Tourists dry spell hits hotels amid low season, pandemic

Industry players counting on MICE and return of chartered flights for recovery.

In Summary

•Christmas and New Year holidays cushioned the sector but business has since dropped.

•Tourism receipts worldwide are not expected to recover to 2019 levels until 2023, according to the IMF.

An empty Diani beach in Kwale county.
DESERTED: An empty Diani beach in Kwale county.

Hotels and tourism outfits in Kenya are back to near-zero occupancy after a busy festive season that offered a reprieve from the adverse business effects of Covid-19.

The traditional January-March low season has this year been worsened by the pandemic which has reduced domestic tourism activities and cut-off more than 80 per cent of international arrivals.

Over 400 high-end facilities in Mombasa, Diani, Kilifi, Malindi, and Lamu (the countries leading beach holiday destinations), are facing a tough low season on low visitor numbers. 

Mombasa has at least 150 star rated hotels, Kilifi County (150) and Diani about 100, with majority reporting occupancy of between five-10 per cent post festive period, putting about 10,000 jobs on the line.

Some have been forced to scale down operations which according to the Kenya Tourism Federation(KTF), is the only viable move to survive during low seasons.

“Scaling down is a must. This is when you send staff home to clear pending leave days or work with reduced numbers to remain in business. It is a norm in the industry. You cannot keep people when there is no business,” KTF chairman Mohamed Hersi said yesterday.

Facilities in Nairobi, a lead Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE), are also experiencing low business in the wake of the pandemic, with some closing.

Those most hit include Radisson Blu which closed its Upper Hill branch last year, Fairmont Hotel which closed its Fairmont 'The Norfolk', and InterContinental Hotel. Those still open are reporting low business.

“We are mostly receiving walk-inns for meals and drinks, a few meetings and very low accommodation business,” a staffer at Sarova Stanley told the Star.

In the parks, facilities are also struggling with low numbers with a handful international visitors making Safari trips in key park facilities of Maasai Mara, Amboseli and the Samburu region.

According to the Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers and Caterers(KAHC), occupancy across different segments and regions, including the Mount Kenya, Tsavo, Amboseli, Rift Valley and Western circuit remain low.

“Things are not that good. Most hotels are yet to pick up,” said Willy Mwadilo, KAHC chairman for the Tsavo-Amboseli region and the general manager Taita Hills Game Lodge and Salt Lick.

Most facilities are counting on the domestic market to wade through the tough period.

Tourism receipts worldwide are not expected to recover to 2019 levels until 2023, according to the IMF.

Last year, tourist arrivals fell globally by more than 65 per cent, with a near halt since April—compared with eight percent during the global financial crisis (2008) and 17 per cent amid the SARS epidemic of 2003,  IMF says in an ongoing research on tourism in a post-pandemic world.

Industry players are also counting on charter operators to help bring international tourists into Kenya.

The country has started receiving one chartered flight from Poland every Saturday, bringing in tourists for holiday.

“We are hopeful scheduled and chartered flights start coming back from other markets like Germany, Netherlands and Belgium,” said Hersi, who is also the director of operations at Pollmans Tours and Safaris, a major handler of international tourists visiting Kenya.

Other markets that have shown interest, Hersi said, include Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Russia, adding to the traditional markets of US, UK, Italy and France.

“We are in negotiations with a number of companies to bring charters,” Hersi said.

The MICE also remains a target market by hotels with industry players hopeful the segment will recover after a sharp decline in 2020 and first two weeks of 2021.

We are very optimistic about the year 2021. We have started receiving a number of conference enquiries across our eight hotels in Kenya.  People have realised that business has to go on despite the challenges we are facing,”said Hasnain Noorani, managing director of PrideInn Group.

According to Noorani, Christmas and New Year holidays gave the tourism sector a sigh of relief after experiencing a long dry spell, but has however seen a decline in business in the first two weeks of this year.

On the other hand, the industry is keen to have the national curfew reviewed.

Merry makers feel the time to have dinner is too limited because of the curfew therefore they get discouragedWe are facing an uphill task in bringing hospitality business to where it used to be before the pandemic,” said Victor Shitakha, Kenya Coast Tourism Association Chairman.

Meanwhile, Tourism CS Najib Balala has embarked on a spirited campaign to market the country globally, with initiatives such as the Tuesday naming of super model Naomi Campbell as the Magical Kenya International Tourism Ambassador.

She is expected to help promote the marketing of Kenya as an ideal tourism and travel destination to the world.