The holiday season is over and Kenyans are gearing to resume work as the children go back to school. Hopefully, those who took holidays locally or abroad had a good time and have rested enough to start a new year with enthusiasm and drive. All being well, the hospitality industry got a lifeline from the December boom, typically driven by local tourists and as we hear of cruise ships docking, the luck will hold.
However, even as the industry enjoyed the December peak holiday surge, there were disturbing murmurs of discrimination against local tourists in some establishments at the Coast and even in coffee houses in Nairobi.
Waiters of the same racial extraction as local tourists have been accused of tripping over each other as they rush to sit white folks and deferentially show them menus, sometimes two waiters at a table while a third one hovers nearby. This even as several locals who had shown themselves to their tables, wait miserably for more than a quarter hour to be served and when service arrives, it is sour and almost resentful.
Some waiters even abandon local guests mid-way and dash to fulfil the whims of foreigners, some of whom may have left their tables to simply look for the washrooms or smoking zones.
The assumption (most of the times misplaced) is that locals do not tip adequately yet I have many times witnessed local visitors who tip very generously and foreigners whose tips are miserably cheap. However even if the tips our waiters get from locals do not make them happy, they should realise that by patronising the establishments they work in, locals are keeping them in jobs and ensuring they feed their families. Hotel managements must continually train their workers on the need to be courteous and treat all equally. The alternative is for the locals to boycott these establishments (some people have already sworn not to patronise certain restaurants any more) and this will eventually have dire consequences.
On the other hand, the culture of tipping is not engrained in most of us and at times one can witness visible shock in fellow patrons when you give a waiter Sh100 in village or estate pubs. Maybe this attitude is at times carried over to holiday spots and to encourage tipping, managements of these establishments could post notices in rooms and other conspicuous places in the hotels or restaurants suggesting appropriate tip percentages. But as Mohamed Hersi the CEO of Heritage Hotels noted recently, those who do not tip should however not be discriminated against as in any case they are paying for the service.
Tipping aside, some in the hospitality industry discriminate against locals by overcharging them or simply telling them they do not belong. Deputy president William Ruto recently complained that some of these hotels charge locals three times more than they charge foreigners. Saying that nobody should be discriminated against because of their colour, race of religion, Ruto told the hoteliers to change their mindsets and treat all equally.
This discrimination however is an age-old habit by some workers in high-end hotels. Even those who survived the lay-offs of the post 1997 politically instigated skirmishes could not help but discriminate against the few locals who visited their establishments. I vividly remember how following the slump as I researched for an article on ways to revive the sector, waiters in a five-star hotel on the North Coast passed me by several times as they rushed to serve the few foreign (white) tourists.
At the time, the establishment had very few visitors and most of its waiters were idle, yet for almost 20 minutes they overlooked me despite my continuous beckoning. Initially I was very angry, but the journalist in me quickly seized the opportunity and I stopped trying to attract their attention as I developed a story about the waiters’ senseless behavior.
By the time I approached the apologetic manager, I had already in my mind composed the story, which was later published, but how many of us are in positions to turn such inattention into opportunities? In any case although I continued staying at the hotel, I had my meals and drinks in a nearby ‘local’ establishment for the duration of my stay. So even if the number of foreign visitors is increasing slowly, hotels and restaurants do not want Kenyan visitors saying, “Never again”.
For the visitor, Kenya has beautiful weather throughout the year and to avoid the overcrowding (and consequent poor service) that occurs in the month of December, locals should take vacation during the other months of the year when activities at the holiday spots are minimal. This of course does not mean that those who prefer white faces will change their minds, but simba akikosa nyama, hula nyasi.