Our tourism sector not firing on all cylinders

Tourists at the Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge within the Tsavo West National Park. [File, Standard]

On January 20, 2019, Muhoho Kenyatta, President Uhuru’s younger brother, attended the commemoration to mark 25 years since Jaramogi Oginga Odinga passed away on January 20, 1994.

Judging by people’s reaction, most Kenyans were intrigued by the fact that a member of the Kenyatta family could attend a function at the Odinga’s home. But by now, this should not be strange for the March 9, 2018 handshake between President Uhuru and Opposition leader Raila Odinga has resulted in the once bitter rivalry between the Odingas and Kenyattas thawing.

What struck me, however, was not the politics behind it. I was struck by the fact that the Jaramogi Mausoleum where the commemoration was held is a little known and rarely visited museum.

Beyond serving as the resting place for Jaramogi’s remains, the mausoleum serves as a cultural centre, a historical and national monument as well as a community based museum and Luo Heroes Exhibition Centre. The mausoleum is managed by the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) in partnership with Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Foundation (JOOF). Beyond Jaramogi’s life history, the museum offers stuffed animals and other Luo cultural equipment. Visitors also get to learn about famous traditional medicine men the Luo community has had over the years.

This raises one pertinent question; how many tourist attraction sites do we have west of the Rift Valley and how frequently are they visited? When one mentions Kenyan tourist sites, the most common names that come to mind include the Tsavo, Maasai Mara, Amboseli, marine parks in Mombasa and the parks, sanctuaries and orphanages within and around Nairobi.

Far flung

However, a mention of tourism gems like the Ruma National Park, Saiwa Swamp National Park, Ndere Island National Park, Kakamega Forest National Reserve, Lake Simbi National Sanctuary or the Kisumu Impala sanctuary might sound like Greek to majority of Kenyans. This is because, like the Jaramogi Mausoleum, these spectacular tourist attractions receive little or no publicity and more often than not are not supported by necessary infrastructure and resources to make them accessible.

A cursory look at offers from most tour operators in Kenya will reveal that very few of them offer tourist packages that include these far flung locations. The same is true for team building and adventure companies.

We would like to hear some of our leading corporate companies offer trips to these less known destinations in their frequent campaigns. It would be refreshing to hear a bank, Telco or supermarket with a ‘Win a trip for two at the Ndere Island National Park.’

This notwithstanding, laying blame on private tour operators and companies for not having packages and offers that cast the net beyond the traditional tourist destinations would be putting the cart before the horse. Before secondary players can take up the initiative of popularizing our less known tourist attractions, the government needs to rise to the occasion and lead from the front.

The ministry of tourism through the Kenya Tourism Board’s flagship program Magical Kenya should be at the forefront in ensuring that the diversity that our tourism menu has to offer is plain to see for all tourists, both local and international. However, a look at the listed tourist attractions on the Magical Kenya website only lists Lake Victoria, Kakamega Forest and the Rock Art of Mfangano Island out of the many less known Kenyan tourist attractions.

When the Kenya Tourism board launched Tembea Kenya in 2016, the intention was to target domestic tourists and to position the country’s tourist attractions to the local audience. The jury may still be out on whether the campaign led to an increase in local tourists visiting our world famed tourist attractions but one thing is sure, the campaign did very little to promote the less known tourist attractions in Kenya.

What’s more, the campaign ran an SMS competition that saw the winner get awarded with a grand prize for two people for five nights with a package to Maasai Mara instead of using the opportunity to promote other less known, yet equally fulfilling tourist destinations in Kenya.

Tour guides

Another way through which the Government can help in raising awareness about our less known tourist attractions is by ensuring the infrastructure around these sites is well maintained.

By ensuring that roads, electricity and water are available in these areas, the government will make it easy for stakeholders  like hoteliers, tour operators and tour guides to set up shop in these areas, thereby opening areas that are deemed rural while creating employment opportunities for the young people in these areas.

Our tourism sector has been on the rise in recent years with travel and tourism contributing up to 4 percent of our GDP by September 2018. The introduction of direct flights between Kenya and New York in October 2018 is also seen as a shot in the arm for the tourism sector. However, for the sector to fire on all cylinders, we need to ensure that no facility is left untapped and no resource lies idle.

Mr Otiato is a Communication Specialist. [email protected]