God blessed us with a beautiful land that we have failed to make the best out of it

DP Rigathi Gachagua (right) in a manyatta during the Maa Cultural Festival at Sekenani Gate, Narok County, on August 24, 2023. [DPPS]

It is without a doubt this is a country full of contradictions with a cocktail of the good, the bad and the ugly all playing out at the same time.

This past week, the Maa Cultural Festival showcased part of the golden treasures only unique to Kenya and her neighbour to the south, Tanzania. As evidenced across social media, it was a great moment for political photo ops. However, my interest here is the underlying socio-economic potential that we shall be discussing in this article.

In Central Europe, the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest have to a great extent been disappointing for athletic lovers. It is evident the country has lost bragging rights in the middle and long-distance track events. For instance, the 3,000 metres men’s steeplechase has been the country’s speciality from 1968 until the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. It seems the event is fast slipping away from us into random wins like what has become of the rest of the track events that traditionally have been our domain. What does this portend for the future of our nascent sports tourism?

On a private mission to Kwale County the same week, I got to experience the famous Wasini Island tour. Starting with the historic Shimoni caves, up to Kisite Marine Park and sea food at the local eateries in Wasini, it is an experience of a lifetime. It is difficult to imagine this country is still home to millions of some of the poorest people in the world.  This is despite evidence of the hard-working nature, ingenuity and resilience of ordinary folks across the country. For example, the Wasini tours are done mostly under the captainship of local residents. not to mention the popular private Jungle Snake Park at Mwamanga village in Ukunda.

This seemingly unrelated events of week are connecting dots of the abundance that the creator gifted us with. In economics, we call them natural endowments that offer proprietary comparative advantage to a country before the national human capital is factored in.

Geographically, we are one of the most strategically placed nation on earth, right at heart of the equator, besides our plenty in flora and fauna. We are among the few countries on earth that have the right climatic conditions that support agricultural production year round. Yet, we remain food insecure. The gist of this article is that we have played too small for far too long with what God graciously endowed us with.

It is my humble submission here today that we have grossly underestimated the place of human capital, strong political institutions, good governance and leadership in national development. Given the factor endowments highlighted above, lets us turn to key tourism indicators to demonstrate how mediocrity has become synonymous with our national DNA.

National indicators

WorldData.Info page that provides very good comparative data on tourism across countries pays a glowing tribute to Kenya as a great tourist destination in the world. The page surmises the country as a destination to ‘unrest in a dreamlike nature’.

Yet, on the actual tourist numbers, we pale the leading destinations in the world. According to statistics available on the page, the highest tourist numbers documented for the country is 2.05 million visitors achieved in 2019. This generated an estimated US$1.76 billion (about Sh250 billion at current exchange rates), accounting for 1.8 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) that year.

Based on this absolute numbers, the country was ranked 49th globally. While the tourism sector in Kenya prides itself with this type of ranking, the page classifies this indicator as useless in understanding a country’s competitiveness on tourism. Instead, the better indicator to understand tourism competitiveness is to factor in a country’s size. On this indicator, Kenya received 0.038 tourists per resident, declining to rank at 135th globally and 7th in Eastern Africa.

In 2021, the tourism sector generated an estimated US$1.22 billion (about Sh174.5 billion) translating to about 1.1 per cent of the GDP and approximately 15 per cent of total international tourist receipts for Eastern Africa region. Tracked data on the page shows a steady decline on share of tourism on the country’s GDP from 8.7 per cent in 1995. This from 918,000 tourists that earned the country US$785 million. The highest tourism receipts were recorded in 2012 from an estimated 1.62 million visitors.

From this statistics, it is easy to conclude the country has reduced her over reliance on tourism as a source of foreign exchange or a possible shift in the productive sectors in the economy. However, national data demonstrates sustained declines in other sectors like manufacturing and agricultural export contributions to the GDP. Only the service sector, whose exports are mainly classified with tourism suggest marginal growth.

This points to a systemic problem that has reduced the country into a net importer of literally everything from food stuff, clothing to construction materials. Putting this into the broader national outlook, it must not then be surprising that economy is seriously struggling with her dollar reserves, heavily relying on external borrowing to shove foreign reserves.

Emerging trends

From an analytical point of view, it is baffling how it can be an official policy to export unskilled or semi-skilled labour overseas as a strategy to create employment, grow diaspora remittances and hence generate forex currency.

This is a clear indicator on the level of laziness in economic thinking at high offices in government. It lacks a long term outlook of the country’s economic competitiveness and means to sustainable development. The philosophy underlying any serious economic planning is to harness natural endowments and exploit local human capital to create new frontiers of growth. Selling our greatest assets of the youthful populace for menial jobs overseas is a new low for official policy. Responsible governments are competing to export specialized skills not menial labourers.

The OECD Tourism Trends and Policies 2022 biennial report offers vital insights into the lessons learned from Covid-19 shocks and policy perspectives for recovery and competitiveness. Three key take homes that our policy makers may wish educate themselves from this report are: one, there are clear indicators that domestic tourism is severely constrained in many countries. Tourism direct contribution dropped from 4.4 per cent pre-Covid in 2019 to 2.8 per cent in 2020 and share of service-related exports declined from 20.5 per cent to 9.9 per cent on average among OECD countries.

Two, domestic tourism proved to be an important lifeline to many jobs and businesses during the pandemic. Domestic tourism is expected to achieve full recovery in 2023 with international full recovery projected for 2025. Three, which is a positive outcome post-COVID is the awareness of tourism as an economic and social force into the new world socio-economic order.Thus, governments must invest to diversify tourism offers; enhance collaborations across public and private sectors and local communities; and exploit emerging opportunity to address long-term priorities, rethink the tourism systems and prepare for future shocks.

In conclusion, it is not tenable and sustainable for the architecture of our tourism to be predominantly based on external visitors. There must be practical policy and tax incentives that turn the rhetoric on domestic tourism into a lived reality with its attendant socio-economic benefits.