Jeannine Williamson discovers it’s business as usual in Kenya
A fortnight after September’s tragic shooting at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre I visited Kenya.
The atrocity sent shockwaves through the industry and, unsurprisingly, raised questions from concerned clients booked to visit the East African country. So what is the current situation?
The reality is that the Kenya is a safe and welcoming destination and the dreadful massacre was an isolated incident that sadly could have happened in any major city, including ones closer to home. My first and lasting impressions were of a vibrant nation with some of the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever met.
With high levels of security already in place at hotels and attractions, which were reassuringly professional without being intimidating, I felt safe everywhere I went. As far as clients are concerned, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office level of advice did not change during the recent events. It has always recommended that visitors should not travel to low income areas of Nairobi, but these are well away from tourist areas.
Already well known as a safari destination, in 2014 the Kenya Tourism Board will start a trade campaign showcasing niche products such as golf, birdwatching, diving and deep-sea fishing.
So how comparable is it to other African destinations? A big selling point is that it’s not just geared to the high-end market.
Michael Creighton, Travel 2’s Africa product manager, says: “Kenya is unique in Africa as it offers value-for-money safaris, but still caters for the luxury traveller and families. It offers safaris and resorts to suit all budgets with the three-star market particularly well catered for.”
The former British colony, which celebrated its 50th year of independence in 2013, draws the lion’s share of its visitors from the UK – with 186,000 Britons making up 15% of visitors in 2012.
Underlining its positive view for the future, it recently announced ambitious plans to more than double the total number of tourists to three million by 2017.
Most tours include an overnight in Nairobi, the capital. Although the sprawling modern city wouldn’t win any beauty contests, it’s worth recommending an extra day or two to see the local sights.
They don’t come any closer than Nairobi National Park, running alongside the airport, where you can spot zebra within 30 minutes of landing. The country’s first national park is also home to giraffe, lions and rhinos and more than 400 bird species.Also suggest the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for the heart-warming sight of orphaned baby elephants at play and being fed giant bottles of milk.
Another highlight is the former home of Danish author Karen Blixen. Now a museum, the house was once the centrepiece of the farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills and was immortalised in the film Out of Africa.
New additions to the accommodation scene are five-star Villa Rosa Kempinksi, well located in the city, and Hemingways Nairobi, a luxurious rural boutique property which is a 40-minute drive from the airport.
Whilst impressive improvements are underway at the airport, including a new terminal that will handle 20 million passengers annually by 2017, clients should be warned that nose-to-tail traffic at peak times can lead to frustratingly slow transfers.
The Masai Mara Game Reserve offers some of the best game viewing in Africa, and is famous for the wildebeest migration from July until the end of September.
It’s here that clients stand the best chance of seeing the big five: lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard. The main safari seasons are June to October and December to March, when shorter grass makes it easier to spot wildlife.
However, smaller reserves such as Ol Pejeta Conservancy, in the shadow of Mount Kenya, will appeal to clients who want a more personal experience without clusters of vehicles gathering around the animals. It also has a chimpanzee sanctuary.
Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, with golf, horse riding and 120 rooms set in 100 acres of grounds, is ideally placed to visit Ol Pejeta. Also in the conservancy is Sweetwaters Serena Camp, which has its own waterhole, and the rural and eco-friendly Porini Rhino Camp, which has just 10 tents and is in the heart of the bush.
For mature clients in particular recommend a night at Treetops, where Princess Elizabeth first heard the news that her father had died and she was to be Queen. It has been upgraded in recent years, but retains a rustic, colonial atmosphere.
A short internal flight to Mombasa or Malindi will take clients to Kenya’s beautiful 300-mile Indian Ocean coastline. The coast can be sold as an add- on, providing a relaxing contrast to a safari, or a standalone break to one of the many resort-style properties, with some offering excellent value.
Lined with coral reefs, Kenya is a superb destination for diving and other activities such as whale watching. It’s also noted for fishing, with the season running from August to March.
Turtle Bay Beach Club is an established resort that’s great for families, overlooking Watamu National Marine Park. Excellent on-site facilities include a quiet pool for adults, three restaurants and a wide choice of activities.
For couples, the romantic and secluded Mara Engai Indian Ocean Retreat has 18 rooms and a stunning private beach house, and newly opened Medina Palms is an ultra-stylish all-suite resort with a Jamie Oliver consultant overseeing the restaurant, superb spa, gym and watersports centre. It has direct access to Watamu Beach, regularly voted one of the top 10 in the world.
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