How small tour companies survived Kenya’s tourism drought


How small tour companies survived Kenya's tourism drought
Tourists hiking elephant hill PHOTO/COURTESY

Kenya tourism industry has been on the decline over the past few years following terror attacks that had rocked some parts of the country in the past, resulting in travel advisories that proved detrimental to the industry.

While the travel advisories have since been lifted, it remains to be seen whether the industry will pickup from where it left off.

Before the disaster of terrorism befell the lucrative tourism industry, the number of foreign tourists visiting the country stood at 1.85 million tourists in the year 2011.

The number kept reducing since then, with 2014 witnessing 1.35 million tourists visiting the country.

The reduction in the number of visitors translated to millions of shillings in losses for industry players, leading hotels and other tourist facilities to close down shop and lay off their workers.

The economies of coastal towns also took a blow and most tour companies folded and left the industry.

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Bonfire Adventures Simon Kabo at his office in Lavington
Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Bonfire Adventures Simon Kabo at his office in Lavington

Within a few years, the once flourishing tourism industry in Kenya was on its knees, it was estimated that a few more years and it would be relegated to the pages of history.

But in the midst of all the despair and desperate efforts by the government to rebuild the industry, a small click of tours and travel companies have adamantly stood their ground and are flourishing.

We set out to understand what kept them going through the five-year tourism drought?

The answer is simply domestic tourism, said Bonfire Ventures Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Simon Kabo.

“The middle class has embraced tourism, they have helped in the growth of the industry. We have been able to come up with unique packages where we get people to go on safaris together, enabling them to mingle and get to know one another. This enhances networking among different people which many people appreciate,” he said.

The same strategy seems to have worked the magic for another local tours and travel company, Expeditions Maasai Safaris, whose business developer Lawrence Gitonga said: “We were able to survive by offering an array of products tailor-made for the local market for both corporate and Individuals to various destinations.”

Lawrence Gitonga a Business Developer at Expeditions Maasai Safaris
Lawrence Gitonga a Business Developer at Expeditions Maasai Safaris

Gitonga was also full of praise for the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) who he says has helped by aggressively marketing Kenya both locally and internationally.

“KTB through its Magical Kenya brand has made giant steps in promoting domestic tourism and getting more Kenyans to travel locally, this has been through aggressive social media campaigns, Radio and TV ads using the #TembeaKenya and #WhyIlove Kenya hash tags,” he said.

He lauded KTB for initiating the CNN campaign that sought to promote Kenya internationally as the destination of choice.

“KTB has helped to inspire the world to visit Kenya through effective marketing of Kenya’s tourism products while enriching the lives of Kenyans and visitors at the same time,” he said.

“The government’s efforts in fighting terrorism and the presence in Somalia working in conjunction with the AMISOM forces has also helped the industry as it has given international tourists confidence on the country’s security,” he states.

Tourists having fun while on safari
Tourists having fun while on safari

Despite the challenges facing the industry, tourism industry players are optimistic that the tides will soon change for the better.

“The industry has never gone back to the level it used to be because the travel advisories issued following terror attacks affected us negatively. It seems people believe in what their governments tell them, the Kenyan government should therefore market the country to counter the negative publicity,” said Kabo.

The government also seems hopeful that the sector will raise from the ashes to its former glory.

Speaking in an interview on Citizen TV, Tourism Cabinet Secretary (CS) Mr Najib Balala said that despite the hurdles facing the tourism sector, it has recorded growth this year and a rise in the number of tourists.

Tourists hiking PHOTO/COURTESY
Tourists hiking PHOTO/COURTESY

“There has been an 18 percent growth in the number of tourists arriving at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in January and February. We also need to rethink how we are going to handle the issue of security, because if you have insecurity nobody will come, including Kenyans,” he said.

Asked what could help revive the industry, Mr Balala said the country should invest heavily in domestic and regional marketing.

“We plan to give KTB Sh1.5 billion for marketing and encourage local tourism, and also to make sure that people working in the sector benefit. In terms of capacity building, we plan to introduce new courses in tour guiding and front office, and we also plan to set up a new Utalii college in Kilifi,” he said.

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Story By Magdalene Ougo
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