•To see the country succeed to unprecedented levels in the next five years, a strategy is required that calls for promoting Kenya as a multi-product destination.
•Industry players and state urged to diversify tourist flows into Kenya from traditional Europe and North America markets to emerging markets such as India and China.
Kenya’s hotel and tourism industry is on a recovery path with both the government and industry players projecting a strong performance this year.
The Star spoke to BOBBY KAMANI, Managing Director Zuri Group Global, a multinational conglomerate with interests in hospitality, real estate and floriculture. Kamani who is also a director and board member,Kenya Tourism Board, shared insights on the industry’s performance and future outlook.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE JUST CONCLUDED CHRISTMAS-NEW YEAR FESTIVE PERIOD COMPARED TO LAST YEAR?
It has been a very busy festive period for tourism in Kenya, especially on the Kenyan Coast. This comes as a welcome change after the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 when tourism was at its lowest. Hotels on the Kenyan Coast have enjoyed increased occupancies and far higher average room revenues than was expected. The busy period came after a relatively successful 2022 for tourism in Kenya.
THE HOTEL AND TOURISM INDUSTRY WAS COUNTING ON THE LONG SCHOOL HOLIDAY AS ONE OF THE KEY DRIVERS FOR NUMBERS THIS SEASON, HOW DID IT PLAY OUT?
Hotels and holiday homes on the coast enjoyed brisk business owing to the long school holiday. Normally, by the first week of January there is a decrease in domestic tourists, but this year things were different. Many holidaymakers extended their stay which brought good tidings to the sector. Industry players are now banking on a relatively calm post-general elections period in the country to diversify their products and generate revenue.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE INTERNATIONAL MARKET CURRENTLY? WHEN DO YOU SEE IT COMING BACK TO 2019 LEVELS?
The years 2020 and 2021 saw tourism arrivals drop to approximately 500,000 and 800,000 respectively.2022 saw a huge improvement in tourism arrivals of approximately 1.5 million. I am optimistic that 2023 will be the year that brings international tourism arrivals back to the pre-pandemic levels that we saw in 2018 and 2019 and we will hopefully see more than 2 million arrivals annually.
THE GOVERNMENT ANNOUNCED PLANS TO SUPPORT HOTELS DURING THE PANDEMIC, HAS IT HAD ANY IMPACT SO FAR?
Yes. It did an incredible job of extending support by way of increased spending on marketing dedicated to the Kenya Tourism Board and the Ministry of Tourism. It further set aside Sh2 billion to support the renovation of tourist hotels and the restructuring of business operations. This was in the form of soft loans that were administered by the Tourism Finance Corporation (TFC) to hotel establishments. A further Sh1 billion was dedicated to community conservancies under the Kenya Wildlife Service to support their activities. The intervention assisted the sector to stay afloat as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged life and economies globally.
KENYA IS SAID TO BE AN EXPENSIVE DESTINATION ESPECIALLY HOTELS ON THE COAST, WHAT IS YOUR TAKE ON PRODUCT PRICING?
Compared on a global scale, Kenya is not generally considered an expensive place to travel to, however, when compared with other African countries, overall costs tend to be a fraction more because of the country’s more advanced tourism industry. If you plan to travel a fair distance, prices can add up, especially if you want to go on a safari. While luxury lodges have often come to symbolise the safari experience, that’s not the reality – you can choose to camp, opt for midrange accommodations, or travel off-season. With a wide choice of hotels, apartments, and restaurants, Nairobi has options for every budget. Eating street food and using low-cost transport will also save you money. Beach resorts span the price spectrum too, from 5-star luxury and stylish staffed villas to beach bungalows, cut-price boutique hotels and very reasonably priced hostels. There are several ways to save money if you’ve got the flexibility to travel outside of Kenya’s busiest tourist periods, typically July to October and January and February, after the short rains. International flights and accommodations will both cost a little less and if you travel outside of the Great Migration (July to October) you can also pick up good deals for the MasaiMara, which is fantastic pretty much any time of year. For a cheaper safari, book between the short and long rains (January to March) when prices are usually lower than during the peak vacation season. Beach resorts and hotels offer great deals when outside the peak periods too. Shop for bargains in October and November, or before the rains in March and April. Travelling in the rainy season can also be a winner as the downpours are often short-lived, the landscapes are lush, and the price difference can be significant.
HOW BEST CAN THE INDUSTRY POSITION ITSELF FOR FULL POST-COVID RECOVERY?
Kenya’s tourism industry has started to pull out of its deep Covid-19-induced slump as local travellers take advantage of lower prices and the number of foreign visitors starts recovering toward pre-pandemic levels. The sector earned nearly $1.5 billion in 2022, which is up 18.5% from 2021. This year’s forecast depends on the continuation of the global campaign to continue vaccinating people against Covid, and sustained marketing into traditional source markets like Britain, and new ones in Asia. Kenya has no shortage of world-renowned tourism hotspots yet to be discovered. I have always maintained that we are so much more than just ‘beach and bush’. The country is poised to receive more international visitors as the government, albeit cautiously, opens up the skies for flights to specific tourism hotspots.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE FACING KENYA’S HOTEL INDUSTRY?
The largest challenge facing the Kenyan hospitality industry is the debate surrounding the opening of the skies. We have seen Kenya Airways resume several routes as well as introduce new international routes. This is hugely beneficial to hoteliers, but a lot more can be done. Whilst the conversation around an ‘Open Skies Policy is a sensitive and intricate one, the policy can be activated cautiously with MoiInternational Airport, to begin with.
DO YOU SEE TANZANIA AND ZANZIBAR AS MAJOR COMPETITORS?
They are friendly neighbours and I feel that competition amongst neighbours is always good. It keeps our toes as industry stakeholders. When it comes to Zanzibar, there are more international flights to the destination, so they will naturally be more accessible to the international market than the Kenyan coast. However, service levels and hospitality standards are relatively higher in Kenya in my opinion. Any safari to either the Maasai Mara or the Serengeti would be an adventure of a lifetime for anybody. It eventually boils down to the timing of the visit - whether you’re visiting the Mara during the migration or the Serengeti during the calving season. Even if you visit either place off-season, you are sure to have an unforgettable experience.
HOW BEST CAN THE COUNTRY DRIVE GROWTH IN DOMESTIC NUMBERS AND BED NIGHTS?
The sector must undertake activities to encourage Kenyan travellers to visit various parts of the country. The government and private players in tourism and hospitality must collaborate to make local travel appealing to domestic tourists. This can be done by creating targeted programmes under the banner of the Kenya Tourism Board and Tembea Kenya that encourage local travellers to discover different parts of the country. The Government could also give incentives to industry players such as lowering taxes levied on hotel and travel agents, to help them to offer attractive rates to domestic tourists. Last year, KTB launched an initiative dubbed the “you deserve a holiday” campaign and they partnered with players in the domestic travel trade to make the campaign a success with domestic travellers. The recent partnership between the Ministry of Tourism and Radio Africa Group clearly displays the hands-on administration we have at the helm of tourism, wildlife and heritage. CS Peninah Malonza is a hands-on leader who is keen on encouraging local tourism, especially among the youthful generation. The KenyaKwanza administration proves to be committed to improving earnings in the tourism sector.
WHAT CAN HOTELS ON THE COAST DO DIFFERENTLY TO ATTRACT MORE BUSINESS BOTH FROM THE DOMESTIC AND INTERNATIONAL MARKETS?
Geographic and demographic–specific digital marketing that is targeted is definitely the way forward. The use of social media influencers is a significant tool being used by a handful of hoteliers. Hotel industry players also need to give more importance to the e-commerce aspects of bringing revenues to their establishments. The power of online travel agents is largely underestimated. The need has also returned for in–person meetings in the hospitality field, be it travel fairs locally and internationally or the close interaction and engagement of conventional travel agents and tour operators.
HOW DO YOU SEE 2023 PLAYING OUT FOR THE HOTEL INDUSTRY COMPARED TO 2022?
We saw the hospitality sector pick up towards the end of last year thanks to the local and international markets. People have not travelled for more than two years, and this has been a perfect time for them to do so. Cruise ships and more charter flights have started coming into Mombasa for instance, showing signs of growth and hopefully, this trend will continue for 2023.
KENYA TARGETS A FULL RECOVERY BY NEXT YEAR, IS THIS ACHIEVABLE?
I am very optimistic about the opportunities in the hospitality sector over the next couple of years. I strongly believe that the exponential growth in tourism is going to start in 2023. Strong partnerships between the private sector and the government are key to defining growth. For starters, their cognition of the sector regionally and globally, and its positive ranking will drive business. Other factors include intensive marketing through initiatives such as Magical Kenya, improved security and increased sporting, leisure, culture and medical tourism.
AS A DIRECTOR AT KTB, DO YOU THINK THE ENTITY IS ACCORDED THE RIGHT SUPPORT IN MARKETING THE COUNTRY? NOTING THERE HAVE BEEN CONCERNS OVER LOW FUNDING.
In my opinion, KTB is accorded the right support to market the country. With greater opportunities now existing to market Kenya to untapped target audiences around the world, 15% of tourism earnings would do wonders if those funds were diverted towards marketing Kenya in the international arena, in my view.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE AS A DIRECTOR AT THE KENYA TOURISM BOARD DURING YOUR TENURE?
I am here to bridge the gap between the private sector and the Government. I envision greater and more profitable ways to explore Kenya’s tourism resources. I will strive to assist KTB in accomplishing its functions and to develop, implement and coordinate a national tourism marketing strategy that would market Kenya at local, national, regional and international levels as a premier tourist destination
HOW DO YOU SEE KENYA’S HOTEL AND TOURISM SECTOR PERFORMANCE IN THE NEXT FIVE YEARS?
To see the country succeed to unprecedented levels in the next five years, a strategy is required that calls for promoting Kenya as a multi-product destination with diverse offerings to enable it to have a competitive edge against neighbours and other emerging destinations. We must also look at diversifying tourist flows into Kenya from the traditional Europe and North American markets to emerging markets such as India and China. Stakeholders in the tourism sector need to support the implementation of the new vision for Kenya’s tourism through active participation in its implementation process. We need to note that this new strategy goes beyond Covid-19 as we are now looking at a much longer horizon than we had planned for earlier. This is because we need to position ourselves to take advantage of emerging trends in tourism. Tourism is a long-term business and requires strategic thinking that looks years ahead into the future. We want to get our finger on the pulse so that when things change in other parts of the world, we are able to capitalise on those changes.