Letter to Uhuru: The African tourist has money but is a strange creature

What you need to know:

  • If you go to hotels like Serena, Stanley Sarova, Panafric and other top ones in Nairobi frequently, you will see a minivan picking up groups of European, American, or Asian tourists to take them out to the park.
  • Anyone who has ever seen a van taking a group of Africans from a top-end hotel, please send me a tweet. I, for one, haven’t.

President Kenyatta has criticised Western countries for issuing travel advisories against Kenya in the wake of recent terrorist attacks.

He said Kenya would find tourists from other parts of the world. China is a growing new source of tourists, although if truth be told, the Chinese view towards Africa is not much different from that of Westerners.

In fact, the Chinese are not shy about doing something Western tourists won’t do — walk about in face masks and gloves. Not an entirely unreasonable precaution; there are quite a few diseases about the African air.

For Africa, though, the tourists who will really make a difference are Africans themselves. Let us forget the current tourist arrivals in Kenya, and look at some statistics about visits in 2010:

The UK contributed the most tourists to Kenya that year, 174,051, followed by US 107,842. Italy and Germany were third and fourth at 87,694 and 63,011 respectively. France was fifth with 50,039 visitors.

Uganda topped the African market with 33,900 followed by South Africa 33,076 and Tanzania with 30,264. From Asia, India led with 47,611 arrivals followed by China with 28,480.

I will pause here a bit for a bit of nationalist flag-waving. Mr Wilfred Kiboro, Chairman of the Board of Nation Media Group, once said the most important envoy in Nairobi, way above the US and UK ones, should be Uganda’s High Commissioner, because it was, by far, Kenya’s leading trading partner. Many Kenyans go to bed with a full stomach, thanks to Uganda.

SUPPOSE IT WAS NIGERIA

Clearly, then, the African tourists are the future. For countries like South Africa, African tourists are even more important than they are for Kenya.

The African tourist, though, is a very different creature. First, few African tourists — or Africans in general — listen to their governments. Their governments are mostly incapable of evacuating them, and few of them expect their governments to — except in extremely deadly situations as happened recently in South Sudan.

Remember those scenes in Mombasa last week, with hundreds of British tourists queuing up at the airport to get out of Kenya after London told them to leave?

Imagine for a minute if it had been the Nigerian government sending a plane to evacuate Nigerians having fun in Mombasa. The plane would have returned to Abuja empty.

Now, if President Kenyatta were able to get African tourists to come in the hundreds of thousands to Kenya, then the industry would have to deal with a major shock. It would have to change totally.

If you go to hotels like Serena, Stanley Sarova, Panafric and other top ones in Nairobi frequently, you will see a minivan picking up groups of European, American, or Asian tourists to take them out to the park. Anyone who has ever seen a van taking a group of Africans from a top-end hotel, please send me a tweet. I, for one, haven’t.

The big hotels would have to forget about taking in African tourists… unless they reduce their rates to about $60 a night. Our people just don’t like to pay for expensive rooms.

Also, we don’t actually like looking at animals in the park, much, so you can never find enough of us to load up in a bus or van for a ride to the wild.

Therefore, those tented camps would go out of business. And don’t expect an African to spread a towel on the beach, lie there for four hours finishing a book. No way!

NYAMA CHOMA

The approach of most of our people is rather practical. You go to Nairobi on holiday, then you buy some Maasai sandals and blankets, kitenges, go back home, sell them, and recover your costs. Because of this, we don’t go on a tour to 10 countries. We do one or two, because there is cargo to carry back home.

And instead of going to photograph lions, we would rather go and eat nyama choma in Olepolos, and in the evenings we go to clubs to dance, not to an observatory to watch stars.

And that is the other difference; we don’t visit to see animals or mountains (although a few do). We visit people (although I personally find that a bit tedious).

So there is a lot of money to be made from African tourists, but it will be very different types of hotels and businesses making it.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is Editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com; Twitter:cobbo3)

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