By Benard Sanga
The arrival of MV Nautica last week, the second time in a month, at the port of Mombasa after an eight-year lull in cruise ship tourism in Kenya has stakeholders upbeat.
Cruise ships sailing to Mombasa have been on a sharp decline since November 2005, when a passenger ship, MV Seabourn Spirit, operated by a Miami-based Seabourn Cruise Line, was attacked by Somali pirates as it made its way to Mombasa.
It was reported that pirates attempted to board MV Seabourn carrying American, European and Australian passengers off the Somalia coast after firing rocket-propelled grenades at the vessel.
Since then, the number of luxury passenger vessels sailing to Mombasa plummeted from 40 ships per annum to almost nil or less than two annually as it stands at the moment.
Cruise ship tourism is invaluable for coastal states that seek to promote tourism given that it involves ultra-rich and high spending visitors. The arrival of these vessels is also an endorsement of recipient nations’ state of security and well being with a multiplier effect in other investment sectors.
Unfortunately for Kenya, the spectre of sea piracy near its waters coupled with the rise of Somalia based Al-Shabaab militants almost sounded a death-knell on cruise ship visits and portrayed the country, especially its coastal areas, as an unsafe and unstable investment destination.
Unofficial statistics from tourism sector players indicate that in 2007, 40 cruise ships visited Mombasa, the number dropped to 16 in 2008 and in 2010 only two luxury vessels called on Mombasa. But MV Nautica has continued to sail to Mombasa every year inspite of the threats. In December last year it made a stopover in Mombasa as well as in December 2012 en route to Zanzibar, mainly for bunkering (replenishing fuel).
“What we are saying is that the arrival is a sign of confidence in Kenya by the cruise ship operators but we are not under any illusion that it has bounced back because the benchmark is actually 2007,” said Sam Ikweya, Executive Director Kenya Association for Hotelkeepers and Caterers (KAHC) in a recent interview with The Standard on Sunday.
He said that other than the high arrivals of passenger ships, the period (2007) also witnessed increased number of charter flights that have also gone down.
The drop in the cruise ship arrival had a spiral effect on other sectors with many ship chandlers (suppliers of foodstuff to ships) forced close shop in Mombasa for lack business and tour operators downsizing.
Globally, ship chandlers are the main beneficiaries of cruise ship tourism but in the East African ports the story is different with some firms closing shop.
Local suppliers complain they have been locked out due to failure to meet the International Ships Supplies Association (ISSA) rules.
Due to the fact that cruise liners insists on ISSA standards or ISO certification, local ship chandlers have remained spectators as the South African and Singaporean firms take over the trade.
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“The ISSA standards rules stipulates that quality and hygiene of fruits and vegetables to be supplied to the visitors should bemaintained even from the markets but the situation is different in Kongowea market,” said Roshanali Pradhan, the secretary of the Kenya Ship Chandlers Association (KSCA) in a past interview.
He said that the number of ship supplies has come down from 20 to just 6 in Kenya while in Tanzania there only 4 suppliers.
Pradhan pointed out that it was convenient for those firms to bring into the country fruits and vegetable by air and supply then to the ships due to the fact that they are treated by KRA as being on transit. Transit cargo is not charged any tax.
These also means that cruise visitors who make a stop-over at the port of Mombasa do not benefit the country with anything after Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) recently kicked out curio sellers from the port.
According to Kenya Shipping Agents Association (KSAA) on average the cost of cruise ship non-arrivals to Mombasa is Sh25.5m (US$300,000) per arrival. This means that the country has lost a staggering Sh5.9 billion since 2007 on cruise ship tourism alone.
The fall has chiefly been attributed to piracy along the Somali territorial waters. Kenya has since 2005 borne the brunt of piracy with several analyses indicating that the crime has had astronomical costs of the country’s economy.
An earlier report by Oceans Beyond Piracy indicates that the cost of piracy in Somali rose by 189 per cent between 2011 and 2012 from Sh2.5 billion ($28.6 million) to Sh7.2 billion ($82.7 million). During that period Kenya, according to estimates from shipping experts lost around $414 million per year because of piracy scourge.
Piracy activities off the coast of Somali have, however, dropped due to concerted naval efforts by the international forces and Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) operations in the war-torn neighboring Somali.
Shipping experts are however warning it is too early to celebrate on the prospect of the rebound of the cruise ship activities to Mombasa.
“Actually MV Nautica docked in Mombasa for bunkering. It is early to start lining up traditional dancers at the port because this route still remains very expensive to sail despite the drop in piracy activities,” said Andrew Mwangura, the secretary general of the Seafarers Union of Kenya (SUK).
He said that Mombasa is well positioned to enjoy a huge market share of cruise ship business due to its proximity to the wildlife sanctuaries, excellent sandy Beaches and Hotels but alot needs to be done to bring down the cost of calling.