Trouble in paradise: Kenyan tourism faces severe hit

Posted on October 6, 2011


Trying to convince friends and family that relocating to a sub-Saharan African country is a sensible move is difficult enough at the bext of times, but recent killings and kidnappings on the northern Kenyan coast made that task even more difficult. Having barely graced the western media for some time, Kenya is now under the spotlight after the kidnappings of British tourist Judith Tebbutt, whose husband was killed during the raid, and disabled French woman Marie Dedieu in Lamu. Both women remain in the hands of Al Shabaab, an Islamist group seeking to overthrow the Somali government.

The Kenyan government has reacted angrily to what it called “provocation” from Al Shabaab and is, somewhat belatedly according to some, taking action to try and recover the hostages. These are not isolated incidents, and Al Shabaab has long posed a threat to Kenya’s security. Residents of Lamu, which has a Kenyan Navy base nearby, have protested against lack of security in the area, which is a crucial hub for the country’s tourism industry. And though the personal horror of the two women is reason enough for this to be a major issue, the potential impact on tourism gives the government major economic reasons to recover the hostages and tighten security along Kenya’s northern coastline. Though Tourism Minister Najib Balala has, somewhat ridiculously, claimed that the incidents will not affect tourism, it seems inevitable that tourists will be put off from visiting Kenya is the wake of these kidnappings. Last year Kenya had over a million tourists, with a direct contribution of travel and tourism to Kenyan GDP Sh74bn, approximately 4.5% of total GDP. Loss of this revenue would be disastrous for the Kenyan economy.

The British Foreign & Commonwealth Office has upgraded its travel warning with regard to Kenya, advising tourists not to travel within 150km of the Kenya-Somalia border along the coast. This is a change from the original 60km, and includes the popular destination of Lamu, but warnings were always detailed with regard to Kenya, focusing especially on piracy and the dangers of low-income areas of Nairobi. United States travel advice is similar. With these warnings in place, visitors from the west are likely to decrease significantly in the coming weeks and months. A quick search of social media confirms that even expatriates, presumably more hardened to the ways of Kenyan life, are rethinking visiting Lamu and similar areas.

A quick flick through my copy of Lonely Planet: Kenya tells me that ‘Nairobbery’ does not deserve its nickname. Though this is probably slightly biased, in that the company wants tourists to visit the country in order to shift copies, my impression of Nairobi and Kenya so far is of a nation of friendly people who are willing to help an ignorant mzungu find his way around what can be a bewildering place. Most expatriates I have spoken to confirm this impression. Statistics for last year reported a decrease in crime within the country. Yet what keeps the expatriates living in gated and guarded communities, and is sure to dissuade tourists from visiting Kenya in their usual droves this year, is a dark side that is demonstrated only too well by the horrific events at Lamu. Until the Kenyan authorities can assure people that their own territory is secure, the tourism industry, and thus the economy as a whole, faces a very testing time.



Posted in: Issues, Travel