Step up security and comfort in our airports to lure more tourists

JKIA's Terminal 1-A, July 2014. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

In 2019, before Covid-19 rocked global tourism, twelve European countries were among topmost visited countries in the world. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, 89.4 million tourists visited France in 2019.

In second position was Spain with 82.7 million visitors. USA came in third with 79.6 million visitors. Meanwhile, 2.05 million tourists visited Kenya in 2019.

Although Kenya has consistently ranked among Africa’s tourism powerhouses, it falls far below the global tourism superpowers like France, Spain and USA. Since we are blessed with world-class beaches, unique wildlife and tremendous weather, we definitely have what it takes to quadruple our tourist arrivals.

But for this to happen, we must first of all improve our airports because they give tourists their first impression of a country.

Thankfully, we are on the right track. Last month, the Airports Council International (ACI), awarded the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi and the Moi International Airport (MIA) in Mombasa for their sterling customer service. Our two largest airports won the 2021 Best Airport by Size and Region in their respective Africa categories of 5 – 15 million passengers per year and Under 2 million passengers per year respectively. Both airports were winning this award for the second year in a row.

There is however a lot of room for improvement, particularly at the JKIA. Anecdotal evidence shared on social media and travel sites like TripAdvisor suggests that travellers fall prey to rogue airport personnel who extort money from them.

In the same vein, passengers continue to suffer losses in the hands of a known cartel of rogue porters who ostensibly offer underhand services to exist at the airport. Is it not possible to manage and formalise the existence of porters at the airport?

Kenya recently hosted the 67th Airports Council International conference for Africa. Speaking at the event in Mombasa, Transport CS James Macharia noted that, “Airports must know that airlines are the biggest clients they have and through airlines, they have sectors like tourism.”

I could add to this that tourists are the largest stakeholders in this equation. They are the ones who board planes and visit countries. As such, airports must grant tourists secure, comfortable treatment during their arrival and departure.

One of these comfortable experiences extends to taxis that ferry tourists from our airports. Gone are the days when taxi operators used to chaotically jostle for tourists. Regrettably, Kenya’s airport authorities continue to admit a syndicate of unlicensed taxi operators in whose hands passengers continue to distressingly suffer. If we sincerely love our country, is it too difficult to organise and license traditional and non-traditional taxi operators?

All airline passengers who arrive in Kenya pay a departure tax, which is tax paid in order to use an airport.

In the final nine months of 2021, Kenya’s Tourism Promotion Fund (TPF) earned Sh2.9 billion from local and international passengers’ departure tax. Since TPF exists for the sole purpose of tourism development, promotion and branding, it should collaborate with Kenya Airports Authority to fund measures that ensure a stress-free experience for all tourists landing at our airports.

Even as we improve tourist experiences at JKIA, we must invest heavily in expanding air transport infrastructure across the country. Indeed, Kenya must take lead in upgrading domestic intra-country airport infrastructure to enhance international and domestic tourism.

One such airport ripe for urgent and major expansion is the Malindi Airport. I recently met with Italian billionaire Flavio Briatore who has business interests in that coastal town. He reiterated that direct flights from Italy to Malindi will go a long way in boosting tourism here.

Indeed, our two largest airports and the smaller ones like Malindi, together with airstrips and airdromes are the gateway into and within our country. We must ensure all travelers who enter through this gateway will have every reason to return. That way, we will begin to follow in the footsteps of tourism superpowers like France, Spain and USA. Think green, act green!