US topples UK as Kenya's key tourism source market

Tourism Cabinet Secretary, Penina Malonza [right] receives tourists at the port of Mombasa. [Omondi Onyango,Standard]

The United States (US) was Kenya's leading international tourist market last year, overtaking the United Kingdom (UK), a new report by the Tourism Research Institute (TRI) shows.

According to the report, 209,360 American tourists visited Kenya last year as more cruise ships called on the port of Mombasa and Kenya Airways increased the frequency of its direct flights to the United States after the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

"This was 16 per cent of the total international arrivals, which stood at 1,483,752 into Kenya from key source markets," said the report released by Tourism, Wildlife, and Heritage Cabinet Secretary Peninah Malonza recently.

International arrivals closed the year at 1.48 million visitors, representing a 70.45 per cent increase compared to the 2021 arrivals at 870,465 visitors.

"A 72 per cent recovery level was recorded in 2022 compared to 2019. This growth can be attributed to many source markets lessening their Covid-19 restrictions and opening for travel," noted the report.

Passenger numbers

Kenya's largest international airport, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) saw a 64.97 per cent increase in passenger numbers last year compared to 2021 when arrivals closed at over one million.

Moi International Airport in Mombasa also saw an increase in arrivals of 65.9 per cent. Cruise ship arrivals through the Mombasa Port stood a mere 562 visitors last year.

But things could look up this year following the opening of the modern Sh1.4 billion cruise terminal at the port. Uganda was second after the US, accounting for 12 per cent of total arrivals last year.

It was followed by Tanzania, at 10 per cent, which tied with, the UK, the erstwhile leading contributor of visitors to the country.  

Visitors arriving for holidays were the highest at 36.6 per cent, followed by those visiting friends and family (27.8 per cent). Arrivals for business and Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) came in a close third with 27.2 per cent.

In the year under review, the TRI report shows, inbound tourism earnings grew to Sh268.09 billion from Sh146.51 billion a year earlier, a growth of 83 per cent.

The domestic bed occupancy in 2022 grew by 18 per cent from 3.1 million in 2021 to 3.68 million from January to December last year.

Meanwhile, hoteliers are upbeat about the sector making a full recovery following a two-year slump from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Sarova Hotels and Resorts Group Managing Director Jimi Kariuki said the sector has kicked off on a positive note this year.

"Though we are still recovering from the unprecedented impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw the industry completely shut down in 2020, we are moving at a positive pace towards recovery," he said.

Mr Kariuki added that as a long-haul tourism destination, Kenya still needs to push for more flights to its various destinations, including Mombasa, Malindi, Eldoret and Kisumu.

Speaking when she launched the TRI report, Tourism CS Ms Malonza said tourism is on an upward trajectory with a gradual rise in performance, accounting for 10.4 per cent of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Visitor numbers in 2022 were higher than in 2021 but still lower than in 2019. International arrivals in 2022 were 1,483,752, thus representing a 70.45 per cent increase compared to the previous year's arrivals.

Sarova boss Mr Kariuki said Kenya remains the most preferred tourism, business and MICE destination on the continent. 

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