TACKLING UNEMPLOYMENT

Tourism simply about job creation

In Summary
  • Youth unemployment in Kenya has long been recognised as a crisis
  • The most important question we should ask when it comes to tourism is simply, “Which is the policy which will create the most jobs?”

About 15 years ago, there was a vigorous debate here in Kenya about what direction Kenyan tourism should take.

Basically, there were just two options considered:

The first was that Kenya should consider focusing on “high end” tourism as a matter of policy. That the country should be unambiguously expensive as a tourism destination, and only seek to attract those who had plenty of money to spend.

This was admittedly a more environmentally sound approach, and examples of other nations with similar tourism attractions which had taken this route were mentioned – Mauritius for high-end beach resorts, and Tanzania for high-end game lodges and tented camps.

The second policy option was to have as many tourists as possible visiting Kenya’s natural attractions, and to reconcile ourselves to “traffic jams in the Maasai Mara” as one critic described the kind of scene often shared on WhatsApp groups these days, of about 15 minibuses surrounding a single pride of lions, or a family of cheetahs.

After all, if before the pandemic you had been to Paris and seen the queues outside The Louvre; or seen the sunbathers packed like sardines on a Spanish beach; you will know that most countries with a successful tourism sector do not actively limit the numbers of visitors who come to their shores.

Closer to home there is Egypt, which in a good year can have up to 12 million visitors – a number which makes a mockery of the barely two million tourists a year that Kenya has attracted when tourism was said to be “booming”.

But there are sound ecological reasons for such limits, if what foreigners come to see in your country is not historic buildings or famous museums but rather, natural wonders like the wildebeest migration, or “unspoilt beaches” such as we have at the South Coast.

If this is the state of affairs in a country against which we benchmark our own ICT initiatives, then – bearing in mind the global nature of the competition in the ICT sector – what chance is there for young Kenyans?

As I recall, this debate was never quite settled. And like with so many other things, policymakers are now being asked to “reimagine” the tourism sector, post-pandemic. To “build back better” in the slogan popularised by the new American president, Joe Biden, during his campaigns last year. In this context, I would now argue that the most important question we should ask when it comes to tourism is simply, “Which is the policy which will create the most jobs?”

Youth unemployment in Kenya has long been recognised as a crisis.

And thus far, the attempt to move the Kenyan economy beyond its current dependence on agriculture and tourism, has largely focused on the manufacturing sector, and the ICT service sector.

This has meant in practice, seeking to imitate China when it came to manufacturing (ie, setting up Special Economic Zones, etc); and imitating India when it came to ICT (ie, setting up all these “ICT hubs” and the like).

And this is a perfectly rational approach to job creation, as both China and India, within just a few decades, have created millions of jobs in the specific fields in which they are now so famously dominant.

But apparently it is not so simple. And I am now inclined to think that we are more likely to succeed in creating jobs in tourism – something we as Kenyans know about and have been successful at – than in pursuing dreams of a ‘silicon savannah’.

Here is an extract from an article published in The Guardian two years ago, which was on the subject of India’s own youth unemployment challenges. And note that this was after India had created about four million ICT jobs directly, and about 10 million jobs indirectly:

“In 2016, in one municipality, 19,000 people applied for 114 jobs; among those competing to be a street sweeper were thousands of college graduates, some with engineering and MBA degrees. In the same year, more than 1.5 million people applied for 1,500 jobs with a state-owned bank, and more than 9 million took entrance exams for fewer than 100,000 jobs on the railways.”

If this is the state of affairs in a country against which we benchmark our own ICT initiatives, then – bearing in mind the global nature of the competition in the ICT sector – what chance is there for young Kenyans?