A reformed tourism sector can be Kenya's best growth option

Drivers of tourist vehicles struggle to ensure their clients get close-ups of lions that have made a Kill at the Amboseli National Park. [Jayne Rose Gacheri, Standard]

Consultancy firms teach that the holy grail of business is the 80-20 Rule or Pareto Principle; this means you must find 20 per cent of the business you can focus on to give you 80 per cent of the return you want.

The idea is to use assets efficiently and create maximum value. Which sector of Kenya’s economy falls into that category? Let’s work backwards.

What is the economic outcome the government needs? More foreign exchange, tax revenue, jobs and growth. What sector of the economy could potentially deliver this most reliably, fastest and with the least amount of effort? In my view, tourism. Other sectors require more complex inputs to grow.

About one billion tourists travel annually. What slice of that pie do we get? Let’s look at 2022 international tourist figures.

Dubai received 14 million and Spain received 71 million tourists. South Africa received about 10 million in 2019, took a hit during Covid, about six million in 2022 and is expected to reach 10 million in 2024. Egypt received about 12 million.

Closer home, Rwanda received 1.1 million tourists and Tanzania 1.5 million up from 922,692 in 2021. Uganda increased its tourist numbers by 59 per cent, hitting 814,508.

Where is Kenya? In 2022 we had about 1.5 million international tourists. Level with Tanzania - both Tanzania and Rwanda are growing their sectors fast and implementing good tourism policies.

Incentive programme

Rwanda and South Africa offer tax breaks for film production under an incentive programme.

One of the major boosters of tourism to Kenya was films such as Out of Africa (1985) which doubled tourism and put Kenya on the map.

Clearly, terrorism, post-election violence and protests have hurt Kenya. However, numbers in the last decade are higher than before.

The problem is, Kenya is not hitting the heights of South Africa which has higher crime, no Mt Kenya or Kilimanjaro close by, no warm, relatively shark-free Indian Ocean and no relatively safe Nairobi.

Kenya is not competing at the level its tourist assets are capable of. It’s underperforming. There is a stop-start feel to a sector on edge looking for the next spanner in the works, paying tourism tax but not getting much return from authorities.

Yet tourism remains Kenya’s best option for quick growth.

Imagine if we could take a million tourists each off Dubai, South Africa, Egypt and Spain. What would the impact of two to four million extra tourists be on the economy?

Tourism would go from a Sh268 billion sector to a Sh600-900 billion sector. How? Obviously, political stability helps but what else?

First, Kenya should not be marketed as a country but as counties or region. People are looking for experiences. For example, the UAE markets Abu Dhabi and Dubai separately.

You simply can’t fit the coast, game reserves, mountains, forests, lakes, history, culture, sport (biking, running), and Nairobi, in one advert.

Nairobi is regularly voted one of the best places in the world to work by expats, but you would never know it.

Marketing strategy

Breaking up the marketing strategy gives depth and helps proof areas against adverse events elsewhere in the country. We don’t need huge expensive ads, we need bloggers, marketers and influencers.

Secondly, whoever thought it was a good idea to name Lamu Island, Kenya’s elite Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) heritage site, the same as Lamu County, with high terror incidents, gets nil points.

The association severely damages a key asset and there needs to be an urgent rebrand. Lamu Island deserves to be marketed in its own right, it’s the Venice of Africa - minus the sewage smell - and perhaps something can be done to address the boda bodas proliferating there.

Third, charge international students up to the university level the same as residents. Students love travelling. Make that accessible, affordable and advertise that. Fourth, give tourists the option to pay for a single pass to all KWS reserves, forests and protected areas. Private game reserves can also look at how they can consolidate entrance fees.

For example, a weekly or monthly pass that can be purchased by tourists online, a family package should be included. Why not also target African countries? Nigerians spend huge amounts in Dubai and London, so why not here?

Finally, every county needs to enhance its main tourist areas.

For example, in Diani, the main road is well maintained largely by hotels, yet one row into Ukunda and there’s no effort to make it attractive.

Visitors arriving can face unnecessary and unwelcome police attention which taints their experience and persistent beach boys significantly deter tourism.

Each county should have targets and report on what they have done to improve their regions. This is the low-hanging fruit, let’s get it.

The writer is a legal and finance expert