During his days in elective politics, Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala fancied the nickname ‘Tunajibu’, to mean “we have an answer”. On Twitter, his official handle is @tunajibu.
However, going by the highs and lows reached by the ministry he has led for five years, it is evident Mr Balala does not have all the answers to the pressing matters in the tourism sector.
The average number of days spent by foreign visitors in Kenya over the past five years has not risen above the high of 13.2 recorded in 2015 and 2016. The number of foreign holidaymakers has been wobbling over that period. Hotels have had to cut down on staff, or close. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the already ailing sector that had recorded a measly 0.4 per cent increase in international visitor arrivals in 2019 was headed for life support.
And so when the Tourism ministry announced on Tuesday that it had settled on British supermodel Naomi Campbell to be the international ambassador for Magical Kenya, there was a cocktail of reactions.
Some, including nominated senator Millicent Omanga, thought there were better alternatives, among them actress Lupita Nyong’o. Others, like Paula Kahumbu, supported the idea.
Engagements like the Naomi Campbell one have money implications, although the Tourism ministry did not reveal how much it will be paying the controversial model. Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge is the Magical Kenya destination ambassador since July last year and it would be interesting to see how the 36-year-old athlete’s job description and pay package compares with that of Ms Campbell, 50, who has been a regular visitor to the Kenyan coast.
But it is not just ambassadors that Mr Balala has been banking on. In 2019, he created the National Convention Bureau to market Kenya as the ideal destination for conferences. However, the move was met with opposition from tourism players who thought the bureau was a duplication of the Kenyatta International Convention Centre board.
And in June last year, he launched a virtual safari live stream to showcase Kenya’s destinations. This was part of the Magic Awaits campaign that was aimed at retaining Kenya’s position as a tourist destination even when borders were closed due to the pandemic.
Mr Balala beamed with joy last August when Kenya was announced as the first recipient of a global award called Safer Tourism Seal.
The 53-year-old former Mvita MP was also a recipient of the World Travel and Tourism Council Global Champion Award, which he said was a win for his ministry and Kenya.
But despite the accolades, industry players have always complained of a sector taxed way too much. From high visa fees, value added tax, service charges and exorbitant catering levies, investors in the industry say the government has played a part in discouraging tourist visits.
Mr Balala cuts the figure of a man trying all he can to keep the sector going, though there are forces beyond his control that are dragging down the sector that made Kenya Sh164 billion in earnings in 2019.
Regardless, there are industry players from Haller’s Park to Hell’s Gate; from Mt Longonot to Mt Kenya, from Lake Nakuru to Lake Bogiria, from Takwa Ruins to Gede Ruins, from Jumba la Mtwana to Kilifi Mnarani, who are waiting on the answer to the problems posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the rising lake waters in parts of the country. Tuna jibu?