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The unspoken scourge of racism in Kenyan tourist hotels

COUNTIES
By David Ochami | November 8th 2016
Tourists who are on holiday relax at the Swahili Beach Hotel along the South Coast beach hotels after the hotel was classified as a five star category jointly with the Leopard Beach Resort by the Tourism Regulatory Authority last week, August 14, 2016. Another hotel in Watamu, Medina Palms Suites and Villas was also classified in the same category. Most of the five star beach hotels were dropped to the four star category. [PHOTO BY GIDEON MAUNDU/STANDARD].

Reports last month that the Kenya Ferry Services (KFS) and hotels on the South Coast had negotiated preferential treatment for foreign tourists so they wouldn’t face stringent security checks sparked fury across the country.

Promoters of the hotel sector went to great lengths to stifle and discredit these reports and in no time, the stories had disappeared from the internet, perhaps an indication that the revelations had caused discomfort for industry players.

Officials from both ends tried to justify the policy with the reasoning that foreign tourists had complained about delays on the ferry caused by lengthy searches but did not explain why domestic tourists did not qualify for the same treatment.

Human rights groups consider this a lingering example of endemic racism within the hospitality sector; a range of direct and indirect practices that seek to favour white foreigners and white Kenyans, although, ironically, the implementers of these policies are black and African who apparently saw no problem with this discrimination

Yet there are other claims of discrimination besides the hushed matter of sex tourism, which is ingrained within the tourism industry at the Kenyan coast.

Reports of inflated rates, mistreatment or sheer discrimination targeting local/black tourists and visitors in the country’s hospitality industry have persisted over the years.

Other analysts say the guidelines stem from past efforts by the sector to stop the influx of locals who flocked to tourist sites or hotels in search of spouses or to do sex work.

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“I have been subjected to such discrimination in some places. It is worse for women because of the notion that they are in search of white or foreign boyfriends,” said Mombasa and Coast Tourist Association (MCTA) CEO Millicent Odhiambo.

She said it was true that rates for local tourists were higher rates offered to foreigners visiting hotels in Mombasa but added that this was because tour operators negotiated better rates for foreigners in advance.

Ms Odhiambo said the growing middle class was demanding sumptuous services just like foreign tourists but analysts say some hotels are yet to adjust to this reality.

Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers (KAHC) Executive Officer Sam Ikwaye blamed the discrimination against locals on poorly trained employees in the sector. He said the hoteliers conducted a study on the alleged discrimination once the Tourism Professionals Association was fully operational.

KAHC officials said racial discrimination in hotels and exclusive restaurants was chiefly because of “tip-driven waiters” and poorly-trained tourism security agents.

“It is a shame that we have tourist police officers who do not know who a tourist is. We also have some hotel employees who are driven by tips and who overlook locals to serve foreigners,” said Mr Ikwaye.

He said it was not hotel policy to discriminate against local tourists, adding that the sector was currently dependent on them owing to a drop in foreign visitor arrivals.

Cases of blatant racial discrimination have in the past been reported in three main hotels at the Coast, but reports of poor services for locals in hotels continue to rise.

Sai Rock Hotel Group General Manager Robert Kiri said the number of cases of discrimination was negligible and did not warrant blanket condemnation of the whole sector.

DOMESTIC MARKET

“It is the local market that has continued to cushion us against the effects of the drop in international arrivals due to insecurity. No hotel can afford to ignore the domestic market,” said Mr Kiri.

Other than Mombasa, cases of discrimination against locals have also been reported in Nairobi, Kwale and Kilifi where black Kenyans are not allowed to enter some hotels.

Last week, Kenyans reacted with rage on social media after it was reported that foreign tourists were exempted from stringent security checks at the Likoni channel crossing.

KFS Managing Director Bakari Gowa said hoteliers and tour operators requested preferential treatment for foreigners to speed up their movement between Mombasa mainland and South Coast.

The new directive also sparked outrage at the ferry, given that unlike local or black tourists, the white tourists are not subjected to frisking or forced to alight from their vans for inspection at the ferry.

Rights groups said although the intention was noble, the implementation had grave implications as it promoted racial favours, which goes against the Constitution and public policy in Kenya.

Ikwaye blamed poor training of tourist police officers and some employees for the alleged discrimination at the ferry. He said the planned establishment of the Tourism Professionals Association (TPA), as provided for in the Kenya Tourism Act 2011, would deal with professional misconduct and other vices facing the sector.

In June 2012, Duncan Muriuki Kaguuru, a prominent tour operator, went to court over alleged racial discrimination against Baobab Beach Resort and Spa in Kwale County.

According to court records, Mr Muriuki claimed that he and two other people were denied entry into the resort because of their race on February 7, 2012.

Trouble began when Muriuki, his driver James ole Nairuko and a business associate, Kores Solomon ole Musuni, went to pick clients from the resort.

He alleged that on arrival at Baobab, they were asked to identify themselves and indicate the purpose of their visit. He said he identified himself and his colleagues but was still denied entry.

Muriuki sued the resort, alleging their fundamental right to equal treatment and freedom from direct or indirect discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, birth and/or ethnic or social origin were violated.

On December 4, 2015, there was an uproar on social media following allegations that a manager of a beach hotel in Mombasa had called clients “ein dummer nigger (stupid nigger)”.

Local tourists in the hotel had reportedly complained about poor services from the waiters.

The now-closed African Safari Club was most notorious for claims of discrimination against local Kenyan visitors.

In August last year, Deputy President William Ruto was forced to address the issue and warned hoteliers against discriminating locals on the basis of race, colour or religion. Speaking to hoteliers at the Mombasa Cultural Festival, the DP said players in the sector should change their belief that some people were more special than others.

“One fails to understand why when someone from any part of this country, for example, visits this place (coast), he/she is told to pay Sh15,000 for a room while a white person is told to pay Sh5,000 for a similar room. That is unfair,” the DP complained.

Odhiambo of MCTA said Kenyans subjected to discrimination in hotels could contact the Tourism Regulatory Authority, adding that any hotel found culpable could even be closed down.

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