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Tourism: We should sell our rich past, not the present

By XN Iraki | March 17th 2020

A frenzied crowd eggs on two contestants during a bull fighting event in Kakamega, an annual ritual in Western Kenya. Counties can focus on their unique cultural traditions to attract visitors and their dollars. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Over 20 million people visit the city of Venice in Italy every year, yet we are struggling to reach two million visitors in Kenya.

The visitors to Venice are attracted by the canals that once made the city famous as a means of transport and beauty. Lots of other cities in Europe boast of canals but are less known, less marketed. The same way we have more pyramids in Sudan than Egypt but rarely do we hear about them.

Visitors to Kenya are attracted by the big safaris, finding nature as it was on creation day. There is something magical watching wild animals grazing in peace as they have done for years, and watching predators chasing their meal live, away from documentaries.

The last time I visited Nairobi National Park, I found lions that ignored my car, no motion. They did not even look my way.

There is something magical in admiring the landscapes and beauty thereof. We rarely realise how beautiful the Rift Valley and Mt Kenya are to visitors. I noted the other day that from the upper floors of University of Nairobi Tower, you have a majestic view of Mt Kenya and Aberdares, and may be Kilimanjaro.

The other popular attraction is indigenous cultures. Visitors to Kenya want to see our indigenous people, particularly the Maasai. Yet, we have indigenous cultures elsewhere, from ‘ngurario’ to ‘tero buru’. These can be great attractions for our visitors.

It seems tourism is driven by attachment to the past more than the present. We travel to India to see the Taj Mahal or Peru to see Machu Picchu. Tourism seems to have a strange obsession with the past. No one sells the architectural marvels of Nairobi’s Upper Hill as attractions.

Could this explain why our tourist numbers are low? Maybe our numbers go up if we focused more on the past, which is nostalgic. Why would a tourist be interested in staying in a five-star hotel if a clean manyatta is available? Why would they stay in a hotel room watching TV when bull fighting would be more exciting?

Traditions dying

Modernity brings boring convergence and universal standards. We want to be like the West, rarely the East. Why should a tourist eat ugali using a fork? Why should they take beer using glasses when horns and ‘pipes’ (rogoreet) are available - remember how the Nandi community used to drink their traditional beer?

Our traditions, because of their longevity and uniqueness, would be greater tourist attractions than the Big Five. No country can copy ngurario or tero buru! It is unlikely that the French can copy our mukimo, muthokoi or kimanga cuisine. The same way Brazilians cannot perfectly copy our isikuti or kibata dances.

Yet while riding on vague modernity, our traditions and their links to the past are dying. In tourism, modernity will not be an asset, it is a liability.

Modernity involves copying what is hard to copy, like cultures. While we can put up a building that resembles any in the West or East, it is hard to copy their culture, mannerism and aspirations.

One would have expected that with devolution, counties would focus on their uniqueness to attract visitors and their dollars. Every county has its uniqueness.

But it seems the counties are racing to modernity. See the hotels coming up there? Why are their headquarters not inspired by traditional architecture? Narok County headquarters should resemble a manyatta, while Kiambu should design a thingira.

One link to the past that we have refused - either deliberately or out of ignorance - to ride on in attracting visitors is our colonial past. I have repeatedly argued that the best revenge against colonialism is to make money out of it.

We have neglected the historical houses that Britons, South Africans and other nationalities built when they made Kenya their home. Some of these houses are over 100 years old.

Long history

Our Coast is renowned for warm weather and fun (raha), not its long history of visitors from Arabs to Persians, Chinese and Indians. Its history is rarely marketed, modernity with the beaches and hotels are better known, more than the narrow streets of Lamu or Gedi Ruins.

While Fort Jesus is well known, the story behind it is never told  - like why the Portuguese never intermarried with the locals or influence the Swahili. Why did we not preserve one concentration camp during the struggle against colonialism?

Tourism has always been a low-lying fruit despite currently bearing the blunt of travel restrictions because of coronavirus. The lull in tourism, which contributes about 10 per cent of global gross domestic product, should give us a chance to reflect on what can be done to bring at least 20 million tourists to Kenya, just like Venice.

- The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi

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