Balala defends paying American firm Sh100 million for expo

Tourism CS Najib Balala (L) and his PS Joe Okudo when they appeared before the National Assembly Sports, Culture and Heritage Committee at Parliament. [Boniface Okendo/Standard]
The Tourism Cabinet secretary has put up a spirited defence of his ministry’s sponsorship of a privately organised travel expo in Nairobi in 2017.

Najib Balala was questioned by Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) officers on Wednesday in connection with the payment of Sh100 million to the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), which had organised a destination expo in Kenya for its members.

The sponsorship has attracted the interest of EACC, which has been investigating whether the ministry broke any laws and the circumstances under which public money was spent on the function.

It is also looking at whether ASTA was competitively selected.

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Yesterday, Mr Balala told Parliament’s Department Committee on Sports, Culture and Tourism that he met EACC officials on Wednesday.

“EACC came to my office yesterday and the confusion they have is with the word bid. They think that there was a tendering process and a contract awarded, but it was bidding for the country to host the conference and that was cleared well with the commission,” said Balala.

The CS said the ministry never awarded the tender to ASTA – an umbrella body for travel agents in the US. Rather, it was Kenya that bid to host ASTA’s annual convention in Kenya and won. According to the CS, different countries compete to host the travel agents who in turn market the destination to their clients in the US.

Balala told the committee that Kenya had for a number of years made attempts to host the ASTA conference and had five years before the 2017 event unsuccessfully made a bid.

“The project started in 2012 when Kenya bid to host the event for the first time but lost. We won in 2016 to host the event in 2017. They (ASTA) wanted a budget of Sh400 million but we could not afford it. In fact we wrote to Treasury requesting the money to support the project and they told us they could not fund it.

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“When we looked at how much we could afford to sponsor the event as a ministry, we could only raise Sh100 million and that is the money we committed,” he said.

He added that the Government financed the conference through the sponsorship, and that its success on Kenyan soil has translated to more opportunities for the hospitality industry.

The Sh100 million that the ministry spent, Balala said, was sourced from funds allocated for marketing the country as a tourism destination.

“After winning the bid to host, our overall responsibility was to make sure the event took place,” Balala told the MPs.

He said hosting the American travel agents had played a role in boosting visitor arrivals from the US. Data by the ministry showed arrivals from the US increased to 225,000 in 2018 compared to 90,000 in 2017.

“We supported ASTA because it is an association of travel agents that market countries in their markets. These agents are the ones that are now marketing Kenya because they experienced the tourism product and that is one of the reasons America as a tourist source market has jumped from bringing 90,000 tourists to over 225,000 people,” said Balala.

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Tourism CS Najib Balalatravel expoAmerican Society of Travel Agents