Tourism players are banking on the introduction of direct flights from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport to Nyeri’s Nyaribo Airstrip to boost the sector’s dwindling fortunes.
At 3.45pm last Saturday, a Cessna Caravan landed at the airstrip and on board were 12 passengers who included tours and travel company owners, marking the inaugural commercial flight by Flying Training Centre (FTC), a family-owned business venture.
In 2018, FTC opened an aviation school to utilise the abandoned Nyaribo Airstrip and on Saturday, it launched the maiden flight which takes about 25 minutes.
The route is also lucrative as it connects passengers working in the city but would want to retreat to the villages over the weekend.
Passengers will be charged Sh6,000 for a one-way ticket, according to Captain Godwin Wachira who’s company launched the flight.
In 2018, another company, Bush Air, launched a similar venture with passengers being charged Sh3,000 for a one-way ticket.
But this was not sustainable as no commercial flight landed at the Nyaribo Airstrip beyond the maiden one that brought several businessmen, Cabinet secretaries and Nyeri Deputy Governor Caroline Karugu.
"We have partnered with people in the hotel industry and tours and travel to tap on the underutilised tourism sector in the county and region at large. We are definitely reducing the time wasted on roads travelling to Nairobi from three hours to 25 minutes which is worth it," said Mr Wachira.
The flights are targeting tourists visiting the many hotels in the Mt Kenya region and frequent commuters between Nyeri and the capital city.
"There have been a lot of partnerships between the agents, hotels and the airlines and this is one of the reasons it will work. Earlier, the partnerships were not as big as now," said Mr Simon Kabu, the owner of Bonfire Adventures.
And according to Mr Raymond Mwaniki, a tourism marketing agent, they are determined to make the trips and the business a success, having held consultation meetings with key stakeholders in the tourism industry.
"We have talked to the tourism board, tourist operators and we want to make this a success. Nyeri has nice destinations; that's why we have started this charter and it’s going to grow and we already have enquiries," he said.
Mr Wachira said they will increase the frequency of the flights should the demand rise.
For more than five years, Nyaribo Airstrip has not been in use. But the roaring sound of the planes being used to train students in the area has opened the previously quiet village to business opportunities.
Mr Wachira said the best thing about training in Nyeri is that there is no traffic congestion, meaning they have more time training rather than waiting in take-off queues.
“Nyeri has zero traffic compared to Nairobi and at the same time offers the best training atmosphere for cross-country navigation,” he said, adding that a majority of their students in Nairobi have requested to transfer to Nyeri.
To train, one has pay Sh16,000 per hour.
In November 2018, the President launched the construction of a terminal at the airstrip.
Three years later, it is yet to be complete. Mr Joseph Okumu, the regional Kenya Airports Authority manager, said the terminal will be complete in two months.
During President Uhuru Kenyatta’s trips to the region, military planes land at the airstrip.