Covid-19 leaves tourism workers poor, depressed

Over 10 hotels have shut down at the Coast in two weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has paralysed the global aviation industry

In Summary

- At least three Five-Star hotels have closed with over 12,000 workers directly employed in the tourism sector losing their jobs.

- More than 150,000 people indirectly depend on the tourism industry, including beach boys, curio sellers and suppliers to hotels.

Rophus Mwavula has been in the tourism sector for 40 years. But he has never seen anything like the coronavirus pandemic.


“I have seen the tourism industry being shaken by terror attacks, kidnappings of tourists, post-election violence and the high political temperatures," he says.

"But we have never been forced to shut down operations or send workers home. Covid-19 is just so different.”

Mwavula is a private tour operator with 25 employees.

“Due to uncertainties brought about by this coronavirus pandemic, I have asked all my employees to stay at home," he says.

"I have also been forced to take my family back to my rural home because things are very tough and the situation is no longer predictable.” 

Patrick Mwangangi, a waiter at one of the four-star facilities at the coast, is still coming to terms with the loss of his job. He has been sent home without a single penny.


1997 Kaya Bombo clashes

2007 post-election violence

2011-2014 kidnapping of tourists and terror attacks  

2020 Covid-19 pandemic 

“I had just finished my shift and I was about to leave when we were called for a meeting. The management said they can no longer sustain the hotel, therefore, they will have to send 95 per cent of the workers home,” Mwangangi says.

He said they were promised some send-off packages, but they are not sure when they will be paid.

“Currently, I do not have any money. In January, I had to pay for my mother’s surgery. The process emptied all my accounts and Covid-19 has made it worse because I have also lost my job,” he says.


He has been in tourism for seven years and now a victim of mass dismissal when things changed to worse because of the threat of coronavirus.

“I do not know what to do with my young family. We are on edge,” he says.

To make the situation worse, Mwangangi’s wife is also not certain about the future of her job. She was a cashier at one of the popular clubs in Mombasa.

Martha says when Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho issued a directive to close all bars and clubs for one month, the news hit them like a sledgehammer.

“With no single source of income, how can we afford to continue living in Mombasa? How do we feed our two little children?” she says.

To sustain the young family, the couple has now opened a vegetable kiosk in their estate.

They have also moved to a smaller house to cope with these difficult moments.

I had just finished my shift and I was about to leave when we were called for a meeting. The management said they can no longer sustain the hotel, therefore, they will have to send 95 per cent of the workers home
Waiter Patrick Mwangangi


In a WhatsApp group that brings together workers of a certain hotel at the coast, the messages being shared are heart-wrenching.

A member of that group says she has sunk into depression after losing her job.

Her house agents have already carted away some items from her house due to rent arrears from previous months.

Over 10 hotels, including three five-star beach facilities, closed last week at the Coast due to the coronavirus, which has paralysed the global aviation industry. The tourism sector largely depends on the aviation industry.

Most countries in the world, including Kenya, have closed their airspace for passenger flights and are only allowing cargo flights.

Sam Ikwaye, Coast executive director of the Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers, says over 12,000 workers who are directly employed in the hotel industry at the Coast will lose their jobs.

However, at least 150,000 people indirectly depend on the tourism sector, including beach boys, curio sellers, hotel suppliers and many others.

He says so many hotels in the region are non-operational, but they have not made it public.

“However, as things stand, eventually all hotels will suspend their operations,”  Ikwaye says.

Ikwaye says the 1997 Kaya Bombo clashes at the Coast, the 2007 post-election violence, the 2011-2014 kidnapping of tourists and terror attacks at the Coast by al Shabaab and the most recent Covid-19 threat in 2020 have been the worst years for the tourism sector. 

At least 10 facilities have announced closure, including Leopard Beach Resort, PrideInn Paradise in Shanzu Mombasa, Serena Beach Hotel, Flamingo Beach Hotel and Diani Beach Resort.

Others are Royal Castle, Sai Rock and Bliss hotels, which have already suspended operations.

Leopard Beach Resort, Diani Beach Resort and PrideInn Paradise are five-star hotels. PrideInn Paradise and Flamingo are sister hotels and have a combined workforce of about 500 employees, whereas Leopard Beach Hotel has a workforce of 300 people and Diani Reef 200.

As things stand, eventually all hotels will suspend their operations
KAHC Coast executive director Sam Ikwaye 


Pride Inn Group of Hotels managing director Hasnain Noorani said they have been forced to shut down two facilities as business was low.

He says they had received 100 per cent cancellation of bookings in March and April at PrideInn and Flamingo. Therefore, it was not making business sense to continue with operations.

However, Noorani says they sent all their employees on paid leave.

“We are closing down our two facilities, PrideInn Paradise and Flamingo. We have sent all the staff on paid leave. We’ve not sacked anyone,” he says.

Noorani says they are hopeful that from next month, things will be better.

 “We still have bookings for May and the rest of the year. People are very optimistic that things will change and we’ll bounce back,” he says.

Diani Reef management says the decision to suspend operations was hard to make, but due to the prevailing circumstances, they had no option.

“Due to the recent development regarding Covid-19 outbreak, as a precautionary measure, we will be closed from April 1, 2020, until further notice,” Diani Reef said in a statement.

At Sarova Whitesands, the hotel is still operational but with very minimal staff. The 340-room facility is now operating at less than 10 per cent occupancy.

“We still have some guests, but very few. Things are very tough,” said an employee at the hotel.

In Kilifi, Lamu and Taita counties, which also depend largely on the tourism sector, hotels are slowly shutting down their operations.

Malindi and Watamu resort towns, which are part of the larger Kilifi county, have seen hotel facilities remaining with only security guards and skeleton managerial staff manning them.

These two towns depend on the Italian market, which is among those worst-hit countries by Covid-19.


In Taita Taveta, the Voi Wildlife Lodge closed a section of the hotel and its restaurant last week and sent its 16 staff members into self-quarantine after they came into contact with a French tourist who tested positive for Covid-19 in Kwale.

Another hotel in Taveta town, Voyager, has also been closed.

In Lamu town, all major hotels have shut down, according to locals.

Rwanda Air, Ethiopian Airline booking offices in Mombasa town have also been forced to shut down.

Ikwaye says the national government must come to the rescue of these hotel facilities.

“These facilities must be put to better use. Now that we do not have guests in the hotels, the government should contract hotel owners to change the facilities into isolations centres,” he says.

He says most private hospitals are built in the model of hotels. Therefore, hotels can be transformed into isolation centres and doctors and nurses deployed to look after the patients.

In a recent interview with the Star, Tourism CS Najib Balala said industry players had sent a proposal to the national government.

The proposals have since been sent to the National Treasury.

“Treasury is looking into the tourism industry proposal,” Balala said.

Edited by T Jalio