Lessons from a regional tourism leader
Standing inside the spacious reception area of Mara Serena Safari Lodge in Maasai Mara, Kenya’s best-known safari of wild animals, delegates had come to inspect some of Kenya’s natural magnificence ahead of Magical Kenya Travel Expo.
An hour ride on a bumpy road from its small airport with the rarest animals roaming its spacious green space, an American tourist who had ventured into the nation for the first time, half-jokingly asks a question to a staff member standing next to him whether there will be any chance to consume and try any of the wild animals.
“We do not serve wild animals here, we actually protect them and support them,” he said.
Welcome to Kenya! A nation that is passionately protecting its wild animals and using them to attract the world’s tourists to its frontier.
This week, it hosted its latest edition of the Magical Kenya Travel Expo in its capital, a major travel forum that hosts delegates from more than 50 nations inside the Kenyatta International Conference Center. The three-day event has about 150 exhibitors, as it targets tourists from across the region, as well as North America, India and China.
For Kenya – a country that has been building its base as a tourists’ hub within a region that has not yet embraced the virtue of tourism as a source of needed income – the sector has brought much to its economy, accounting 15 percent of its total exports, to the tune of USD 1.57 billion, or worth 8.8 percent to Kenya’s GDP and credited with creating 1.1 million need local jobs, competing with the likes of South Africa.
With its rapid transit trains to the coast city of Mombasa, to the shores of Diani Beach and its slew of safaris with world standard hotels and an ever growing infrastructures, the nation is now host to the 2020 World Travel and the Indian Ocean Gala Ceremonies, milestones to the nation that had a uniform like approach to it few years ago like its neighboring nations, more in particular Ethiopia and Sudan, where the latter is noted for having more pyramids than Egypt but much less tourist coming its way.
“Many people want to visit Ethiopia since many people use Ethiopia Airlines to travel the continent; however, safety remains a concern and its hospitality remains poor and the nation has not been able to market it as much as Kenya,” a United Kingdom tour operator told The Reporter.
The expo that hosted exhibition from many nations, including Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Seychelles, notably absent was Ethiopia. In fact, while the Ethiopian authorities have presented many targets to increase its tourist populations, they continue to be absent on tourism forums as its lone tourism agency continues to have a revolving door as its leadership posts.
In 2015, the country recognized its shortcomings through its study under the title of “Economic Growth and Tourism Sector in Ethiopia”, highlighting how the nation lacks “skilled manpower, poor infrastructure, lackluster marketing, weak financial system and poor government support were the key obstacles for the under-exploitation of the rich and diverse.”
At the expo, some of the leading players in the tourism industry, while recognizing the contributions of Ethiopian Airlines, the continents noted and well-utilized airline, they are dumbfounded why the nation of more than 100 million, with much history and diversity would miss out on such an opportunity, something that has helped change the narrative of Kenya.
“I have been to Ethiopia many times, the visa line is way too long, the staff can be rude at immigration added to the fact they lack the language to communicate properly,” Jospeh Wabala, a tour operator said. “The nation is too bureaucratic in an era of digitalization and unless that changes, many would rather venture to other nations and that is unfortunate because Ethiopia has much potential,” he added.
Kenya’s Government Secretary of Tourism and Wildlife, Najib Balala, hopes things will change and improve for the region when it comes to tourism.
“We recognize we have much to do in promoting the region,” he said. “For us, when any of the African nations benefit from tourism, we all benefit. In Kenya, we still want to triple the tourists we want to bring here. We hope we would team up with Ethiopian Airlines, Kenyan Airways and South African Airways to do that. We have much work to do and if we cooperate, we can accomplish many of our goals,” he said.
The Minister also highlighted the expensive fare charged to travel within Africa, putting much burden to many potential tourists and choosing to go to such places as Dubai instead, which remains much more affordable.
“Listen, sometimes to travel from Europe to Morocco is as low as 50 USD, and why does it cost us hundreds of dollars to travel to a neighboring nation,” he asked. “We need to do better and do it now.”
This year, Abiy Ahmed (PhD) was awarded the 2019 World Tourism Award, in the category of “Leader in Tourism”, for his efforts to “improve and advance the tourism industry in Ethiopia” from the World Tourism Forum, a controversial organization based in Istanbul, Turkey that is known to give our similar awards to African leaders with little tangible success on the tourism file. Among the achievement highlighted was his environmental efforts that have won are international recognition and a plan to build one of the largest parks in the continent in the capital.
This comes as the nation is giving little attention to some of its historical destinations, including Lalibela that is set to be refurbished courtesy of France and Axum, with the support of Italy while investing little from local sources.
However, for Kenya, it is investing its own resources where there is much potential return.
“Kenya is a regional business hub and growing in conferencing, infrastructural development and ease of doing business is attractive to investors,” Secretary Najib reflected. “Domestic tourism is key market and a cushion to the sector when there is a slump from international arrivals.”
Fast becoming an environmentally conscious nation with the banning of plastic uses and where conservation is in the blood of the nation, it is leaving a legacy for future generations to admire some of its wonders.
“Stopping poaching in Kenya has been our global campaign with collaboration with the private sector players, Kenya wildlife service as well as the local communities. Wildlife is our heritage and there is need to guard it,” he continued.