa in Shanzu was set to host the 63rd Airport Council International (ACI) from March 14 to 20. But the 400-guest event was cancelled at the last minute.

ACI is a non-profit organisation representing the world's airports.

The delegates from more than 20 countries, including Canada, Morocco, Ghana, Senegal, South Africa, Madagascar, Rwanda, Côte d'Ivoire, Dubai and Mozambique, were expected to troop to Mombasa to discuss the air transport industry.

Senegal and South Africa have reported cases of Covid-19. Nigeria has also confirmed cases of the virus, which has affected more than 90,000 people and killed over 3,000 globally.

"We have had a few cancellations and postponing the meetings especially those involving international delegates due to the virus," Pride Inn managing director Hasnain Noorani said.

Speaking to the Nation by phone, Mr Noorani said his hotel had received cancellations of "other, small meetings" due to the government's directive.

Lower revenues

Mr Noorani said his hotel has witnessed about four or five lunch meetings cancelled.

"Cancelling the meetings translates to reduced revenues. The fact that the meetings were slated for March and we had done much of our planning, puts us in uncertainty, we don't know how to handle things," he said.

Mr Noorani says he had planned the costs, and put up security and software in place. He said this was a hard time in the industry.

He said a meeting stakeholders had with Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala on Friday last week was to mitigate the financial repercussions.

Mr Noorani urged journalists to be sensitive when reporting on the coronavirus threats.

"In the meeting, we discussed how we can involve the KBA to see how they can reduce or be flexible to all businesses that have loans. We are also trying to work with the government to sensitise the masses on the disease," Mr Noorani added.

Serena Beach Hotel and Spa general manager Herman Mwasaghua said the virus has caused a crisis in the hospitality sector.

"That meeting involving foreigners was expected to be a boost as the delegates had booked a number of hotels outside the venue. This is a big blow, it is biting -- the effect is so significant because a number of cancellations have been witnessed. We have lost three groups of business people from China and South Africa who have cancelled their meeting" he said.

'Tough scenario'

Mr Mwasaghua said delegates to the forums had booked over 50 rooms at his hotel.

"Others just cancelled yesterday, we have had to adjust but it is a tough scenario for us. We were to have a group of about 40 people from different countries, who were to stay here for almost a week but they have cancelled until further notice," Mr Mwasaghua said, adding that Africa is lucky the infection has not been widespread, giving hope to industry players.

Mr Mwasaghua said some of his clients said their airlines are flying airplnes half-empty.

Other delegates who were expected in the meeting are Mr Alex Gitari, acting managing director for Kenya Airports Authority; Transport and Infrastructure Cabinet Secretary James Macharia; his Tourism and Wildlife counterpart Najib Balala; Dr Dirk Glaesser, the director of the Department of Sustainable Development of Tourism; Capt Gilbert Kibe, director-general of the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority; and other aviation experts from more than 10 countries.

But the Hoteliers, led by Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers executive officer Sam Ikwaye, said the cancellations will affect businesses and the airline sector because conferences support other businesses, including airlines.

Meanwhile, the government has set up more than 100 hospital beds in preparation for possible coronavirus cases.

Health ministry Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe has assured the public that health workers are well prepared to stop the spread of the virus. No case has tested positive for the virus.

"We have trained over 1,100 health workers, we have deployed them to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and other areas. We are also sensitising and cascading this training all the way to the community levels. We have procured sufficient personal protective equipment," Mr Kagwe said.

Mbagathi Hospital has set up 120 beds for potential cases.

The virus' slow arrival to Africa has given governments more time to set up testing and treatment centres, with the help of the World Health Organization and other groups.

The deadly virus is believed to have emanated from an outdoor food market in the city of Wuhan, China.

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