Investors in the tourism industry are upbeat about the future of the sector after benefiting from new strategies introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic.
As the counties in the coastal region celebrated World Tourism Week from the middle of last week to the weekend, industry players said that measures targeting local tourists, cultural tourism, sports tourism, conference tourism and others had saved the sector from being on its deathbed.
The industry took a beating for over-reliance on leisure tourism by foreigners at the height of the terrorist attacks in the country from early 2000.
Just as investors were beginning to revive their businesses, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, bringing with it strict rules against free movement and gatherings, raising fears that the final nail in the industry's coffin would be hammered in from 2020.
"We are doing better than last year. Hotels are busier than last year and most of the guests are local tourists," said Kenya Coast Tourism Association (KCTA) chairman Victor Shitakha.
According to the annual Tourism Sector Performance Report - 2022, local tourism is on the rise, although the sector remains attractive to international tourists.
The report shows that in 2021, international arrivals rose to 1,230,847 while 684,177 were local.
In 2022, Kenya's tourism sector improved with the international market rising to 2,263,841 while the local market stood at 913,208.
The increase in local tourism was attributed to factors such as reduction in accommodation prices, tailoring services to the needs of local tourists and marketing strategies that targeted Kenyans rather than foreigners.
In addition to developing the local tourism market, investors also sought to capitalise on sports and conference tourism.
A number of hotels have now built large conference halls that can accommodate hundreds of people at a time.
Hotels in the region host government, NGO, corporate and international agency conferences.
In counties such as Kilifi, sports tourism is on the rise as the county government seeks to brand itself as a sports destination.
The county hosts golf tournaments, motor cross challenges, cycling competitions and recently launched a skydiving experience.
However, experts in the sector say there is still room for improvement in tapping into sports tourism.
They say that while Kenya is known globally as the home of athletic champions such as Faith Kipyegon, Eliud Kipchoge and others, the country is not using the world records to attract international tourists.
"There is a disconnect between sports tourism and the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife. All athletes should be selling the magic of Kenya. Mr Kipchoge and Ms Kipyegon won recently, why haven't we used his victory as a marketing tool?" wondered Mr Shitakha.
His sentiments were echoed by Diani Hospitality Owners Association chairman Mohamed Hersi.
He said Kenya had missed a great opportunity to capitalise on the Berlin Marathon 2023.
"The marathon is a business and sports tourism is a big business. The Berlin Marathon is not a small event. Let's talk about numbers, the event is sold out with 45,000 runners and just about half of that number are Germans at 20,250. The top 10 countries excluding Germany have a huge contingent... USA 5,432, UK 3,766, China 2,117 and France 1,657," he said.
"These numbers are just the participants. I am sure each participant will have a partner or family accompanying them, not to mention the fans who travel just to see the marathon in person," he added.
Once the marathon is over, Mr Hersi said many of the visitors will stay on to enjoy the sights and sounds of Berlin, meaning more foreign exchange inflows from around the world.
He said Kenya is home to world-class athletes but has not harnessed their potential to boost tourism.
"Ease of access is key to all of this. The majority of the top 10 countries did not require a visa to travel to Berlin, and if they did, it was either issued on arrival or easily obtained online. Lots of flights to Berlin means cheaper tickets. Blocking airlines means less choice and higher prices. It's simple economics at play," he added.
Mombasa County Governor Abdulswamad Nassir said there should also be some flexibility for sea travellers who stop at Mombasa Port so that the county can benefit more from their arrivals.
Specifically, he asked the national government to remove the visa requirement for crew members on board ships that dock at Mombasa Port, in addition to more marketing of cruise ship tourism.
The governor also wants Kenya to fully implement the Open Skies policy to allow direct flights from the United States of America and the United Kingdom to land at Moi International Airport in Mombasa.
"When you have people spending money for a short period of time, it is a boost for Mombasa County. We expect bigger cruise ships to land in Mombasa and that is good business not only for the county but for Kenya as a whole," he said yesterday.
In Diani, a renowned resort whose beach has been voted among the best in the world several times, industry players are still pressing the state to upgrade the Ukunda airstrip to accommodate larger flights and improve connectivity.
According to Bobby Kamani, managing director of Diani Reef Beach Resort and Spa, upgrading the airstrip and allowing night flights can also make Diani more competitive with other international destinations that offer round-the-clock flights.
"By upgrading the facility and changing its name to Diani Airport, it can have several positive impacts on Kenya's south coast as a tourist destination. It can attract more tourists and investors who prefer to travel by air, making it easier for them to reach popular destinations such as Diani Beach," he said.
However, the Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers (KAHC) Coast Executive Sam Ikwaye said the increased cost of doing business in Kenya could lead to revised hotel rates that will affect the sector.
In Lamu, the tourism sector has defied the challenges of insecurity to record a good performance.
Tourism stakeholders in the county said the number of visitors to the archipelago was increasing despite frequent reports of terrorist attacks on the mainland.
They, however, urged the government to tame the terror attacks as they usually give the entire county a bad image internationally.
"Most tourists visiting our destinations have opted for air travel, avoiding the Lamu-Witu-Garsen route. All our tourist destinations are secure. I believe that if security is improved on the roads, the county's tourism performance can reach the 100 per cent mark before December this year," said Lamu County Tourism Executive Aisha Miraji.
Lamu Tourism Association chairman Ghalib Alwy expressed optimism for the tourism sector, which was brought to the brink of collapse by a spate of terrorist attacks between 2014 and 2016.
Mr Alwy acknowledged that Al-Shabaab was a major threat to the tourism sector. He urged the government to step up security across the country.
Reporting by Winnie Atieno, Wachira Mwangi and Kalume Kazungu