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Malindi does not have to be a ghost town

By Lloyd Thuranira | Jan 27th 2022 | 4 min read
By Lloyd Thuranira | January 27th 2022

A section of Malindi old town in 2019. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

Six years ago, I visited Malindi and went to one of the malls within the town before checking into my hotel room.The busy mall housed the then famed Nakumatt Supermarket, a casino, numerous shops and restaurants.

On my way out, I entered a nearby restaurant. I immediately felt as though I had landed in some European town. The restaurant was packed to capacity with Italians. Malindi was then a vibrant town synonymous with tourism, especially Italian tourists.

It had most of its sandy beach hotels fully booked during peak seasons, and its restaurants were a beehive of activities.

There were regular direct flights from Rome to Malindi and vice versa. That is how Malindi Airport gained its fame as an international airport.

Then last year, there was little left of the mall. Apart from just the building, there was almost zero occupation. There was no supermarket, no more curio shops, no more ornamental shops, no more boutiques and these days, the Italian restaurant rarely has a patron.

The once busiest part of the town is now nearly a neglected section. I am informed that most Italians sold off their property and left.

The beach hotels are mostly empty, and this started long before the Covid-19 pandemic. The regular flights between Rome and Malindi International Airport are a thing of the past.

Where did the rains start beating the tourists’ hub?

I attribute the downward spiralling of tourism activities in Malindi to the lack of sustainable planning and lack of political goodwill towards maintaining the tourism status of the town. If a town has some of the best beaches in the world and an airport, then it should also be among the most visited in the country.

As Malindi lost its vibrancy, the other competing destinations along the Coast, such as Diani, kept thriving.

Some of the most visited coastal tourist destinations in the world are not as naturally endowed as Malindi.

Marbella in Spain is one such. It is situated on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a popular tourists’ destination throughout the year partly because of its friendly climate, beaches and hotels.

Other features of interest include The Golden Mile, Marbella Old Town and Neuva Andalucia.

The town has organised events across the calendar — from music concerts to opera performances. In most instances, tourists visit a place not only for its natural setting but also for extra activities such as cultural festivals to make their trips more memorable.

Having a cultural calendar guarantees Marbella its global share of tourists. In May, there will be a local celebration open to tourists called Pilgrimages of Cruz de Juanar. There are similar events planned for July, August and November. These traditional events involve dancing and going to the fields to roast chestnuts.

In June, there will be the Fair and Fiesta of San Bernabe to honour the patron Saint of Marbella. The event lasts for a week.

Throughout the summer, June to October, Marbella hosts various other events organised by different organisations to promote cultural activities. These events range from bullfighting, musical concerts, photo competitions and sports.

Marbella mostly draws its tourists from Europe, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and the United States. It is popular with celebrities and the wealthy.

Luxuries include yachts, golf courses, luxury hotels, tennis tournaments, casinos and cruise ships since Marbella has a dock.

While Malindi does not have many notable events besides the Malinda Cultural Festival, Marbella boasts of numerous cultural events throughout the year, all of which attract tourist. In short, nice beaches are alone not enough. If they were, Malindi which is better endowed with extensive white beaches, would be more visited than Marbella.

I believe that the situation in Malindi can be reversed and the town can once again renew its scenic environment.

The Kilifi County tourism department has to go the extra mile to attract tourists back to the scenic town. Since the Coast, and particularly Malindi has a rich culture, there is a way to package all that into tourist attractions.

The beach concerts that are popular in other destinations globally can be introduced here.

The Malindi Marine Park is massively underrated. I recently went on a marine boat excursion and I was so amazed by the unique marine fish species.

Unfortunately, the county has not done enough to advertise this park which could be a game-changer in tourism. The Swahili cuisine is also one to cross rivers and mountains for. I have many times contemplated relocating to Malindi town.

Coincidentally, last week, an urban planners’ convention hosted by the Kenya Institute of Planners took place in the town and was addressed by President Uhuru Kenyatta among other leaders and policymakers.

We hope to see most of the discussed strategies implemented to help the town regain its lost glory in tourism. Malindi is a sleeping giant that needs reawakening.

  • The writer is an urban planner
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