Tourism on Kenya's coast still subdued

Published Feb 12, 2010


Tourism on Kenya's idyllic coast is yet to pick up to 2007 levels following a double blow of post-election violence and the global crisis, a manager at a leading hotel chain said.

Kenya draws tourists attracted by its abundant wildlife and its sun-kissed beaches at the coast. Their spending is the third-biggest source of hard currency for the east African nation.

But the violence at the start of 2008 following a disputed election put off would-be visitors. Those who would have returned sooner had their wallets squeezed by the global economic downturn.

"We still have a long way to go for the simple reason that the number of charters coming to Mombasa is not what we had in 2007 before the post election violence," Mohammed Hersi, regional manager for the Sarova chain of hotels, told Reuters in an interview.

Whereas the resort city received up to 38 charters weekly in 2007, only about 25 are landing there now and some of the passengers are actually headed for the Tanzanian archipelago of Zanzibar.

And not all the tourists disembarking in Mombasa take up rooms, a good number of them are staying at private villas, in people's homes or with friends.

Hotels at the Kenyan coast have a capacity of 30 000 beds and it would take 62 charter flights to fill them, Hersi said.

"If we can get the real tourists, then hotels will start doing well," he said at the Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort and Spa, which has managed to stay afloat by tapping into conferencing tourism and domestic travellers.

"We've had a good stint with international conferencing. We are doing quite well," he told Reuters during a four-day conference bringing together coffee sector players from 10 African countries.

Coastal operators are starting to court potential markets in neighbouring landlocked Ethiopia and Uganda that now have direct flights connecting their capitals to Mombasa, Hersi said.

Kenya's plan to build a port at Lamu, north of Mombasa, and link it by road to Ethiopia will be a boon to the coast.

"Since we are starting to talk about a port in Lamu, the natural destination should be Mombasa and some of us have started working to get business from Ethiopia," he said.

"Some of us have chosen not to look at the acres of diamonds far away, we are choosing just to look around, you will be surprised how much potential the region has."

Despite tourist numbers being low, the existing infrastructure is constraining, Hersi said. Roads have not been expanded since their initial construction decades ago and are clogged during peak seasons.

Smaller airports at the coast cannot handle more flights or bigger craft.

"They need to sort out the (southern Ukunda) airstrip. Proposals have been made by the private sector, people are ready to run Ukunda airstrip but some of these decisions have taken too long," he said.

"Maybe we focus too much on (big) airports and forget smaller, feeder airstrips that if were done would change fortunes at the coast."

To get to the beaches south of the Mombasa island, most tourists have to be ferried across if they do not fly to the Ukunda airstrip.

Kenyans have been complaining that the ferries at the Likoni channel that connects Mombasa to the south coast are far too old to be in service and are just a disaster waiting to happen.

The government has said newer ferries will soon be at Likoni but Kenyans are sceptical about the seriousness of their leadership to take matters seriously.

"We need to see some sense of urgency (by government). The private sector has done its part. We pay our taxes, it is only fair that they do their bit," Hersi said. - Reuters

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