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The pointwoman driving Kenya's tourism’s marketing plan

By Josaya Wasonga | May 10th 2016

Just over two months ago, Jacinta Nzioka-Mbithi, 42, was appointed acting CEO of the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB).

KTB is not a run-of-the-mill parastatal. It is at the frontline of creating around 250,000 jobs, formally and informally, a year. And in 2011, its best year yet, it helped generate Sh90 billion-plus for the economy.

In the face of terror attacks, global financial slowdowns and increased competition, marketing the country’s tourist attractions has become even more important.

Just last week, the Economic Survey 2016 showed the country received 12.6 per cent fewer tourists in 2015 at 1.18 million visitors than the previous year. This reduced sector revenues from Sh87.1 billion in 2014 to Sh84.3 billion last year.

Consumer needs

Ms Nzioka-Mbithi is determined to change the narrative this year.

“I’m reviewing the marketing model that KTB uses. We have new platforms, new consumer needs, new competition, new communications,” she said.

“This is one of my key priorities: to review the model of KTB, including internal processes, so we transform into a total destination management organisation that looks beyond just marketing. That looks beyond providing information. That has a say in product development. That has a say in destination competitiveness.”

Hearing her game plan, you would think Nzioka-Mbithi knew she was born to work in tourism. But were it not for missing one cut-off point for university admission, she would be performing tooth extractions and oral surgeries.

“I wanted to be a dental surgeon. I didn’t qualify. I had a B-plus, and they were taking A-minus and above. But in high school at Limuru Girls, my second choice was tourism. So I went to Moi University and did a degree in tourism management.”

Nzioka-Mbithi joined KTB in 2000 as a marketing officer. Before being appointed acting CEO, she was KTB’s regional marketing manager for Europe. Her current work day starts with a look through press clippings.

“I want to know what people are saying about tourism. I want to know what’s happening in the UK, for instance. What is our competition doing? Each day has its own agenda, though. Like checking and reviewing our strategies, or reviewing progress of implementation. Calls and emails keep coming in, and of course, I have to attend meetings,” she said.

Nzioka-Mbithi, who speaks fluent French and Italian, said she is bringing a wealth of experience to her position. So why does the tourism sector keeps checking in and out of the sick bay?

“Through the years, I’ve seen the ebbs and flows, which are very regular, and they’re aligned to election periods and incidents of terror,” she said.

“Before, we had civil clashes in 1997, in 1998 and 2002. But in the last couple of years, they have become more frequent, and we realised things had to change. We no longer could say, ‘That was an isolated incident’, because by the time you’re saying that, something is happening in Gikomba Market. And before you’ve finished doing damage control, something is happening in Garissa. Incidents of insecurity coupled with travel advisories are big headaches.”

A travel advisory restricts charter planes from flying into Kenya or cruise ships docking at the port, and puts thousands of jobs on the chopping board.

In addition to dealing with insecurity, Kenya also has to contend with stiff competition. In the 70s to 90s when some African countries were embroiled in conflict, our stability was a selling point. We took the glory and guests. But now, more countries across the continent are getting things right.

To put insecurity incidents in context and shield the industry, there is a proposal to ‘zone off’ top destinations. This way, what happens at the Coast, for instance, will not affect the Maasai Mara.

Zoning off different tourist circuits and regionalising destinations into sub-brands could help counteract blanket bans. Egypt has done something similar. The resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh is a brand, and remains largely unaffected by adverse incidents in other parts of Egypt.

Another challenge Nzioka-Mbithi will have to contend with is limited financing.

“Our Government has priorities. As a Kenyan, I appreciate that there are weightier matters, like education, health and security. Now imagine you’re at the Treasury talking about your budget to market the country, yet citizens are being killed in Northern Kenya,” she said.

“You’re thinking, ‘The Government doesn’t care about this, and South African is investing billions in tourism’. But then you know there is only one basket for us all, and there are priorities.”

Strong base

This financial year, KTB has a short-term plan dubbed the Markets Stimulation Programme, whose aim is to “recover image and numbers”.

“We must fill consumer platforms with positive Kenyan images,” said Nzioka-Mbithi.

“For numbers, we’re doing trade campaigns with tour operators and airlines so that we drive sales back to Kenya. If we bring back the numbers, there’s going to be more sustainability, and investments and jobs will be secured. We’re looking at fully recovering the sector by 2018.”

Local tourists are also critical to the sector’s recovery.

“I’m a firm believer in domestic tourism because it builds a strong base for international tourism. Hoteliers and tour operators who have practiced domestic tourism for years are not affected as much by the dipping numbers,” she said.

Rural tourism is another of Nzioka-Mbithi’s passions. The mother of three grew up in Makueni County and woke up every morning to the sight of the imposing Mt Kilimanjaro.

“Every morning we saw it free of charge. My home is near Tsavo National Park, and it didn’t mean anything to me. I only came to realise later that people travel from all corners of the world and pay big money to see stuff I was taking for granted.”

Nzioka-Mbithi wants rural folk fully equipped to appreciate what they have to boost their incomes, and get their buy-in in conservation.

The other issue close to her heart is women’s development. For the better part of her life, she was brought up by her widowed mother. Today, she champions programmes that financially empower women.

Nzioka-Mbithi is a founding executive director of the Kenya Association of Women in Tourism (KAWT) formed in 2007. With chapters in counties, the association aims to mentor women and students in tourism. KAWT is a member of the Women in Tourism International Alliance (WITIA), and hosted the global WITIA conference in Kenya in 2012.

“We talk to students about careers in tourism. We tell them that gone are the days when tourism was viewed as not a being a real profession, or unsuitable for women. We also provide a platform for women to learn from one another,” Nzioka-Mbithi said.

And for a Kenyan who has travelled the country extensively, what are her top five destinations?

First is the “really special” Lamu, second is “unique” Samburu, and third is Shimba Hills National Park, which she termed “an undiscovered gem”. Fourth is Maasai Mara, which she refers to as “the land of variety and diversity”, and lastly is the Rift Valley, which speaks to “the handiwork of a supreme being”.

The acting CEO said she is well aware of the high stakes at hand. But she is intent on delivering the top five items on a tourism stakeholder’s wish list: more tourists, more jobs, a better bottom line, cutting-edge innovation and market stability.

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