Plans underway to revive tourism at Shelly Beach

The deserted Children’s Holiday Resort along Shelly Beach in Mombasa County. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

Sun-bleached driftwood, piles of sediment and eroded bedrocks are left behind as the Indian Ocean ebbs at Shelly Beach, located on the mouth of Kilindini harbour, south of Mombasa.

Along the beach, dilapidated ruins that were once splendid hotels, villas and homes are nothing but the memory of a glorious past.

The seashore does not have plentiful white sand like other beaches along the Kenyan Coast; but as its name infers, Shelly Beach is celebrated for the myriad of seashells left behind by the ebbing ocean.

During its heydays, the scene was reminiscent of Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs in the US or Jeffreys Bay in South Africa where one could stroll, leisurely, picking varieties of gorgeous seashells.

But the beach’s bewitching seductiveness that made it a must-stop for tourists, foreign and local, heading to the south coast in the early 1990s is now a deserted place.

Women who sold roasted cassava, viazi karai or other hardware as their little ones played at the edge of the waters are nowhere to be seen.

Rose Mbula, one of the few hoarders of seashells at the shore, recalls with nostalgia the days when tourists would flock at Shelly Beach to buy cowries, swim or enjoy the gentle breeze as they watched gigantic ships sail to and from the Port of Mombasa.

“In the 1990s, when cruise ships used to dock in Mombasa, we had a booming business because Shelly Beach was the first stop for tourists. A finger shell traded at Sh1,300,” says Mbula.

Shelly Beach was at one time the pride of tourism before the 1997 Kaya Bombo clashes. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

Mbula has erected a stand near a baobab tree where she sells all types of cowries like conch, triton, and helmet. Under the tree, she has a makeshift tent where she sleeps with her children.

“I’ve operated this stand on this area for the last 25 years. The collapse of Shelly Beach Resort and other tourism sites led to the collapse of my business. I cannot afford a house,” she says.

Shelly Beach Resort, Shalom Hotel, Savana Cottage, Rhino Safaris and other big ventures that enjoyed booming business before the 1997 tribal war have either closed down or are struggling to remain afloat.

Inside the compounds of the dilapidated ruins of hotels are neglected swimming pools invaded by green algae or filled with debris and other waste.

The businesses could not stand the strong wave of the August 13, 1997 Kaya Bombo clashes that swept through Mombasa and Kwale, leaving behind a trail of deaths and destruction. Investment ebbed away.

Huge signboards now hang on the entrance of some of these properties with words ‘on sale’; but no buyer is forthcoming. As such, owners have been forced to cut the asking price.

“Shelly Beach Resort is on sale. The owner wanted Sh1.2 billion but he has reduced the price to Sh950 million to get a buyer,” said Stephen Mure, a land agent tasked to sell the property.

Constructed in 1942, Shelly Beach Resort was among the first hotels in Mombasa. Although abandoned over 20 years ago, some of the structures are still standing after a recent renovation.

It is on a 13-acre tract of land, part of which is a beach plot, a restaurant and 54 rooms that overlook Fort Jesus and Likoni shipping channel used by ships entering or exiting the Port of Mombasa.

“The facility had a capacity to host 600 to 800 guests. It was a big loss we are trying to turn around,” Mure said.

He adds: “The raiders stripped Shelly Beach of its dignity but we are ready to rebuild it again. That is why we are looking for new investors to come in and invest.”

Deserted resort along Shelly Beach in Mombasa County. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

No one can forget the carnage, destruction, and hopelessness that befell the area on the night of August 13, 1997.

Mary Anyango alias Nyar Ahero says on that fateful night she was watching events at Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris, where Princess Diana had died in a road accident when her neighbour started to pack their belongings to flee Likoni.

“Outside Shallon Club we ran into a group attackers wearing black t-shirts and black bandanas on the heads and arms burning a person. The club was also on fire,” she narrated.

Gideon Kai, who worked as a waiter at Shelly Beach Resort and Shallon said the death of the tourism sector in the area dealt a big blow to the economy and the livelihood of locals.

“We could not take our kids to schools. Most of them dropped out of school and got into drug abuse,” he said adding that the British and Indian couple who owned Shallon Club (now rechristened Shark Club) left the country, never to return.

Omar Kombo is a fisherman who sells his catch in Likoni’s sprawling slums, including the famous Kwa Waitiki Farm in search of clients. Fishermen say their business was carried away by the strong waves of insecurity blamed on the 1997 Kaya Bombo raids. 

 “It has very hard to get buyers unlike in the past. Hotels provided ready markets for our catch,” Kombo says.

The raiders were named after Kaya Bombo forest, one of the Mijikenda tribe’s sacred shrines at the Coast located 36 kilometers south of Mombasa, where they trained and hid. The forest is fast being depleted by charcoal burners and firewood collectors.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Abdul Bari Zubedi, the proprietor of Savan Cottage says he will never lose hope for his investment.

“British, German and Indian investors ran away but I’ll never do that. The problem is the internet which is awash with the incidents of 1997. This has scared away tourists and locals revelers but I’ll continue to market my business online,” said Zubedi.

Shelly Beach, Mombasa County. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

He says there is a need to clean the beach and deploy tourist police in the area to bring back a sense of security and calm in the Likoni area so that people can visit the place.

Mure and his peers have established Shelly Beach Festivals to bring in East Africa artists and Mayotte events to attract tourists to the area and showcase it as a secure place for revelers.

The National Police Service (NPS) has also deployed police officers to Timbuani (Shelly) Beach Police Station through the Likoni CDF to boost security in the area.

“The potential around Shelly Beach and around the south of the county has not been tapped fully. Other than Mama Ngina and Pirates beach, Shelly Beach is very important to us as a county,” said Mombasa County Chief of Staff and acting County Secretary Joab Tumbo.

He said plans to clean up the beach have been held back by the outbreak of Covid-19, adding that “after the Mama Ngina facelift the next place in our plans is Shelly Beach.”