After violence, Kenya tourism struggles

Postelection clashes have scared off visitors, crippling an industry vital to East Africa's strongest economy.

Rob Crilly
Slow times: Jack sells wood carvings, arranges safaris, and provides companionship for female tourists in the coastal Kenyan town of Watamu.

Hotels are empty up and down the Kenyan coast after ethnic clashes killed more than 1,500 people and forced more than 600,000 to flee their homes in the wake of the disputed Dec. 27 presidential election.

Inland, the elephants, lions, and giraffes have the country's game reserves to themselves as safari companies divert to neighboring Tanzania.

After years of boom, East Africa's dominant economy seems headed for a fall. Tea companies are struggling to get bushes harvested and farm workers are stranded far from their fields.

Professor Terry Ryan, adviser to Kenya's Central Bank, estimates a growth rate of 2 percent to 4.5 percent in the near future, after five years of expansion at nearly 7 percent.

"Every day that we delay the restoration of normality we are moving toward the lower figure," he says.

Last week, opposition leader Raila Odinga agreed to a power-sharing deal with President Mwai Kibaki which will see Mr. Odinga installed in the new position of prime minister.

But former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, who brokered the deal, has warned it will take much longer to solve the deep-seated ethnic rifts exposed by the flawed election.

And for now the economy is tanking, sending ripples through the region.

Fuel prices have already risen throughout East Africa as the port of Mombasa deals with a logjam, and roads through western Kenya – the scene of some of the worst tribal clashes – remain dangerous.

"[Tourism] earnings had gone up massively in the past few years," says economic commentator Robert Shaw. "The place was full and we were getting into the next phase of expansion, with more hotels, more beds, and then it's hit by a wave of cancellations."

Tourism is the biggest earner of foreign currency and was forecast to pull in $1 billion this year, but the Kenya Tourist Board believes that figure could now be halved.

Thousands of tourists have canceled trips after foreign governments advised their citizens against all but essential travel.

Hotels along the pristine white sand beach in Watamu have had to reduce rates and ask staff to take their holidays now, hoping that things will pick up later in the year.

Most are reporting occupancy rates of 20 percent when they are usually closer to 80 percent.

Garry Cullen, managing director of Hemingways Resort, says the negative impact of Kenya's recent turmoil on the tourism industry is far greater than for previous crises, such as the bombing of an Israeli hotel five years ago.

He said media images of a country racked by violence failed to show that holiday destinations had remained free from trouble.

"There's been massive collateral damage," he says. "The way this problem has been presented, if I was a person who didn't know Kenya you couldn't pay me enough to come here."

At the height of violence in early January, the Kenya Tourism Federation responded with a daily e-mail update. It advised visitors and tour operators about which parts of the country remained unaffected in an attempt to show that many tourist destinations were safe.

Jake Grieves-Cook, the federation's spokesman, says the industry is also targeting the domestic and business markets in order to keep things moving in the absence of foreign guests.

"A big chunk of our income comes in July, August, and September, so if everything continues moving in the right direction with the peace deal, and normality is restored, there is optimism that we could have some good months ahead," he says, after returning from the coast with a planeload of travel writers from South Africa brought in as part of a media blitz.

For now, the plucky visitors can have their pick of empty game parks and coral-flecked beaches.

By day, the 150 or so lounge chairs at Hemingways – overlooking the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean – are used by just a handful of hardy guests. By night the buffet of gently spiced Swahili dishes is almost deserted.

The boats used for deep-sea fishing trips, which should be chasing marlin and wahoo into waters made famous by Ernest Hemingway, float idly at anchor.

The only guests are regular visitors to Kenya who sought advice from friends in the country before traveling.

"The Foreign Office advice was not to travel here unless it was essential," says Chris Litherland, from England. "And my wife considered a holiday essential."

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