BRIAN Wachira wakes up early every day to go to work but more often that not he ends up idling the day away.
It is not his choice to sit idle, but the only business the beach operator has known for years, has been heavily battered by a deteriorating tourism sector at the Coast.
“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 locals who don’t buy anything,” said Wachira who sells a variety of curios and items along the Mombasa public beach.
The Coast region, famed for its white sandy beaches and high-end hotels, has hosted various international visitors from all corners of the world including big names such as Italian billionaire Flavio Briatore who has even invested in Malindi’s Lion in the Sun resort, English football team- Chelsea current coach Jose Mourinho, British super model Naomi Campbell and many more.
However, the glory seems to be fading with hotels in the area facing a crisis due to low visitor numbers whose ripple effect is being felt by other businesses dependent on a thriving tourism industry which is the economic backbone of the Coast region.
This year, the number of tourists visiting Kenya dropped by 31 per cent during the first quarter of the year, according to a report by the Kenya Tourism Board.
Arrivals for the quarter fell to 177,085 from 256,327, a drop that has had a negative impact on hotels at the Coast. .
Even the mama mboga (vegetable vendor) has not been spared because of waning purchasing power of the residents, majority of whom are employed in the hospitality industry.
More than 30,000 hotel employees who include hoteliers, security guards, gardeners, drivers, casual labourers among others have been declared redudant as hotels cannot afford to pay them due to low business.
Veronica Achieng, a fish monger and vegetable vendor at Likoni popularly referred to as mama Hilda by her clients says she has lost more than 10 frequent customers after they were sacked from various hotels they worked for.
“I hear most of them have been forced to go back upcountry after losing their jobs. Business is low,” said Achieng.
Others who have been affected indirectly include tour operators, suppliers of different commodities, curio shop, taxi and beach operators, farmers who produce food items supplied to the hotels, eateries, mechanics, spare parts shops, petrol stations, car hire firms, entertainment spots and night clubs and even call girls are crying of hard times.
The shrinking number of tourists have also led to fewer safari tours within Tsavo national park, Shimba Hills National Reserve and the various Kenya Wildlife Service-managed marine parks in the Indian Ocean, a move that has seen gate collection for agency reduce.
Insecurity in the country which led to the issuance of travel advisories by both key markets such as the UK, Germany, Italy, France, the US and emerging markets, has been blamed as the major cause of low tourist numbers visiting the country.
Taher Adamji, director and co-owner of African Quest Safaris who spoke to the Star in Mombasa over the weekend, said his tour company has been forced to sell-off its safari vans due to lack of business.
The company which has been operating in Kenya for the last 21 years has reduced its fleet of vehicles from 25 to 15 and expects to scale down its activities further if the current trend continues.
“We get one safari in a span of two weeks. We have been forced to lay off drivers since we can’t keep them and the few remaining are alternating on the few safaris we get. That’s how bad things are,” said Adamji in an interview.
According to Adamji, 2007 was the best year for the country’s tourism sector before the industry's growth was interrupted by the 2007-08 post election violence.
This was followed by a series of terrorist attacks in Mombasa, Lamu (abduction of French and British tourists), and abduction of two aid workers in the Dadaab refugee camps by suspected Somalia al Shabaab militants, terrorist attacks in Nairobi, Mandera and the recent Garissa university college attack which left 147 people majority of the students dead.
“People had forgotten the Westgate attack, Mpeketoni and other cases and we were hoping for a comeback in the sector but things are not as we expected. The current travel advisories are not helping,” said Adamji.
“I wish we could go back to the days when tourism was booming. Tourism needs a ministry of its own and the government needs to invest more in the sector which includes proper funding of the Kenya Tourism Board to extensively market the country,” said Adamji.
He said the current VAT which is at 16 per cent has also negatively impacted on the sector.
“There are no tourists along the beach. I used to make upto 5,000 shillings in a day by selling carvings but now I can go upto two days without selling anything. Things are bad,” said Francis Mwanzia a handcraft seller who operates near Voyager beach hotel.
In Lamu, business has equally been affected by low numbers. The situation was made worse after the dusk to dawn curfew was imposed last year.
The curfew which was lifted early this month by a Malindi court lasted more than six months. The curfew directive was issued by the government after a terror attack in the area in June last year which left at least 80 people dead.
In Lamu, one of the most affected groups of entreprenuers are boat operators since boat transport remains the only mode of transport, connecting the Island to the mainland and other small islands at the Coast.
Residents say few tourists have visited Lamu since last year, unlike previous years when international and domestic tourists used to flock the Island, which was made a UNESCO world heritage site in 2001.
“Things are bad my friend. Business has been low apart from a few days when we had functions such as the Lamu Cultural Festival but the rest of the season has been bad. We don’t know what tomorrow holds for us,” said Ismail Abubakar, a boat operator.
Some boats have been grounded with only a few ferrying passengers from Lamu Island to the Mokowe jetty remaining in operation.
“On a good day when business was at peak, I used to make between 7,000 shillings and 10,000 shillings but now even making 2,000 shillings is a struggle,” said Abubakar.
Sostin Mwatela, a father of four is currently on an unpaid leave. His employer - Bamburi Beach Hotel-has had no option but to give him leave due to low bookings at the North Coast.
“Lack of business has affected many people not me alone. Personally I have a lot of challenges including paying school fees for my daughter who is in a national school. The impact of low numbers is big across the Coast region,” Mwatela told the Star.
The Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers and Caterers has predicted that things will get worse as the low season sets in.
According to KAHC, the industry is bracing for tough times during the May-July low season period after the Easter holiday respite.
Bed occupancy is currently at between 30 and 40 per cent with a few hotels being supported by conferences, but hoteliers fear that the numbers could drop further.
The association has expressed concern that more than 40,000 jobs are at risk because of existing travel advisories issued by major tourist source markets such as the UK.
“The second quarter is going to be tougher following the current advisories by key markets,” said KAHC's Coast executive officer Sam Ikwaye.
The region has an estimated 90 major tourist hotels of international standards.
“Tourism is a service industry and the entire chain is suffering including major companies such as Coca Cola who supply soft drinks to the hotels, Kenchic, Farmers Choice and even the farmer in upcountry who used to bring food stuff to the Coast,” said Ikwaye.
“The buck stops with the head of state. It’s either the government has decided to ignore the industry because the impact is so loud,” he added.
The multiplier effect means the loss caused by the industry's poor performance runs into billions of shillings according to tourism stakeholders.
Some counties have however started strategising on how to create a good environment to attract tourists in their areas.
In Mombasa, the county government has started a number of events to attract visitors such as the Mombasa Cultural Festival with a catch phrase “Tukutane Mombasa” and the 'Mshikaki' festival, an evening street food sampling event which the county uses to boost cuisine tourism.
According to Tourism County executive Joab Tumbo, the county government remains focused in bringing back the glory Mombasa has had for years.
Industry players and their dependants are now just hoping that a miracle could happen and take back the country’s tourism sector where it used to be.