Unease and frustration are growing among the Kenyan tourism fraternity over the intransigence shown by government to their plight, especially in the light of yet another drop in occupancies at the Kenya coast. The initial warm welcome given to the Kenyatta government, considering that President Uhuru Kenyatta once was chairman of the Kenya Tourism Board, is progressively giving way to increased frustration if not outright disillusionment by the stakeholder community over a range of what the sector thinks are actions by government inconsiderate if not outright hostile to the industry.
Singled out as key issues are the introduction of VAT on a range of tourism services, which has rocked relations of Kenyan safari operators with overseas tour companies which are unable to pass on such price increases to their clients, who are protected under European consumer protection laws when it comes to advertised rates and tariffs. Also mentioned are plans to merge the Kenya Tourism Board with other, non-tourism related departments, a recipe for disaster as some stakeholders have put it to this correspondent, and a definite own goal which will benefit other countries, in the region and the continent – Tanzania and South Africa were cited as examples – where the tourism boards are better facilitated and/ or left as standalone units with the sole task to promote their respective tourism attractions.
‘This government is losing the plot as far as tourism is concerned. The impact of VAT on the sectoral performance is already visible but they behave like an ostrich, head in the sand. Frankly, I cannot hear another speech by our Cabinet Secretary telling us all is well while it is not. It reminds me of Mwazo’s statements last year, and your tongue in cheek comments about it, that 2012 will be another record year when the writing was on the wall of a sharp downturn of fortunes for our tourism sector. It seems whatever the sector is telling government is ignored, dismissed or belittled. Occupancies at the South Coast are down by nearly half compared to last year. Christmas and New Year are not a measure how well we are doing, that measure is found in the months of September, October, November, first half of December and second half of January until Easter and the signs for those months are bad. For the South Coast a big problem remains access because of the Likoni Ferry wasting a lot of time, the cost and for being unreliable but the long overdue bypass from the Nairobi highway and the airport, where is it.
The latest news that the government wants to merge KTB with investment is just another case. Why don’t they merge all those useless tourism parastatals the last government created to streamline tourism’s public administration under one authority? All these 5 or 6 bodies have a lot of duplication in terms of administrative functions, were meant to be job creators for the past government’s coalition partners and have broadly failed to accomplish anything. There are no boards in place and as the law is apparently under review, this is the time to stop this lunacy and form a strong single tourism authority. We the private sector should have a majority on that board to make sure that private sector principles are injected in how that place operates.
Add to that the lack of seats into Mombasa, on charters and on scheduled flights from abroad, because right now only Turkish and Ethiopian are flying scheduled services from abroad, that is another issue. Airlines should be given incentives to fly to Mombasa, and alongside their passengers should get incentives too by shelving Visa fees until our sector shows signs of recovery.
KTB needs more money and with the little they have they are doing a good job, but they are limited in their activities for lack of more funding. And another issue is the sharing of functions in the ministry which oversees tourism. That was a very bad mistake as it turns out now. Tourism, Wildlife and such areas like natural resources and environment, those are compatible and make sense but whoever come up with East African Affairs and Commerce to be bedfellows with tourism, I don’t know what they thought. At least I know you will write all of that because you share my views but here in Kenya, very few are publicly standing up right now. There is an urgent need for our associations to take the fight for tourism’s survival to the government. The party is well and good over and unless there is immediate action, incorporating the input of the private sector, we are staring at a very bad year. And for me there is no consolation to say in a year ‘I told you so’ when the damage has been done. There are serious job losses coming the way of our sector at the coast and with that the goal of achieving double digit growth will go out of the window for this government. And if they fail on the economic front, besides the problems we have with security and the exploding cost of public administration, they can kiss a second term goodbye’ said and wrote a regular contributor from the Kenya coast.
Established fact though is that the sentiments are right, in light of TUI Nordic’s announcement that they will no longer operate to Kenya from next year, leaving the Scandinavian market without affordable charter seats. TUI Netherlands’ forecasts, according to details seen, are down by nearly 40 percent for Kenya and Edelweiss, the Swiss charter company and successor of BALAIR, is ending their charter series already by 24th of February 2014, way ahead of the initially given deadline, also due to lack of sufficient bookings. From the Italian market details were provided that from previously as many as 700 seats into Mombasa they are now down to only 400, a figure still under downward review should sales drop further and another source complained that there are no charters or even LCC flights from South Africa to Mombasa, while Mango now flies twice a week to Zanzibar, going up to three flights over the peak holiday season.
‘If the President’s directive to implement the Task Force on Parastatal’s recommendation to merge KTB with others goes through, he will have an open rebellion by the tourism industry at his hands. The sector feels that if KTB is reduced in its functionality to a mere department of another faceless parastatal body we know that all we were given were empty words and promises. Tourism once was the driver of the Kenyan economy but with such pruning and cutting, it will sink back and with it will go jobs, investment, foreign exchange earnings and most important, political goodwill for this government. Will they really gamble all of that away? Let them remember, once they have the business community turn against them, the bed of roses will just be a bed of thorns’ added another senior coast tourism stakeholder whose business is down by 30 percent compared to 2012.
While it is heartening for me to see how valued as an avenue to express their grievances and give the sector an outlet for their opinions this publication is, it is equally disheartening to see how the fortunes of Kenya’s coast tourism sector continue to erode. It is known that some of the previous articles written here did make it to the desks of the powers that be in Kenya and it is only hoped that – considering the general goodwill extended to promote Kenya as East Africa’s leading tourism destination – this message is heard, accepted and acted upon and not the messenger, proverbially speaking, shot to bits.