Right after US President Barack Obama and Pope Francis came to Kenya last year, euphoria reigned in the tourism sector. This affirmed that tourism stands as the engine that runs foreign exchange in the country. No tourism, no dollars, and the economy goes twisting downwards. The good words the leaders passed on to a worldwide audience gave us all a push towards re-energising the sector in the expectation of a good business year.
Some industry players secured loans to restart their companies, while others bought new vans and recalled the staff that had been sent home during the hard times. Some players spent their last penny saved from the good old days or sold items of value to get money to travel out and woo potential travellers and tourist wholesalers to restart selling Kenya in general and their respective companies in particular.
It was almost like the preparations one has to do to regain the confidence of a jilted wife. I wasn’t left behind in positioning the “bushman” to get its share of the green buck when they start flowing in. I did not travel or buy a new van. All I did was use the internet and some juicy words to convince my old clients to start thinking about Kenya again. And they did.
A couple from Belgium wrote back and asked me to work out the cost of an itinerary we have used since time immemorial. It is an itinerary I devised a long time ago. We have never found it necessary to change it because it serves the purpose of their visits perfectly.
My clients are the very best of birdwatchers and world-class photographers. So we have two common itineraries: one for birdwatching from February to March, and another for photographing the world-renowned wildebeest migration between July and September.
For the birdwatching season, we start off with Meru, then Samburu, come down to Nakuru, then Kakamega Forest and end up in Masai Mara. Although we do not have the kind of birds that would excite a good birdwatcher in Masai Mara, it always serves as the last stop for the birdwatching trips because the park always has something to offer, with or without the migration.
For the wildebeest migration, all roads lead to Masai Mara. We do not deviate at all because we want to take every opportunity to be in the midst of the migrating animals for a whole week without a break.
As a rule, we choose the hotels where to stay guided by the location of the lodge in relation to the availability of wildlife. In Samburu, we are either in Samburu Lodge or Ashnil Samburu. More so the latter. Having chosen the hotels a long time ago, we have used the same hotels and lodges over time and they have become, more or less, home away from home to my regular clients.
And so, I made the costing for 2016 files for the birdwatching tour and the migration tour. When I sent the details to my clients, I received a note that jolted me. My clients flatly refused to take the deal, for the first time in 20 years. I did not know that for the last four years they have been watching carefully the cost of the hotels and the park fees. They made a note that ever since they started visiting Kenya, in 1996, the prices have been rising. But the last four years were exceptional.
The lodges and camps we use have had their tariffs almost doubled. Since the clients have made Kenya a second home and used the same hotels, they even know which room they would prefer during which season. The fact is, other than a few lodges like the Mara Serena, which has had a new face since then, all other hotels can show nothing in terms of commensurate renovations. Same rooms, double the price. So I lost that file. Barely a week later, I received another regret for the same reason.
Honestly, when all the players in the sector are reducing their prices and upgrading their facilities, like the park fees and transport, why are the lodges and tented camps still holding on to the high pricing that keeps tourists away?