Virgin Atlantic and the Kenya Tourist Board hosted 35 UK journalists and operators to show them Kenya is ready for tourists to return, following political violence in January. Michelle Perrett went to see for herself
When Sir Richard Branson cut the red ribbon to announce the opening of the Sekenani Primary School in the Masai Mara this week he asked the international press to tell everyone Kenya is safe.
However, he also made a strong statement to the Kenyan authorities and said any revival of the political violence, which dominated news reports in the new year, would mean Virgin Atlantic would pull out of the country.
Sir Richard issued the dramatic warning to Kenyan politicians, telling them to put their egos to one side to ensure the new coalition government brings long-term stability. But he was quick to tell journalists that Kenya should be supported and it is time for tourists to come back and enjoy the country.
Virgin Atlantic continued to fly to the country when other airlines pulled out, admitting it cost “millions of pounds”, but Branson insisted it was the right thing to do.
Prior to the unrest at the beginning of the year, Kenya had enjoyed a huge boost in tourism over the past five years. In 2007 it welcomed more than two million visitors and tourism revenue accounted for 65.4 billion Kenyan shillings – approximately $1 billion.
The Kenyan authorities had predicted the first three months of 2008 would see a monthly increase of 15%, with 315,000 people visiting the country during the first quarter.
However, the political turbulence inevitably dissuaded people from going there and in the first three months of this year only 135,000 people visited – a drop of almost 73%.
The country is fighting to educate tourists and the travel industry to recognise that, with the help of a new coalition government and huge public support from famous figures such as Sir Richard, it is now safe.
A tourism crisis management committee set up by the Kenyan government has been working to inform the travel industry that Kenya is back on a stable footing.
The Kenya Tourist Board is working closely with UK tour operators including Kuoni, Somak and Virgin Atlantic, which is promoting the destination with a new campaign on the London Underground.
Kenya’s new minister for tourism Najib Balala, who visited Europe last week told Travel Weekly he believes it will take 12 months for the tourist industry to recover.
He said there were already positive signs of recovery during the summer months and revealed the country is hosting 100 UK travel agents at the end of next month to show them what the country has to offer. He also revealed he has secured €10 million to promote the country in key markets.
Balala said: “My priority is to get tourists who know Kenya already to come back.
“Emerging markets such as China, eastern Europe, Russia, Canada, Australia and India are good, but in a recovery strategy you don’t invest in new markets.
“We have a product of beach and safari but we want to diversify into cultural tourism and ecotourism. We want to open new areas and have another 30 to 40 national parks other than the Masai Mara.”
“The political situation in January was due to the fact that we always lived in a façade instead of addressing the real issues that touched the people. They are constitutional reforms, land reforms electoral reforms and building on the democratic institutions.
“After the elections, people’s hopes were shattered and it resulted in violence because they saw there was no other hope. And that is a lesson for the leadership.”
“We have learnt our lessons and we believe we have come out of this stronger than before and are able to move forward,” he said.
There is no doubt Kenya has a lot to offer tourists, but more important is the financial impact tourism has on the country.
Balala issued a call to tourists and the travel industry. He said: “When tourists come to Kenya they are also helping to eradicate poverty. The revenues from tourism will be put into building schools, giving free education and healthcare and building roads.”
Jaideep Vohra, managing director of Sarova Hotels, the eight-strong hotel and game lodge chain, agreed with the minister about the effects on the country and the people.
He said: “It’s very sad and it not only affects the hotels and tourism, but the country as a whole – it has a ripple effect.”
“If we don’t have the occupancy we can’t buy food, if we are not buying commodities, we are not buying anything.”
Vohra said that the cancellation of the charter flights had a devastating effect on the economy. He is encouraged by the arrival of Monarch and news that First Choice is about to begin flying there again.
He revealed that during January to April the eight Sarova Hotels were running at 2% occupancy, with his business down 60% on last year’s figures. This is despite only one of the hotels being near the troubled areas.
“Things are starting to pick up and bookings are coming in again. Hopefully we won’t have late cancellations because tour operators are holding rooms as they are assuming business is going to pick up,” he added.
He said if Kenya gets the support of the international media and tour operators it would take just three months for visitor figures to get back to normal.
Kenyan Tourist Board managing director Dr Achieng Ong’ong’a said the troubles were a wake-up call, but it was time to look ahead.
He said: “We couldn’t be angry for too long, we like to have a beer and we like to dance. It’s business as usual.”
Tour operators on KenyaTour operators said tourists who favour the country are very loyal to it, but the biggest problem was that the troubles were during the peak booking time.
Somak commercial director Anil Sofat revealed the company is still experiencing a decrease in sales after the January post-election crisis. This is despite the number of forward bookings in December 2007 being some of the best ever.
He said: “January, February, March is the traditional peak booking period and we had a vacuum of three or four months.
“We have good bookings for 2008/09 because people did not cancel. Kenya has a huge amount of repeat clients.”
But he said the fundamental impact has been the lack of interest from new visitors to the country. However, there are some positive signs.
“In the last four months the number of enquiries are what we expect for this time of year. But people are still unsure and taking longer to make the booking.
“The travel agent is pushing hard and there is no reluctance to sell Kenya. It’s business as normal. I reckon in a year or two we could be ahead of last year.”
Virgin Holidays contract manager for Africa Karen Seery said: “People are still asking if it’s okay to come to Kenya. They are booking but not in the numbers they were.” However, she is optimistic that people are coming back to the region.