Tourism in the country is hurting, more so at the Coast. It may feel like this has become an all-too-common song – and indeed it is, considering this is a Sh100 billion industry.
There is reason to keep repeating this though, because it’s not until you get the firsthand experience that the gravity of the issue sinks. I had a chance to tour the region recently with the Kenya Tourist Board.
Before I put the cart before the horse however, first things first. Kenya is well-endowed in terms of tourist sites. Focusing on the Coast region alone, tourist attractions straddle four counties – Mombasa, Kilifi, Kwale and Lamu.
Nathan Gatundu, senior tourism warden at Shimba Hills National Reserve in Kwale county, says the coastal destination is the only place probably where you can get to see the whales, the largest sea mammals, and elephants, the largest mammal on land, in one tour.
“Here (Coast) you can enjoy the best of both worlds: marine and land,” Gatundu says.
The Indian Ocean offers a rich variety of tourist attraction beyond sun and sand – be it water sports, snorkelling, site seeing and so on. Kenya has a 480-kilometre beach line.
There are islands offshore and the infamous Fort Jesus – a beacon of history that you can’t avoid when you visit Mombasa.
Abdi Galgallo, senior curator at the Fort Jesus Museum, says it was declared a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in June 2011.
“The future of the entire world today is focused on cultural tourism, people are tired of sun and sand,” Galgallo says.
He says Fort Jesus receives about 200,000 visitors a year, of whom 70 per cent are school groups from across the country.
The Coast hosts some top-notch hotels and more are coming up, so no worries over food and accommodation. You can even have star-lit dinner on a dhow at the Tamarind Mombasa. Oh, and you must visit the Leopard Beach Resort & Spa, a superb development in Diani.
When on the South Coast, you must swim with the dolphins off Wasini Island. And up North, at Temple Point Resort in Kilifi, you'll get a 'private' beach and see where a temple stood over 100 years ago.
When in Malindi, Ali Barbour's Cave Restaurant is perfect for dinner. It only opens in the evening and can serve a maximum of 85 people in one sitting if every table sits maximum. George Barbours has been running the restaurant for 31 years.
At the Shimba Hills National Reserve, which also hosts the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary and Forest Reserve in its ecosystem, you sample “the paradise of the Sable Antelope” as Gatundu, the senior warden, prefers calling it.
It is the only location in Kenya where the antelope can be found, he says. Elsewhere it is found in Tanzania, Mozambique and Angola. Shimba Hills National Reserve also hosts elephants, buffaloes, leopards and reptiles.
“I call it an excursion park... you cannot compare the number of wildlife here with neighbouring national parks, and it has excellent scenery. You can get nice views of the Indian Ocean from here and on clear days you can glimpse Mt Kilimanjaro,” Gatundu says.
The game reserve offers nature trails – the most famous being the Sheldrick Falls, a 25-metre high waterfall. You'll find activities such as air-pumping and camping too here.
He is worried though as the number of visitors to the national reserve dips.
“We’ve got a decline in the number of tourists (to Shimba Hills). This year, the numbers have dropped by a margin of 20-30 per cent compared to last year,” Gatundu says.
The community-based Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary and Forest Reserve lies in the Shimba Hills ecosystem and has interesting stories behind it.
"People used to live on the land (over 6,000 acres) back in the 1960s and 70s but livelihood used be affected by conflict with elephants," says Paul Musila, the sanctuary's manager.
The community still retains ownership of the land and does benefit from the sanctuary’s earnings, shared in the ration of land size each household contributed. The human-elephant conflict has been reduced significantly since.
It gets funds from visitors who come to watch the elephants.
“We also produce paper from elephant dung, as well as honey harvesting. The income is added to our kitty,” Musila said.
But poaching is a key threat to such a sanctuary, as loss of the wildlife means loss of income to the community. When the sanctuary gets about 2,000 visitors monthly, and each spends just Sh100, it means they can some of their recurrent costs.
“There are some costs that you can’t reduce below. For instance, you have to maintain roads with or without visitors, pay gate keeping staff and fence maintenance. These are costs we must incur,” Musila says.
The sanctuary does seek donor support for certain tasks such as wildlife security and maintaining the fence. Such donors ensure the sanctuary operates at a survival level when its incomes are minimal.
While the sanctuary does not generate what would be termed adequate incomes for the community, its success in reducing human-wildlife is significant. It also means reduced deaths of elephants.
“Tourism has been quite low and I think that has affected the camp,” Musila says, adding that the dwindling number of tourists is a big threat to the sanctuary, because “it depends on tourism income” to meet running costs.
“Keeping this as a sanctuary is the most economical use to put our land under,” he says.
Musila says the sanctuary’s case is not isolated, it is the case for the entire coastal tourism circuit.
“We will need to market our destination – Kenya – intensively. We need to improve security and the way we publicise our country; and improve our product and the right infrastructure including the ferry,” he says.
The Tsavo East National Park and Tsavo West National Park are also accessible from the coast by road and air. In fact, the Ministry of East African Community, Commerce and Tourism says its counterpart for Transport and Infrastructure is working on a road from Malindi cutting through Shimba Hills to link at Mombasa-Nairobi highway.
Lest I forget, did you know of 'Hell's Kitchen' near Malindi? Well, now you do. This place is amazing, and it's only 30km away from Malindi. There's a legend behind this wonderful piece of nature – find out about the legend while there!