I was rather surprised at the loud demands for the resignation of Tourism CS Najib Balala about a week ago. These demands arose from a feeling that he should take personal responsibility for the 11 rhinos that died following translocation to Tsavo National Park. But also, because he apparently lost his temper on live TV and said his detractors could “go to hell”.
We need to have a sense of proportion in such matters. It may have been somewhat reckless of the CS to tell his detractors to “go to hell” instead of engaging them in a more civil manner.
But Balala has among his colleagues in Cabinet, men and women who have overseen the most criminally fraudulent spending on goods and services in the health sector. Also, those responsible for the policy decisions in the Agriculture ministry and at the Treasury, which have reduced the sugarcane growers of Western Kenya to absolute destitution. And so on.
Are we to say all those others should remain in office, and that an otherwise exemplary CS should resign solely because he said that certain of his critics should “go to hell”? But the problem in the tourism sector goes well beyond the current CS (who is exceptionally well-suited for the job) and whatever mistakes he may or may not have made.
We face three fundamental problems when it comes to the Ministry of Tourism. First is that virtually every Kenyan administration treats it as a goose that endlessly lays golden eggs, without requiring any investment to ensure a continuation of these eggs.
I remember when I was in Egypt a few years ago and had the opportunity to engage at great length with top officials of their Ministry for Tourism. I almost fell off my seat as I got an idea of the really large sums that Egypt spends on marketing its core attractions; and how many tourism officers it has, based all over Europe, who are dedicated to ensuring that the innumerable chartered flights to Sharm-el-Sheikh continue to fly in and out.
Now, it’s true enough that Egyptian tourism lays far more golden eggs than anything Kenya could dream of. In Kenya we celebrate getting anywhere close to the officially targeted two million visitors a year, while Egypt has long had between 10 and 14 million visitors annually. But all the same, when you get the opportunity to take a look at the graphs and charts provided by the polished technocrats at the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism – as I did – you can see why they have been so successful in getting visitors into their country.
Second is that whereas in Egypt the Ministry of Tourism works very closely with the Ministry of Antiquities (which is most responsible for the world-famous pyramids and other ancient treasures) in Kenya tourism is inextricably linked to wildlife conservation.
The Egyptians cannot possibly lose their pyramids. But in Kenya we can very easily lose the entirety of our wildlife population, especially given the pressure on the limited amount of arable land available.
So the Tourism CS is not just concerned with marketing Kenya’s attractions. To the extent that “the safari experience” is Kenya’s core attraction, the Tourism CS also has to concern himself with the welfare of wild animals.
This brings us to the third and perhaps most crucial factor: That most Kenyans don’t really feel that they benefit personally from tourism.
And so, there is no ready local constituency for tourism as there is for the various agriculture sub-sectors. With maize, rice, tea, coffee, sugarcane, and even lesser crops such as macadamia nuts, we have well-defined regional-based groups of beneficiary farmers who are quick to make their voices heard when all is not well.
But although the tourism sector is estimated to account for about 500,000 jobs directly, you could never hope to see any protest by tourism stakeholders of the kind so common when it comes to agriculture.
Next week, I will try to explain the one aspect of Kenyan tourism that is most widely misunderstood, namely, what is a conservancy, and why conservancies are so central to tourism and wildlife conservation.