When it comes to tourism, Kenyans are seen as potential customers only when things are bad. Instead of targeting them all year round, they are called upon only during certain seasons — off peak.
When the real tourists cannot fly in, Kenyans get small windows of opportunity to chip in, and they are offered cheaper rates, which means even the services they get are below par — after all, they are being done a favour.
The other day, Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala was, once again, pleading with Kenya’s tourism industry players to offer affordable rates and services to attract domestic tourists to prop up the sector following the pandemic-induced collapse. But his comments were not taken kindly and certain Kenyans felt slighted.
Statements like that of the CS and the reactions it elicited just prove that Kenyans have never really figured out this tourism resource and do not know what to do with it. Despite years of shouting about Kenya being a great destination, exploiting this great heritage fully as other countries have done with theirs, seems to be a challenge, even with devolution.
See, of the 47 counties, there are probably two or three counties, mainly coastal, whose tourism departments have tried to do anything positive worth writing home about. For the rest, including Nairobi whose residents shout about its proximity to the national park, the less written, the better.
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Kenyans in the tourism industry are said to be hospitable, but in essence, they are only trained — advertently or by induction — to be nice to foreigners who happen to be the mainstay of Kenya’s tourism product so much so that even the facilities and pricing are tailored to suit their needs and match their fat wallets and bulging deep pockets.
Ideally, tourism in Kenya has been made an expensive luxury product. Tourists cannot be hoi polloi. Tourism is for those Europeans and Americans and Asians who have nothing better to do in their countries so they pay to come to Kenya to stare at wild animals and take photos.
The sad part is that foreigners did not make Kenya’s tourism product a luxury item. Kenya’s systems made tourism a Veblen good aimed at foreigners who did not mind paying through all their orifices.
The business folk, the tourism stakeholders and successive governments have made Kenyans believe that tourism or tourist products are not for them by charging rates way too high for a people still struggling with basic needs.
Even when it comes to making documentaries about Kenya’s touristic sites, and subsequently marketing Kenya, even to Kenyans, local moviemakers are locked out with high filming costs and unnecessary taxation. Thus, the stories that are told are of Big Cat, and not Paka Kubwa, because Kenyans are not supposed to be the target audience.
When school children visit these sites even for a day, parents have to pay through their noses, and the trips are not even treated as a fun or entertainment activities but are considered as educational trips — class is in session.
From childhood, Kenyans are priced out of anything tourism and they grow up knowing parks or holidaying spots are either for children on educational trips or foreigners running away from their cold countries to come to kill time, see animals and, oh, learn African culture.
Of course that school of thought is deniable, but tourism stakeholders including the parental authority know it is true -- that is why they offer tourism products to locals only during lean times when their prized foreign visitors cannot fly in.
This they will deny. After all, Kenya’s tourism entities, be they State agencies or not, are the masters and mistresses of denials and deflections because they own the tourism world, it is their bubble and mere mortals can never, and should never, see or point out their infractions.
While you would expect that both the locals who are disrespectfully being encouraged embrace domestic tourism and the players who are being pleaded with would learn from the current crisis and know how to manage their expectations in future, the pandemic will for a long time be used as an excuse for low tourism numbers.
When it comes to supplying the flimsiest of excuses, no one can beat Kenya’s tourism entities. “Tourism is very sensitive, and last year, Kenya’s tourism fortunes dipped because of the shortage of onions. Tourists from our biggest market, Europe and the Americas, visit just to cry over the price of onions. They do not care about wildlife…”
As they give excuses and Balala pleads for affordable rates and better services for locals, are the locals themselves ready to Tembea Kenya? Even just to cry over the price of onions? Or would they rather just laugh off tourism as a thing for foreigners and continue consuming alcoholic beverages in their backyard pubs?
- The writer is a revise editor at The Standard.