TOURISM at the Kenyan Coast which drives the region's economy and greatly contributes to Kenya's foreign exchange kitty is facing difficult times following low tourists numbers visiting the region this season.
Famous for its white sandy beaches, luxurious hotels and holiday destinations, hotels in the region are facing a crisis despite this being a high season month.
Unlike the previous years where hotels in Mombasa, Malindi, Watamu, Diani, Kilifi, and the historic Lamu Island among other tourist attraction areas were filled with tourists during the July-May high season, things are different this time round.
Only a few tourists are booked in hotels or can be seen along the beaches and in the towns which have recorded a low number of tourists since the high season started in July last year.
The sharp drop has been attributed to rising insecurity, poor infrastructure, filthy towns and harrassment of tourists by beach operators.
The region has an estimated 90 major tourist hotels of international standards which have all recorded a bed occupancy of between 30 to 50 per cent, as opposed to the usual 70 to 80 per cent during high seasons.
The low numbers have also affected visitors to Tsavo National Park, Shimba Hills national reserve and the various Kenya Wildlife managed marine parks in the Indian Ocean.
A sharp decline in international tourist arrivals and low domestic tourists activities has seen a number of hotels currently executing a number of survival measures with others facing closure.
In Mombasa, majority of the hotels are majorly depending on conferences while in the South and far north, hotels are almost closing down.
Some hotels have opted to invest in low tarrif facilities with affordable rates to accommodate and promote local tourism.
“We have decided to come up with a high standard facility but affordable to all to ensure we give both the international and domestic tourists value for their money,” said Cathryn Habute, marketing manager at Bliss resort which was recently opened in Nyali.
According to the Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caters, the high season runs from the month of July and goes on until after Easter, but the sector is facing a slump already ahead of the May low season.
“We are doing mitigation measures to survive. Hotels will be forced to reduce their workforce and remain with skeleton staff. Others will be forced to take unpaid leave as hotels try to cut on expenses,” KAHC executive officer Sam Ikwaye told the Star in Mombasa.
The move will see over 2,000 employees laid off from about fourty hotels in the North coast and thirty in the Kenyan south coast.
According to Ikwaye, the tourism sector has not picked since last year’s March general elections.
Most tourists avoided the country due to travel advisories issued by different countries over fears of a recap of the 2007/08 post election violence.
Despite Kenyans voting peacefully, the tourism sector is yet to hit its highest numbers witnessed in previous years.
According to KTB, the country received 398,203 tourists by the end of May last year which is a 14 percent lower compared to the same period in 2012 where the country had 467,355 arrivals in the first five months.
Arrivals at the Moi international airport Mombasa recorded at total of 4,772 arrivals in the month of May compared to 4,830 the same month in 2012 reflecting a deficit of 1.2 per cent.
Mombasa arrivals closed at 79,838 in the first quarter of last year compared to 85,096 arrivals by May 2012, a deficit of 6.2 percent.
The numbers are however feared to further decline owing to the low number of visitors with Europe, which is the country’s main source market not responding well.
Last year, KTB targeted a 10 per cent increase in number of tourists where the country expected tourism revenues to rise by four per cent to Sh100 billion but it is fears the target might not have been achieved.
The country has also been targeting new markets like Brazil, Mexico, Morocco and Zambia, Ethiopia and Uganda which have however not made much difference according to tourism stakeholders.
The country’s tourism sector also faced a major set back way back in October 2011, after the kidnapping of three tourists in Lamu and two aid workers in the Dadaab refugee camps by suspected Somalia Al Shabaab militants.
The move saw numerous travel advisory issued by western countries.
This led to a reduction in the number of tourists visiting Kenya which included a drop in chattered fights and cruise ships coming into the country with others withdrawing their service.
Kenya took the decision to send troops to southern Somalia to fight the fundamentalist group with links to al Qaida.
The intervention, which is Kenya’s largest military operation since achieving independence, has since been justified by the government which has assured the international community that Kenya is safe.
However, tourism stakeholders are still concerned over continued insecurity which was witnessed by the recent standoff between police and Muslim youths at Masjid Musa in Mombasa that saw riots rock the coastal town early this month.
They also blame what they term as ‘poor marketing of Kenya to the world’, power outages , acute water shortages and delay of tourists due to traffic on roads and crossing the Likoni ferry channel to south coast.
“The government has failed to push for a comeback. The government needed to market the country substantially after the peaceful elections. Last year was a very bad year for us and people still tend to shy away,” said Ikwaye.
The association has also termed the merger of tourism to the ministry of East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism as the biggest setback for the sector.
“This is one of the major mistakes the government did. Tourism needs to stand on its own to enable it and parastatals under it to work effectively,” said Ikwaye.
Increased VAT which has also seen a 16 percent increase on entrance fee to national park has also been blamed for low numbers.
According to hotel owners, the cost of doing business has been pushed up forcing some even to contemplate pulling out of business.
So far about ten hotels have totally closed down at the coast in the last two decades.
This include last year’s closure of Jacaranda hotels’ Indian Ocean beach hotel in Diani and the previous shut down of two fishes hotel, Trade winds, golden beach, whispering palm and three hotels belonging to Alliance hotel group which were also closed down at the Coast.
Boat operators, curio shop operators, Taxis, tour operators and others who benefit from the tourism sector have also been affected.
“There is no business for us. Things are really tough. You can spend the whole day seated here with no tourist around and the few who pass by don’t buy anything,” said Brian Wachira, a curio operator at Mombasa beach.
Boat owners and taxi operators are also counting losses as they have been forced to scramble for the few domestic tourists and luring locals.
“We are left with very few options. We now depend mostly on locals who visit the beach where we charge them Sh 200 per person for a boat ride,” said Hassan Omar, a boat operator at the Jomo Kenyatta public beach.
Peter Kamau, a taxi operator stationed at Nakummatt Diani said, “We are operating on losses. Sometimes we can’t even maintain the vehicle properly. Business is really low,”
Some counties have however started strategizing on how to create a good environment to attract tourists in their areas.
These include purchasing of police patrol vehicles, improvement of infrastructure among others.
In Mombasa, Governor Hassan Joho has launched a city beautification and clean-up programs under the different county ministries that seeks to improve Mombasa’s image and sanitation.
According to tourism county executive Joab Tumbo, the county government has had meetings with security organs to also improve security in Mombasa.
“We are going through turbulence but it will be through with time. Change is in progress. Tourism accounts for 60 percent of the Coast region’s dependence and we cannot afford to let it go,” said Tumbo.
He said the county government will launch a strategic plan for tourism by the end of next month.
Tumbo also said Mombasa will use the forthcoming ITB trade fair set for March 2, in Germany to market the coastal town to Malaysia, China and Japan.
“We have been heavily relying on Europe but we want to venture into other markets both domestic and internationally. We will also use the platform to re-assure the world that we have the best to offer in tourism,” said Tumbo.