The British Airways has resumed direct flights between Nairobi and London despite Kenya remaining on the United Kingdom's travel red list.
The Kenyan government termed political the move by the UK to keep it on the red list due to a spike in coronavirus infections.
For Kenya, remaining stuck on the red list in the latest update to international travel by Britain has dealt a huge blow to tourism, which was banking on a lifting of the restrictions for a boost. Still, the resumption of the flights brings good tidings to the industry.
In a statement, British Airways said its first passenger flight between Nairobi and London was on Sunday.
"We are honoured to be playing our part in reuniting families and friends with their loved ones after such a long time apart. The safety of our customers and colleagues has always been at the heart of everything we do. We know some customers won't have flown for a long time, we can assure them we have a range of Covid-19 measures in place to provide stress and hassle-free travel," said Senior Vice President Middle East and Africa Airport Operations Sohail Ali.
The airline, which will be operating two flights on weekends (Saturday and Sunday) said it has also introduced a number of measures at the airport and on-board to ensure the safety of its customers and crew.
"These include social distancing measures, the wearing of face masks and hand sanitiser stations. Customers will also receive details of how they can prepare for their journey, including information on discounted testing providers. To help customers navigate the changing entry requirement and facilitate a seamless journey, they can download the VeriFLY app before departing to London," the statement read.
The airline said the digital health app allows customers to combine their travel verification documents and Covid-19 test results in one place and confirm their eligibility with a few simple steps. Anyone travelling into the UK from a red list country must be a British or Irish national, or have residence rights. They must be Covid-19 negative before travelling. Additionally, they must quarantine at appointed hotels at their own cost.
The Kenyan government and tourism stakeholders have complained about the red list, which is hurting its tourism and sabotaging the economy. Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala termed the move political, and wondered why India had been removed from the red list.
"The traffic light Covid-19 protocols are now political because you cannot compare infection rates and the number of deaths in Kenya with that of the UK, it is incomprehensible. These are political statements. The delta variant came from India, how come India has been removed from the red list?" Mr Balala posed.
The CS said countries sanctioning their citizens to travel within their states is meant to boost local tourism and build economies. However, he said Africa has an opportunity to tap into its 1.3 billion population and urged its states to invest in intra-continental tourism.
"Why can't we open up the continent to Africans? This is the agenda [for] which we are here in Cape Verde as the council of ministers. Without creating a new segment and diversifying our source market, we would be subservient to the source market and it would be used politically against us," he added.
He assured international tourists that Kenya has invested heavily in vaccination to keep both its citizens and visitors safe. The CS blamed the global hoarding of vaccines for the insufficient doses in Kenya.
"That's why we do not receive an equivalent share of the vaccine. Africa wants to vaccinate its people but we don't have enough vaccines. Production of vaccines is from the advanced world or the source markets where they come from," he added.
Kenya is a popular tourism destination for Britons. The UK has been a top tourism source market for Kenya. In 2019, it emerged fourth in the ranking, with 181,484 tourists visiting the country. The UK last week made some changes on the countries in red, amber, and green lists, with Kenya remaining on the red list, eight months since it was first placed there. Mr said Kenya is not out of the woods yet.
"We will return to normality in two years. 2024 is the time tourism will go back to normal. Health is going to be the first agenda on everyone's mind when travelling, so we need to vaccinate our people so that travellers can feel Kenya is safe," he said during an interview with a local TV station. The CS urged Africans to improve infrastructure and connectivity on the continent to boost intra-African tourism.
"It will be a major achievement," he said. The tourism sector depends on summer travel from Europe and America, between June and September. There were high hopes in the industry that Kenya would be upgraded from red to amber on the back of a recent visit by President Kenyatta to the UK.
Failure to upgrade Kenya to the amber list will see Britons keep off the country to avoid being slapped with a huge bill on return, because all citizens returning from red list countries are required to isolate for 10 days in a hotel at a cost of £2,285 (Sh347,320). The tourism industry lost Sh80 billion in the first six months of last year as the country grappled with the effects of Covid-19, which saw countries close their airspaces.
Hotelier Mohammed Hersi and Kenya Coast Tourists Association (KCTA) Chairperson Victor Shitakha also lamented over the red list. They urged the government to prioritise the sector whose international numbers have slumped due to the pandemic.
"Our government should push the UK to remove us from the red list like India," said Mr Hersi, during an interview with a local TV station.
This comes as Mombasa County continues to market the city to attract more international and regional tourists.
The county's Department of Tourism has been conducting massive campaigns to lure tourists to the destination, which has seen it sign a tourism partnership with the Ukrainian government.
"We had a very interactive and insightful engagement with tour operators and travel agents in Odessa, where we had an opportunity to pitch on the different tourism products, trade, and investment opportunities in Mombasa. We also impressed upon them on the need to increase the number of charter flights flying directly into the coastal city of Mombasa," said Governor Hassan Joho on his Facebook page.