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Tourism industry upbeat ahead of Christmas peak

BUSINESS
By Brenda Kerubo | October 17th 2021

Tourism and wildlife CS Najib Balala, Kajiado Governor Ole Lenku (blue checked shirt) witness the collaring of elephants before the start of the Tembo Naming Festival held on Oct 10 at Amboseli National Park.

Ol Tukai Lodge is situated at the heart of Amboseli National Park in Kajiado County.

There are 80 guest rooms that overlook the open plains and an amazing view of elephants, but perhaps the best part is the morning sunrise over Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain.

A few months ago, the lodge had little tourism activity due to restrictions meant to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus. The jumbos roamed freely at the park, but tourists were not there to snap their cameras.

The lodge had at least 142 full-time workers before the pandemic in March last year. However, by August that number was cut to 70.

In December 2020, when visitors would ideally flock there for the Christmas holiday, was the worst. Occupancy dipped to 20 per cent.

“Whether you look at our hotel or the industry in general, I think we’ve never had such a bad year,” Ol Tukai Lodge Managing Director Mandip Amrit said during the Tembo Naming Festival at Amboseli last week.

“It was devastating in terms of visitor numbers and revenue, and the preventive actions that the industry had to take as a result was the most difficult. Laying off staff, cutting costs for us to pull through was inevitable.”

Today, however, the script is a little different. On our visit, we can count at least 10 tour vans that have dropped tourists at the hotel since morning - majority of them from Europe and the United States.

Mr Amrit said the improvement is linked to easing in travel restrictions as more people get inoculated in the Western countries.

The United Kingdom, which is ranked fourth in visitor numbers, had in April placed Kenya on its red list of countries due to surging Covid-19 infections but recently revised the directive and now allows those fully vaccinated to travel to Britain without having to quarantine or take a Covid test before departure.

“We’re definitely improving from what we saw last year. Now as countries in Europe, United Kingdom and the United States start opening up we will see the numbers improving,” said Amrit. “There are a lot of direct bookings that we’re getting. So there’s a vast improvement, no doubt from what we saw 12 months ago.”

The lodge expects to scale up its workforce for the festivities due to the increased business.

Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala and Kenya Tourism Board Chief Executive Betty Radier have both given the relaxation in travel restrictions a thumbs-up, saying it will contribute to revival of tourism activities.

“Covid pandemic regimes have been relaxed and the UK has removed Kenya from the red list, so we’ll see more tourists from the UK coming in,” said Mr Balala.

“Again, airlines are working we see more tourists coming from America, as well as the emerging markets such as Eastern Europe. Russia has shown interest to come to Kenya as well.”

Domestic tourism

Ms Radier said there has been an upsurge in domestic tourism as the international markets open up.

“But international visitation is still fairly slow. However, as the protocols get reviewed between countries, we are going to begin to see an uptick of international travel,” she said.

Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) plans to extend the reduced entry fees to its game parks and reserves during the Christmas season.

The State agency cut park fees in July 2020 on all categories of tourists including local, resident and international. The charges in premium parks such as Nairobi, Amboseli, Lake Nakuru, Tsavo East and West reduced by 47 per cent.

“About 90 per cent of our target marketing was externally, but since we did the Zuru campaign, we are now seeing more domestic visitation than before,” said KWS Director General Brigadier (Rtd) James Waweru. 

“This is very important to us and we’re urging Kenyans and international visitors to visit the parks.”

He said they had already discounted the park fees for the last one-and-a-half years to 50 per cent on the rates.

“We are bringing the rates up from January 1 next year, but I believe by that time we will have generated enough interest for Kenyans to want to go and visit.” 

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