Kenya’s tourism had a solid year in 2019, with market data showing a continued maturity of the sector. For starters, international arrivals rose above the two million mark year over year.
Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) datat indicates that tourism receipts for the year soared by 3.9 percent to Sh163.6 billion from Sh157.4 billion in 2018 to mirror the steady rise in arrivals.
Arrivals in 2019 remained solid at Kenya’s major points of entries, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi and Moi International Airport in Mombasa.
The sector kept growing from strength to strength in the year, supported in large part by continued political stability, an improved security situation, and the withdrawal of travel advisories by major tourist source countries. Hotel-bed occupancy levels grew by 6.3 percent while visits to national parks and game reserves improved notably.
International and local conferences grew by 6.9 percent and 14.4 percent respectively. Admissions at the Kenya Utalii College, which offers professional hospitality courses, rose by 9.8 percent to 2,706.
Fast forward to 2020 and the hospitality sector was the first to take a major hit from the Covid-19 crisis, which has seen travel restrictions introduced in all parts of the world.
According to data from the United Nations World Tourism Organisations (WTO), 44 destinations have restricted entries to certain tourists on the basis of country of origin.
In Kenya, the hospitality sector was the only one to register negative growth in the first three months of 2020.
From lost hotel revenues and a thinning aviation sector the magnitude of declining tourism is visible.
A Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) survey conducted between May and June, for instance, found zero forward hotel bookings. Meanwhile Kenya Airways has costs to worry about as other airlines prepare for flights within Africa and to long-haul destinations.
Economists predict the national carrier may see a Sh50 billion dip in revenues for the year, equivalent to more than one-third of the company’s 2019 gross figures from passenger and cargo before expenses. Domestic tourism has similarly taken a hit from Covid-19 mitigation measures.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel with the start of easing of restrictions last month. For instance, walk into the Nairobi National Park on any one Saturday or Sunday afternoon and spot the difference.
Hundreds of Nairobi residents are visiting the world’s only national park inside a capital city, with routine trips upcountry and to other popular destinations over the weekends restricted.
They are also taking a keen interest in nature and wildlife. As a conservationist, it is refreshing to see Kenyans spend more time enjoying and appreciating national parks and wildlife as part of their heritage.
Thre are more social media posts of Kenyans walking about the trails of the popular Karura Forest or feeding the giraffes at the Giraffe Centre.
The new interest could very well mark a turning point for the local hospitality industry.
A recent chat with a tourism stakeholder pointed me towards an ending stereotype — tourism ni ya wazungu (loosely translated as tourism is for white foreign visitors).
The new policy which placed domestic tourism at the heart of the country’s hospitality sector must now be capitalised upon.
As restrictions the world over remain in place particularly from jitters on pre-mature re-openings especially in Europe, the domestic market are set to remain as the go-to source for tourists.
International tourists will be the last ones to return under the new normal and most likely after the containment of the virus.
Currently, it is virtually impossible for one to travel into Kenya from the European Union (EU), for instance, as the customs union cuts off destinations that are yet to substantively manage the pandemic.
To keep the engine of local tourism roaring, the government must now endeavour to grow it in the near term. Already government data shows there was an annual local tourism capacity of up to 3.97 million tourists as of 2018.
Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala recently halved entry fees at parks and game reserves for Kenyans in an attempt to attract more local tourists. Further, the Tourism ministry has issued a one-year moratorium on rents for hotels operating inside parks and other sites.
The two initiatives will serve to boost the local hospitality capacities and sustain the tourism industry over the near term. Moreover, the recently announced Sh537 billion stimulus package contains an allocation of Sh3 billion as soft loans to tourist facilities to support renovation works.
With new working protocols already drawn up and out for implementation, the government must now seek to build bridges to push domestic tourism to an even higher level. One of the means to these ends would be a promotion of local tourism to the masses.
Advertising and marketing budgets must be now temporarily re-adjusted with a bias for local tourists.
Digital marketing remains a powerful tool to attract domestic tourism. Under the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, the free movement of people will stimulate intra-Africa tourism.
Statistics show that over 60 million tourists visited Africa in 2019.
The world will slowly open up to our continent, with the magnificent attractions and exceptional warm African hospitality.
Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda are also looking at opening up flights and visitors into their countries in the near future. Beyond the pandemic, the Ministry of Tourism must still strive to keep the domestic market engaged to accelerate the industry into even greater heights.
Diaz is director Bidco Africa group director, EABC board member and Trustee Brand Africa. @DiazChrisAfrica