Terrorism Taking Toll on Kenya's Tourist Industry

Stefan Lovgren in Nairobi
for National Geographic News
June 17, 2003
The devastating impact that terrorism has on tourism and the economies
of developing countries became strikingly obvious to me during lunch
recently at the Carnivore Restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya.

The landmark eatery, which borders a game park, serves every barbecued meat imaginable: wildebeest, zebra, gazelle, even giraffe and crocodile. Normally it's teeming with European and American tourists.

But Kenya's tourism business has fallen on hard times after several Western countries urged their citizens not to travel here because of the risk of terrorist attacks. British Airways has suspended flights to Kenya.

As I looked around the restaurant, there was no hiding the effect of the travel warnings. The place was dead. "Business is just terrible," Martin Dunford, chairman of the Tamarind Group, which owns the Carnivore, groaned as he walked around the empty tables.

Tourism is crucial to Kenya's economy, bringing in U.S. $500 million in annual revenue, according to the Kenya Tourism Federation. Kenyan tourism officials have estimated that Kenya is now losing at least $1 million every day because of the decline in tourism.

Hardest hit are small operators who are unable to sustain continued losses. Some experts warn the slump will turn business away from ecotourism, which has done well recently in Kenya, to mass-market operators. The smaller, eco-tourism operators tend to plow more of their profits back into Kenya's economy, and some eco-friendly game lodges in the Masai Mara reserve are run as cooperatives with the local Masai community.

Kenya is hardly the only tourist destination suffering from the fear of terrorism. Estimating the financial costs that terrorism has on global tourism is difficult, but it certainly runs into the billions of dollars.

But developing countries that rely heavily on tourism no doubt suffer more than industrialized countries, which have more diversified economies. Tourism makes up 12 percent of Kenya's gross national product.

"Britain and the United States have seen their tourism figures badly affected by the natural fears of a nervous traveling public," Kenya's foreign minister, Kalonzo Musyoka, wrote in a recent open letter to the British government. "Yet the pain for those economies is sustainable. For us, it is not."

Unfortunate Victim

I lived in Kenya for five years, before returning to the United States last year. Having spent many weekends in quaint game lodges surrounded by exotic wildlife or snorkeling at pristine coral reefs off the Indian Ocean beaches, I'm convinced Kenya must be one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

Bordering shattered states like Somalia and Sudan, Kenya once had a reputation as a peaceful place. But time and again, that tranquility has been torn apart in recent years as Kenya became the unwitting target of terrorists.

First, there was the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in 1998, which killed 213 people. Of course, the September 11 attacks didn't help tourism anywhere. Then, in November last year, terrorists bombed a beach hotel near Mombasa, killing 13 people, while simultaneously launching missile attacks on a charter plane bringing tourists back to Israel.

The recent trouble, however, is not based on what has already happened, but what could happen next. In mid-May, the Kenyan government issued an unprecedented warning that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a Comoros Islander who is wanted for the 1998 embassy bombing, may have slipped into Kenya from neighboring Somalia and could be plotting another terrorist attack.

The U.S. State Department immediately warned Americans against non-essential travel to Kenya. More importantly, the British Department of Transport banned all British-registered aircraft from flying to Kenya, citing threats of shoulder-fired missile attacks on aircraft. Britain is Kenya's biggest tourism market, accounting for 20 percent of Kenya's visitors.

I was booked on the May 15 British Airways flight to Nairobi, which became the first flight to be canceled. At London's Heathrow Airport, I decided I still wanted to go, and was soon rerouted on KLM, the Dutch airline. But there were other passengers at the check-in counter who opted not to travel to Kenya.

"Unfair Ban"

Kenyan tourism officials, not surprisingly, complain that the travel warnings placed on Kenya—not only by Britain and the United States, but also many other European countries—are unfair. "We are very unhappy about the British travel advisory," said Jake Grieves-Cook, chairman of the Kenya Tourism Federation. "We are all aware of the risks of global terrorism in most countries in the world, but there is no greater risk here than in the United Kingdom. For tourists on safari in Kenya's parks, the risk of a terrorist attack must be much lower than in British cities."

Government officials maintain that action has been taken to enhance security at Kenya's international airports. A team of British anti-terrorist experts has reportedly carried out a thorough inspection of the airport and its perimeter.

The irony is that tourist operators in Kenya were becoming optimistic after enjoying increased business in 2002. A peaceful election last December, and the installation of a new government, added to the general hopefulness.

"We were rocking," Anne Loehr of the company Eco-Resorts, which caters to Americans, said of her stellar July-September quarter last year. "Now, 90 percent of my bookings are gone."

A New York couple in their 40s had just called Loehr to cancel their luxury safari to Kenya. They were planning to spend about $12,000 on their trip. "They told me they didn't see the point in worrying themselves," Loehr said.

It's hard to argue against that point. With the travel warnings in place, most travelers' insurance becomes invalid in Kenya.

In recent years, Kenya has become a popular ecotourism destination. There are around 70 game lodges that advertise themselves as "eco-friendly."

The current trouble is not only threatening to put some of the lodges out of business, but—perhaps even more crippling—it has thrown Air Kenya, the main airline servicing the game parks, into financial difficulties.

"If Air Kenya goes, it's going to kill us," said Loehr. "Ecotourism is all about remote locations. If they can no longer fly to these places, Americans will go to Tanzania instead, and Kenya will revert to the mass-market days."

Multiplier Effect

The U.S. 500 million dollars that tourism generates for Kenya each year amounts to a hefty chunk of the country's foreign exchange earnings. Around 500,000 Kenyans have jobs connected to tourism.

"If the ban continues, there's no doubt that those hotels which are geared mainly to the British market will have to start laying off staff as their cash flows will be affected by a drop in tourists from the UK," said Grives-Cook.

At the Carnivore Restaurant, all of the 330 staff have had their salaries reduced, including Dunford, the chairman. Last month, the restaurant served a mere 7,000 meals, far below the projected 12,000.

There is also a multiplier effect. Many other business sectors are inextricably linked to tourism. One major international conference has already been canceled, business trips are abandoned and Kenya's horticultural export industry is being hit.

Tourism experts say it's crucial for the Kenya government to do everything in its power to bring about some good news. Having the travel bans lifted may not be enough. When a travel warning is slapped on a country, it makes news, but when it's lifted, people may not pay attention. A perception of Kenya as a dangerous country may linger for a long time to come.

"Something has to happen, fast," said Loehr. "If there's no form of announcement that Kenya is safe again, that would be an absolute disaster."

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