Kenya is a beautiful country. From a majestic coastline that draws visitors from across the world, its position along the Equator, and its people, their heritage and their skills have all combined to make the country one of the most sought-after holiday destinations.
The country’s beauty is, however, not limited to the Coast. The Great Rift Valley with its attractive features – mountains, lakes and other physical attractions – is another asset that Kenya is endowed with. Lake Victoria and other features in Nyanza, such as Kit Mikayi, are sights to behold. So is Mt Kenya and other attractions in the Central and Eastern parts of the country.
The advent of devolution and the establishment of the country’s links to the Northern Corridor has turned North Eastern Kenya from a parched land with no roads to a great place, with an airport in Isiolo linking this traditionally marginalised part of the country to the rest of the modern world.
These attractions and the visitors they draw have seen the tour and hospitality industry become one of Kenya’s major sources of foreign reserves, which go a long way towards building our economy.
Notably, the hospitality industry was on a roll before the Covid-19 pandemic struck the country in March last year. Improvement in security and stability of the country from a past plagued by terror attacks, coupled with a broadening middle-class, thanks to improved incomes, had shored up the industry’s fortunes significantly.
With the easing of some of the restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the industry is slowly bouncing back.
Among lessons we have gleaned from the time of the pandemic is the need to stop relying entirely on foreign tourists and hotel guests, and instead create packages that are attractive to local clientele. This would avert another paralysis in the sector in case – God forbid – there is another reason in future to stop the inflow of visitors from outside the country.
Hospitality is one of the industries that have been hardest hit by Covid-19. As a result of massive cancellations of flights, tours, events, hotel reservations and the resultant decline in inbound travel, hotel occupancy and average room rates have dropped sharply, causing unprecedented declines in profit margins. At Royal Minni Inn in Embu where I work, this has affected our daily sales greatly by a drop of more than 40 per cent.
This calls for hospitality industry managers to take their destiny into their own hands. Hotels managers must institute crisis management plans to embody survival strategies.
They must consider cutting overhead costs, which might include painful but necessary measures like laying off of temporary staff and negotiating salary reductions.
The reality today is that tourists are no longer coming because borders and airports have been closed, cities are on lockdowns, flight restrictions have been imposed and travel restrictions issued as a result of the pandemic. The inbound tourism market is almost non-existent. For hotels to survive, they must find ways to attract local tourists through innovative promotional packages.
For instance, Embu has beautiful travel destinations that we promote to attract more locals to the county. These include the unexplored Mwea National Park and Mwea Irrigation Scheme, the Seven Forks hydro stations that include Masinga, Kaburu, Kindaruma and Gitaru hydroelectric power-generating dams. There are also nature walks, camping sites and zip lining at the famous Camp Dunda in Njukiri forest.
An outlook survey for the industry between 2017 and 2021 released recently by audit firm PWC shows that despite the economic crisis occasioned by Covid-19, Kenya is still a favourite destination for tourists. The survey ranked the country at an impressive ninth position globally.
There is, however, a need to deepen this edge. First, as the government mulls financial stimulus packages and other strategies to revive the economy, it must not be lost on us that one of the surest areas where we can put money and expect guaranteed returns is the tours and hospitality industry.
The government is already doing well in marketing the country, and we should go beyond squabbling over whether to hire foreigners – read supermodel Naomi Campbell – or locals and let all those other names we feel can help market the country’s tourists attractions play a complementary part.
As the world heaves a sigh of relief with the emergence of vaccines for Covid-19, it is expected that the majority are looking to unwind in the coming days after months of lockdowns imposed to tame the coronavirus.
We could tap into this by not only doing vigorous marketing globally, but also ensuring that the counties and the national government play their part in creating a conducive environment for the growth of the industry.
The national government should ease some of the levies and give other incentives, while ensuring that infrastructural factors such as roads leading to hotels are in good condition.
The county governments, on their part, should, through their tourism dockets, devise strategies of highlighting the features in their areas to the rest of the country and globally. The cumulative effect of this would be hitting and surpassing the elusive targets the country has been setting in terms of number of foreign visitors every year.
With good strategies, and of course working hard to ensure our hotels and the entire hospitality industry offers world-class services, we could bounce back with a bang. It would be sad to let the many establishments that have been shut over the past one year die out. We can do something about it. The time is now.
-Ms Mwaniki is the managing director, Royal Minni Inn Hotel, Embu