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Kenya’s tourism – Still an unpolished diamond

Wolfgang Fengler's picture

When I first came to Kenya, in August 1990, I was a backpacker on a shoestring budget. At midcourse between Cape-town and Cairo, I got accommodation at the New Kenya Lodge in River Road for US$ 2.50. After spending two nights there, I continued to Garissa and Liboi, heading to Somalia.

In 1994, I returned with my wife, and in downtown Nairobi, urban chaos and poverty struck her so much, that she was reluctant to come back 15 years later, when I was offered a job.

Today, I enjoy the full beauty of Kenya with my family, and we all agree—my wife included!—that this is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. If you created an index of "natural beauty per square-kilometer" Kenya would probably come up on top of the list. Starting from Nairobi, within a few hours of driving, you enjoy the most amazing nature: the Masai Mara, Mt Kilimanjaro, Mt Kenya, and Lake Victoria, are all within reach. Nairobi is surprisingly pleasant, with one of the best climates in the world: it is one of the few cities where you neither need air-conditioning nor heating—all year long (well, it will soon get “cold” in July but the fireplace will help).

But Kenya’s beauty is not matched by its position in the world of tourism. This should really be one of the top tourist destinations in the World. Instead, Kenya is losing ground to many of its peers. As in many other fields (not least football), Kenya keeps punching below its weight. Over the last 15 years, Kenya’s tourism appears to have stagnated cozily in its comfort zone, while other countries have been taking off. In 2007, Kenya attracted some 1.5 million tourists, but arrivals dropped sharply in 2008, following the post-election violence, and it took three years for the country to recover. By contrast, Thailand and Egypt are attracting respectively 16 and 14 million visitors. Despite floods and political upheavals, these numbers have been growing steadily. Even Singapore, a city with no mountains or animals (outside of Singapore zoo) attracts more than 9 million visitors each year. Munich, which is my home-town, attracts almost 7 million visitors during the two weeks of the Beer Festival. If we can attract millions of tourists with beer and party alone, Kenya should easily meet this target.

Figure - How Egypt and Thailand have been outperforming Kenya

Source: World Bank calculations based on World Travel and Tourism Council

Arrivals are not the only meaningful metric. Some visitors come for short trips, others stay longer; some spend a large amount of money, others stick to a tight budget. But the raw numbers still matter, because each of Kenya’s 1.5 million visitors go back home with stories to tell, which are ultimately shaping the “Brand Kenya”.

Tourism is critical for Kenya’s economy. Together with tea and horticulture, it earns the lion’s share of the foreign exchange. Without tourism, Kenya’s current account deficit would widen further and exceed 15 percent of GDP. And when these visitors exchange their dollars, yens or euros for shillings, the national currency gets a boost. More importantly, tourism is a labor-intensive activity: think of all the jobs created (about 100,000 by some estimates), for park rangers, to airline crews, and hotel employees, who directly rely on it.

But Kenya has much more potential than it currently exploits. This country has an amazing portfolio of attractions to offer: safaris, beaches, and mountains; and something to offer for each “price segment” of the market, from backpackers to business travelers. Airline connections are also good and getting better. Kenya is also benefitting from the economic good fortunes of Asia and Africa. A growing middle-class in emerging economies is increasingly travelling around the world, and ready to enjoy Kenya‘s many attractions. The recent arrival of Korean tourists on direct flights from Seoul is a reminder that there is massive untapped potential in the country.

So what could Kenya do to “polish its diamonds” and unleash its full potential in tourism? Some factors are clearly beyond the government’s control, such as the Euro crisis and, to a large extent, the developments in Somalia. But much can be done.

First, Kenya needs to offer the right package for safaris, beaches, mountains, as well as MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions, exhibitions). Some countries have made the mistake of putting all their eggs into the same basket, for instance by shooting exclusively at the high-end of the market. Having started as a backpacker myself, I am not convinced that Kenya should only court the so called “premium tourists”. Research actually shows that backpackers spend a much larger share of their money on the local economy. If they have a good experience, they will tell their (wealthier) friends and families and, as I did, they may probably come back again.

Second, there is still a long way to go before Kenya’s facilities can reach the same standards as Egypt and Thailand (despite the remarkable high-end camps that are already on offer). Land policies appear to be a particular challenge. Walking along Diani beach, you see so many run-down buildings, inhabited not by wealthy visitors, but by rats and birds. This puts a lot of people off, and also discourages investment, as hotels are being replaced by high rise flats. Better governance helps. The recent introduction of e-ticketing at Masai Mara generates much higher revenues which could be rechanneled into upgrading the infrastructure. 

Third, transport remains a challenge even though it has been improving. Nairobi’s international airport is one of the best in the continent, but it is still a long way from being world class. True, you can fly easily to most destinations, but going by road is still a nightmare. My family and I have on many occasions travelled to the Masai Mara, which is truly one of the world’s greatest wonders. But as I load the car before we leave Nairobi, I always think to myself, “How strange.  In order to get to paradise, you first have to travel through one of the worst roads in the country!”

*Many thanks to Hannah Messerli for valuable advice.


Submitted by c.k.joshua on
sports tourism can also be packaged along the safaris,beaches, mountains, MICE , tea tours, and many others. Kenya is a host of world class athletes particularly long distance runners , figures indicates that over 90% of world marathoners are Kenyans. I do concur mostly with your observation and thank you for bringing up this wonderful discussion has we approach our leadership election.

Submitted by Wolfgang on
Dear Joshua, Thank you very much. I will clearly be among those crossing my fingers for Kenya's runners at this year's Olympics. Wolfgang

Submitted by Shaun Mann on
Good blog Wolfgang. Thanks. I'm a HUGE fan of Kenya too. It's testament to the quality of the tourism raw materials in Kenya that despite the poor infrastructure, repeated safety and secuity incidents, and generally poor investment climate and sector-related governance, there is so much amazing and innovative tourism product on offer. Over the years, and I've been going to Kenya for nearly 50 of them, I've come across so many committed (to tourism and conservation) individuals who have expressed so much frustration at the lack of collective vision and action from the government. The symptom of this is the fragmentation that you point out in your blog. Most operators in the sector do their own thing and get on with it, despite the challenges they carve out their niche and make it work. Imagine if there was a common vision from the government that was supported by a solid and transparent legal and regulatory framework that safeguarded social and environmental issues while giving the private sector the space to invest and operate - you'd get the kind of results that Thailand, Egypt and South Africa have. The disconnect betwen the government and the private sector (and by the way, they are lot closer in terms of working together, than they were 10 years ago) is huge. There is no trust and little meaningful committment to work together toward a common vision. Ultimately the buck stops with the government. They make decisions about public investments in public goods such as roads and energy and water. They have the capacity make policy and provide a legal and regulatory environment that influences private sector behavior. The government has to create a stable platform that everyone can build from. As a Kenyan by birth, with also many relatives and friends working in the sector in Kenya, it's very sad for me to watch an economic opportunity like tourism slowly eroding and fragmenting even further.

Submitted by Wolfgang on
Thanks Shaun, You really know the sector well! I hope you can help your country advance in the direction you outline. From my perspective there are at least two positive aspects: (i) Kenya has maintained a lot of its beauty and manages the national parks relatively well; (ii) Since 2008, tourist numbers have been rising. There is still so much more that could be done, as you highlight, but the fundamentals exist. Wolfgang

Submitted by Nachiket Mor on
Dear Mr. Fengler, I really enjoyed reading this post both because as somebody that longs to visit Kenya (as a tourist) I feel the pull of her beauty and because I feel the same way about India and her tourism potential as well. A group that am associated with has tried to focus on the "backpacker" market (both local and international) by starting up a rural tourism / bed-and-breakfast / low-end-hotels effort ( which offers up both accreditation as well as reservation services. In several parts of India this has met with a good response though a full realisation of its potential will only be gradual as both the tourist and the "supplier" starts to become familiar with this notion. I wonder if you think something like this will be useful for Kenya. The platform is a generic one and I am sure the RTNE team would be happy to share their technology and process understanding with people that are interested in this in Kenya. Sincerely, Nachiket Mor

Submitted by Wolfgang on
Dear Nachiket, Thank you very much. The initiative you are part of sound very promising. As mentioned in the blog I think that a smart tourism strategy for Kenya can combine the low end and the high end. If you need an expert opinion on your suggestions please contact my colleague Hannah Messerli. Good luck with your endeavors Wolfgang

Submitted by MARY on
i really enjoyed yuor writing. i my self am a kenyan astudent in tourism diploma/ sure i agree with you kenya is abeatiful counry nd have alot to offer .but the problem is with our government .can u believe tourism being the first in economy boostin in recent budget reading .tourism industry never got much. this beig a leadng economy the government should think of it in bigger percepectives. they shuld not see it just like of way of traveling and having fun they shuld know better .

Submitted by Babra on
Leadership is key in terms of providing the enabling environment for tourism; other necessary ingredients Kenya has in abundance: natural beauty and human capital. The gradual and relative erosion of tourism is evident not only when compared to other markets, but also if one looks at the loss of drivers like the film industry, which long ago gave up Kenya as a favoured location, and the loss of the Safari Rally from the WRC calendar. The latter occuring in 2002 despite Kenya's peaceful transition into the post Moi era - there is a clear link in this loss and leadership. Despite this Kenya hangs on to just enough tourism and a Brand to help balance the books. Meanwhile many Kenyan leaders are more interested in expanding parliament than their consituencies economic opportunities. Ultimately if the center continues to fail then the provinces will wrest more control of the tourism assets of the country. We have seen this tension clearly play out in the Masai Mara Game Reserve's various incarnations in the past 10 plus years. Althouh partly due to density, which the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) does a decent job of trying to control given the circumstances, the bulk of high end safari camps sit outside the national parks. It would be interesting to know whether the per capita benefit to communities is greater on group ranches/private land versus the benefit communities bordering national parks receive (indirectly) via revenues generated through the KWS. Kenya gets away with little growth because it is culturally, historically and geographically unique compared to other destinations in Africa - ironically, the fact that it knows this, is it's achilles heel. It must not take things for granted and leaders must allow Kenya's able entrepreneurs to drive growth and diversification in the sector. There are yet many corners of Kenya tourists, other than hardy overlanders like Wolfgang was, never make it to - this is due to infrastructure and security.

Submitted by Joy on

Nice travel information shared, but one more important fact about Tanzania Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru is that Meru is highest peak some years ago, but due to eroding its peak downs and now the Kilimanjaro is the Highest in Africa.
So enjoy Traveling as such blogs are really Informative for new travelers.

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