Changing fortunes of tourism in the Coast 

A local tourist takes a photo of the black rock at Chasimba Caves in Kilifi County.

A local tourist takes a photo of the black rock at Chasimba Caves in Chonyi, Kilifi South sub-county on July 1, 2022.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • CS James Macharia said Kenya was in the process of opening the sky for more carriers to fly direct to Mombasa to boost tourism.
  • Boosted with good infrastructural connectivity, hoteliers are optimistic a tourism rebound is imminent.

Visitors to coastal resorts in the past found beaches swarming with skimpily dressed tourists from European countries taking in the sun, sea and sand. 

Today, one is more likely to find a group of teachers from Murang’a or other upcountry towns rolling around on the beach, covering themselves from head to toe in sea sand they believe has medicinal value or a gaggle of inappropriately dressed government bureaucrats with conference documents.

Domestic tourism, both for leisure and conferencing, has been the saviour for many beach hotels that once shunned local visitors.

Conferences have been a lifeline for the industry that suffered a devastating blow following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Hotels such as Sarova Whitesands, Pride Inn, Serena, Turtle Bay, Diani Reef, Leisure Lodge and Bamburi Beach are reaping from major conferences during the low tourism season.

On March 13, 2020, Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe announced the country’s first Covid-19 patient, a Kenyan who travelled from the US.

The government then imposed some of the toughest anti-pandemic measures in the region.

Industry hard-hit

The Mombasa hospitality industry, already grappling with lost business over terrorism fears, was hit with occupancy rates plunging to levels never experienced before.

The industry that is highly dependent on international tourism was on its knees for almost two years, with hotel owners grappling to fill the 40,000 beds at the Coast.

Industry players believe the pandemic exposed the soft underbelly of the tourism sector, which is still evident with some hotels that shut their doors yet to reopen.

It is expected that an increase in interest to travel within the region will revive the tourism industry — a lifeline for millions of people.

Before the pandemic, Kenya had been struggling with security challenges due to frequent attacks from the Somali-based al-Shabaab militia, who had penetrated the country, and recruited and radicalised hundreds of youths.

Tourism hubs of Mombasa and Lamu bore the brunt of terror attacks.

Other countries had also imposed frequent travel restrictions for their citizens wishing to visit Kenya, further hurting the tourism and hospitality sector.

In 2019, a cruise ship destined for the port of Mombasa changed its destination to Seychelles following a US government warning to its citizens to be careful in parts of Kenya. 

Despite protests from Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala, the luxury ship with more than 400 tourists sailed off for Mahe, Seychelles. 

“Insecurity is like trust, once it is related to a destination, it takes time to clean it. But we have dropped the tag of an insecure destination after the government beefed up security, especially in Lamu, by deploying the Kenya Defence Forces to fight the terrorists. Security agencies dealt with frequent grenade attacks in Mombasa and youth radicalisation,” said Dr Sam Ikwaye, the executive officer of the Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers and Caterers (KAHC).

Marketing strategies

Dr Ikwaye and the Kenya Coast Tourism Association CEO Julius Owino told the Nation that the lack of marketing strategies was still a problem.

They said the government needed to sell the country’s tourism to foreign markets, with an emphasis on its natural heritage.

“Destination marketing has completely gone down. But the good news is that the domestic sector is our main lifeline. Every election comes with jitters, but we are happy that so far we have seen peaceful conversations,” said Mr Owino. The association’s national chairman, Mr Chris Musau, said it would take four years for the hotels to fully recover from the Covid-19 shocks. 

He lamented the maintenance costs of hotels already suffering low occupancy, citing electricity bills as among the most expensive utilities. Others are water, laundry and kitchen equipment.

“To run a big hotel could require up to Sh7 million for monthly power charges. Marketing locally is our only lifeline because we don’t know what else is coming after the pandemic,” said the hotelier.

Dr Ikwaye said the government had been ineffective in supporting the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) in its mandate to boost and market the sector.

The hotelier blamed the Ministry of Tourism for disjointed efforts to coordinate tourism activities in counties and the lack of strategies to protect the sector from shocks. 

He cited Rwanda, Malaysia and Zanzibar as leading destinations that have been projecting their tourism products internationally, attracting many tourists.

Kenya is a unique tourism destination with diverse niches, including culture, cuisine, entertainment, sports, nature (beach and safari) and Meetings, Incentives, Exhibitions, and Conferences (Mice) tourism.

Dr Ikwaye said the pandemic disrupted Kenya’s infrastructure framework, revolutionising technology in tourism and highlighting the need for alternative accommodation, including homestays and Airbnbs.

“We had many other issues affecting tourism, including accessibility which was a major challenge. But we are happy the government has addressed the gridlock challenges from Moi International Airport to the island by constructing the Sh4.5 billion Makupa bridge,” added Dr Ikwaye.

Direct flights

Other challenges include failure to implement the open skies policy that will allow more international airlines to land in Mombasa, as well as continuing concerns over security. 

Before the pandemic, Qatar and Turkish Airlines used to fly hundreds of tourists into Mombasa.

KLM and Emirates have also applied to be allowed to fly directly to Mombasa.

From 14 charter planes weekly before the pandemic, currently, only two charters land at the Moi International Airport, making hoteliers design special packages targeting the domestic market.

Mr Owino said due to a lack of direct flights, the international tourism market has slumped, with a paltry 20 per cent occupancy. “Last year at a time like this we were doing around 50 per cent occupancy, but currently, we are doing very badly. Connectivity has affected our numbers but, sadly, the government isn’t taking it seriously. We just need the approval of the airlines,” said Mr Owino. 

Last month Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia said Kenya was in the process of opening the sky for more carriers to fly direct to Mombasa to boost tourism. 

Boosted with good infrastructural connectivity, including the Standard Gauge Railway, Mombasa-Nairobi highway and the Sh350 million cruise ship terminal at the port of Mombasa, hoteliers are optimistic a tourism rebound is imminent.