In 1997, tourism, the then booming and major foreign exchange earning sector, was rudely disrupted by politically instigated disturbances that rocked the country, rendering the sandy beaches of the Coast almost a no-go zone. The safari sector was left crawling.
Most of the hotels at the Coast and elsewhere were closed down as a result and many Kenyans lost their jobs. Farmers and other suppliers lost business and livelihoods and many never fully recovered. When matters politics cooled off a bit, frantic efforts were made to revive the industry both by government and private sector players, although many of the latter complained that the government was not providing enough resources to market the destination.
Ten years later, just as the industry was stabilising, politicians tried to burn this country yet again by pitting Kenyan against fellow Kenyan, which resulted in deaths of thousands and displacement of many more. This was 2007-08, when the post-election violence, whose fire was stoked by politicians, destabilised the country and scared away tourists and foreign investors.
The death knell came through an external enemy in the cloak of terrorism. For several years up to April this year, when Kenya suffered the horrific Garissa University College attack, the country was frequently under terrorist attacks that left many dead and maimed. This made the country an outcast.
‘Friends’ of Kenya from the West issued travel advisories to their citizens warning them not to tour the country, despite their claim that terrorism is a world-wide menace that should be fought by all. When terrorists hit the West, the world was supposed to come together in solidarity but when they hit Kenya, the country was to be isolated.
The travel advisories apart, terrorism affected tourism and other sectors more because of the position taken by some politicians and sections of the local media. Instead of supporting the government in the war on terror or standing together with the people of Kenya in their hour of mourning, some media and the opposition seized the opportunity to harshly criticise the government and accuse it of no or lacklustre action. This contrasts sharply with actions taken by Americans after 9/11 or the French earlier this year.
Unfortunately, news in the Kenyan media is on a daily basis dominated by politics and the comical actors that are politicians and when the menu is changed, we are fed with corruption and violence. In Kenya, rarely does the ‘dog bite man’, as in more than 300 days in a year, ‘man bites dog’.
Politicians climb to the mountaintops to shout wolf, threatening violence should things not go their way and the news hounds pick this rhetoric without discrimination or sieving the truth from the trash. This, of course, scares away investors and tourists, but those who can stop this by controlling their tongues and their pens, refuse to do so.
It was therefore refreshing to see an article extolling Kenya’s tourism given prominence, even if this was not page one treatment. Just as the World Trade Organization conference started in Nairobi, the article told about Kenya receiving several global awards for its eminence in tourism.
Among these was its being voted the world’s leading safari destination by the World Travel Awards for the second time. It first received this award in 2013. This award was won in a competition that pitted Kenya against giant South Africa and others, including neighbours Tanzania, Uganda, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Among many others, a tour company from our destination received the World’s Leading Luxury Safari Company Award and the World Responsible Tourism Award.
Granted many bad things including runaway corruption, outright theft of public funds, abuse of office, insecurity, bad governance and immorality abound, but there are also good things happening in this country. While bad news apparently sells, there are people in and outside Kenya who would like to hear or read the good side of the country more than a few times in a year. Such was the story about the excellence of our tourism industry, despite many hiccups since 1997 and more of such would motivate Kenyans and make them realise that despite all the negative vibes, there is hope.
Destination Kenya is yet to fully recover but hopefully, with the lucky streak holding, Najib Balala at the helm of the job he loves, stakeholders doubling their efforts and resources and the media giving it a fair chance, it will gradually retake its former glory. So can our agriculture (including the Galana-Kulalu irrigation project) and many others.
Njonjo Kihuria is a freelance journalist. [email protected]