The more I travel and the more I appreciate what Kenya has to offer, the more it strikes me that the potential for growth in Kenya’s tourism industry seems inexhaustible. In my opinion, Kenya’s geographical, cultural and environmental diversity is unparalleled anywhere in the world. The mountains and highlands, the desert, the national parks that are the birthplace of Safari and some of the best beaches of the world all combine to create a destination that is truly unique. When I cast my eyes over it, the question that I cannot help but ask is, where are the tourists?
Kenya has everything that is needed to be a world, and certainly an African, travel destination. Everything, that is, except international confidence; increasingly harsh travel advisories and domestic terrorism have meant that for many potential visitors Kenya isn’t the “safe” destination that many require for family holidays and business trips. Compared to Kenya, the tourist hotspots of the world are second-rate – Thailand has beautiful beaches, South Africa has world-class Safari, but nowhere else can you find the quality and diversity available here. Besides, safety is relative. I personally feel much safer walking around Watamu than Johannesburg, and Thailand has had frequent and recent military coups and dictatorships with less damage to tourism than Kenya’s occasional political instability.
There is one important difference however; our dependence on European and particularly British tourism. The top 7 nationalities of visitors to Thailand are from other Asian countries, and South Africa attracts over 4 African tourists for every European. 52 years after independence, Kenya is still dependent on British tourism and for this reason, British travel advisories have nearly decimated the tourist industry and put thousands of people out of jobs. The result of these advisories and the consequent unemployment and economic slump is the creation of the perfect climate for recruitment of home-grown terrorists and recruits to Al-Shabaab, and the situation is being made worse. To make Kenya the tourist success that it so clearly can be, diversification is necessary; we need to expand to local African markets. Kenya needs the support and confidence of the rest of Africa, and perhaps many people do not realise the proximity and quality of the Kenyan tourist experience, so we need to show it to them. This will provide the opportunity for growth among a new tourist market without many of the fears and concerns of Western and European visitors; Nigerian visitors to Kenya are more likely to take the perceived dangers of Islamist terrorism with a pinch of salt, and residents of Johannesburg aren’t going to be put off visiting Nairobi because of news coverage of carjacking or home invasions.
I feel very strongly that the lack of support from some Western countries is counterproductive and, though it might be necessary to protect their own citizens, creates a damaging cycle of mistrust and unemployment that contributes to instability in Kenya. So why are we letting these countries hold us to ransom with their tourists? The solution for me lies in encouraging African markets and making Kenya the strong African success story that it deserves to be. President Obama coming back home will hopefully trigger an important change of mindset in American attitudes to Kenya but African leaders and citizens must also follow suit, as it is in collective advancement of our potential that we can create the political and economic stability necessary to eradicate extremism and make Kenya the beating heart of Africa.