Counties guilty of stifling domestic tourism

Passengers disembark from a fly 540 plane during the relaunch of domestic flights operation at Moi International Airport. [Omondi Onyango,Standard]

While on a recent visit to Kirinyaga, I was taken aback by how the county embodies the allure of enchanting landscapes, adorable people and unique natural spots.

From Gichugu, Kagia to Kerugoya all the way to border with Embu, you struggle to believe how the 'rising Kirinyaga' is endowed. The county's agricultural and tourism potential is uncontestable, to say the least.

Near Kutus, the county headquarters, you encounter the 'River of God', a site where water flows underneath a natural bridge. The bridge has no man-made pillars but is architecturally sound. Visitors cool off in the waters and enjoy touching the glittering rock on the ceiling.

Kirinyaga, also home to Thiba Dam, is not alone in having such wonders of the world. Many counties have notable attractions lying idle or unnoticed due to failure by authorities to appreciate potential that lies therein for rural tourism.

Few counties market their tourism attractions as it should be. In fact, many spots are in utter ruins. If it were elsewhere like in Rwanda or Morocco, such attractions would be marketed aggressively even on international television channels like CNN, and people, including locals, would pay top dollar to visit.

Kit Mikaye in Kisumu, Maragoli Hills and Mungoma Cave in Vihiga, Kakamega's weeping stone, Simbi Nyaima in Homa Bay, Thim Lich Ohinga in Migori and Hell's Kitchen in Kwale are examples of prime sites that call for a rethink of how rural tourism can be nurtured.

They are low on attention but big on potential. Forests, statues, monuments, mountains and valleys that make great viewing have equally been ignored in the scheme of things. Gazetting the sites and declaring them protected areas is not enough! Deliberate efforts must be made to not just dedicate resources to conserving them but also to shout about them in the media, billboards, online and everywhere that matters. This year, we can make these little treasures become areas of high tourism achievement. Let's all begin to rediscover our country.

Besides aggressive marketing, counties have a chance to improve accessibility to these little known historical sites by sprucing up access roads, hiring guides and ensuring sustained resource quality so that we derive economic, environmental and social benefits.

Prior to Covid-19, Kenya's tourism sector - domestic and foreign - contributed nearly 10 per cent of the country's GDP. We can expand these gains by rallying counties to draft 21st century tourism sector strategies that will ensure these enthralling sites aren't side-stepped in marketing campaigns. Showcasing Brand Kenya must entice local travel-enthusiasts to visit attractions starting with their own backyards.

Granted, these are the avenues counties can use to positively impact livelihoods. While growth indicators like infrastructure, trade, production and investments are shaping up quite well in some devolved units, the quality of life for the rural majority in others is still by far pitiable.

Kenyans agree that devolution has improved lives since 2013. Northern Kenya counties will agree more. But it is also true that some, if not most counties, have wasted the chance to improve Wanjiku's life out of the billions they get from the exchequer annually. They have miserably failed to harness local resources across sectors to grow own wealth and spread the benefits to the taxpayer.

Incompetence by some governors and county officials has led to an inclination by the national government to want to 'take back' some devolved functions. A conversation on future of underperforming counties would suffice now.

Devolution should not tumble along the way just because of failure or unwillingness by counties to creatively work towards wealth creation. This year, the county government should take the lead in revitalising key sectors of the economy. Ugly turf wars, duplicity of roles and endemic graft should not jolt promising sectors like tourism.

The writer is an editor at The Standard. Twitter: @markoloo