Mombasa, Kenya: The Coast is Kenya’s main tourist destination making up 60 per cent of visitor arrivals owing to its beaches, abundant wildlife and favourable weather all year.
Its proximity to the Shimba Hills Game Reserve and world’s third largest nature conservation, the Tsavo National Park, makes the Coast a great destination. With its 32,000 beds, it employs about 20,000 people directly, industry experts say.
Tourists from the traditional market in continental Europe have developed a unique liking for certain circuits on the Kenyan coast. For instance, British tourists frequent Watamu in the North Coast because they love water sports and deep-sea fishing, says Kenya Coast Tourist Association (KCTA) chief executive officer Millicent Odhiambo.
However, Watamu and Malindi are home to many Italians, who have publicised the destination in their home country. “Italians have heavily invested in high-end hotels such as the Billionaires Club and Lion in the Sun owned by former Fomula One proprietor Silvio Briatore. Malindi has become little Italy,” Ms Odhiambo says.
Germans are well spread because they love adventure. They often frolic in South Coast, Mombasa and North Coast, while the French seem to prefer Mombasa.
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Generally, European tourists are great wildlife lovers, with Italians showing the least interest. Most Westerners come to the Kenyan Coast to escape winter in Europe but a growing number is also researchers, adventurers, aid workers, businessmen, security agents or expatriates at several UN and other international offices in Nairobi and the region.
Many British tourists come to visit relatives in Kenya, who have homes in Mombasa and on the south coast. Italians also visit Malindi to meet with kin and establish businesses. In recent times, former Italy Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been a frequent visitor of Malindi as has British supermodel Naomi Campbell.
There is a historical link between Malindi town and the Italian market within the region, Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers Coast branch Executive Officer Sam Ikwaye says.
“Tourism has been traditionally a major source of direct and indirect employment in the Coast region,” Ikwaye says.
The recent Western travel advisories coupled with a low tourist season have driven the hotel bed occupancy at the Coast from the average 50 per cent to 30 per cent representing about 10,000 guests.
The low tourist season, which starts in May and ends in July, as well as the high season between August and May usually affects hotel bottom lines.
Hotels mainly survive on conference tourism and domestic tourists during the low tourist season when guests are offered discounted accommodation and tours.
Industry players say tourism at the Coast has not fully recovered since 2007 when bed occupancy reached an all-time high of 90 per cent.
This has been attributed to the 2007 post-election misadventures, violence associated with the Mombasa Republic Council (MRC) group that agitated for secession of the Coast region from Kenya, fears associated with the outcome of 2013 election and a series of terrorist attacks in the country. The average hotel bed occupancy last year was placed at 50 per cent.
The industry players say hotels are part of the value chain with government and local communities being major beneficiaries. Ms Odhiambo says the economies of coastal counties become vibrant when the region receives more tourists as farmers and fishermen, through the middlemen supply chain, provide park lodges in Taita Taveta and beach hotels in South Coast and elsewhere with food.
Apart from direct employment, the industry offers incomes to airlines, tour operators as well as dancers and curio sellers among others.
“The industry is the highest taxed in Kenya with up to 50 per cent of the incomes taxed,” says Odhiambo. “When tourism is vibrant everyone, even the shopkeepers, are happy because there is money circulating,” Odhiambo says.
But there is hope that the industry will rise again in the near future with some investors expanding their facilities. In the South Coast for instance, Hillpark Tiwi Resorts will invest in modern and luxurious villas valued at Sh120 million at the resort located in Tiwi, its General Manager George Swanya, says.
‘’However challenging the situation is, we will bounce back. We have confidence in destination Kenya coming back hence our massive investments,” said Swanya.
Kenya’s unmatched tourist attractions have repositioned the country as a leading popular long haul destination, the Neptune Group of Hotels Regional Director of Operations in East Africa, Mr Vicram Korla, believes.
‘’With the government’s full support for the industry recovery plans, we remain confident that we shall reap from benefits of a resilient industry and overcome the challenges we currently face,’’ said Korla.
The hoteliers believe rebranding is key and say the government should release Sh200 million to Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) for that effort.