In 2014, tourism’s contribution to Kenya’s economy was worth 4.1% of the country’s total GDP, second only to agriculture, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. The country boasts world-class beach and safari destinations, but security concerns over the past few years have reduced the number of visitors.
Travelers to Coast province account for 60% of all tourists visiting Kenya. The region has benefited from a decline in Somali piracy to the north, which nearly strangled the sector five years ago.
Nevertheless, Kenya remains vulnerable to attacks. In April 2015, a brutal massacre was carried out at Garissa University College by Al-Shabaab, the al Qaeda-linked terrorist group based in neighboring Somalia.
The group was also behind the notorious assault on the high end Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi in 2013, a destination often frequented by tourists and expats. These events resulted in travel bans from many Western governments, a blow to tourist flows.
There is also the potential for unrest in Kenya as the 2017 general election approaches. In previous election cycles, fears of widespread political instability in the run up to the vote spurred a slowdown in tourism. During the previous Kenyan general election in March 2013, security fears combined with the eurozone crisis to cause a 30% drop in tourism to Coast province.
However several precautions, such as multiple voter registration drives by the country’s Independent Electoral & Boundaries Commission, have been undertaken in the hopes of preventing a repeat of 2007-2008. That year, inter-communal violence over a disputed election killed several thousand and severely damaged Kenya’s international image.
Industry bodies are also taking precautions to allay travelers’ fears. “The [Kenyan tourist] industry remains proactive on matters of visitors’ security and runs a 24-hour security monitoring operation in all the tourism circuits…Surveillance is heightened during perceived high risk periods,” says Imelda Ndomo, corporate communications officer at the Kenya Tourism Federation (KFT).
In an extra bid to reassure international visitors, a memorandum of understanding has been signed between the KTF and Kenya Utalii College, which markets itself as Africa’s “leading hospitality and tourism training institution”, to provide extra security training.
On January 12, president Uhuru Kenyatta also announced a raft of government incentives to revitalize the industry, including waiving landing fees at Mombasa and Malindi airports for charter planes and visa fees for children under 16. “The improvements in security are there for all to see. We dare not allow that momentum to be lost,” he said during a press conference in Mombasa.
These developments bode well for the sector. However analysts caution against celebrating this turn of events too soon. “[These] encouraging developments could be swiftly undermined in the event of a relatively unpredictable high-level terrorist act,” says Elliot Kratt, Africa analyst at Global Risk Insights.
In January, for instance, Al Shabaab launched a successful attack against the Kenyan army at El-Adde, in Somali’s Gedo province, that killed dozens of Kenyan soldiers. Reprisals for the Kenyan military’s involvement in the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia remain a concern.
Moreover, on January 20, following a tip-off Kenyan police killed four suspected al-Shabaab militants and injured three others in a raid on a house in south east Kenya. Police recovered firearms, explosives and maps detailing planned attacks, and described it as a victory in their war on terror. However, the three suspects escaped and remain at large.
Despite these clashes, the US and European governments lifted travel restrictions to Kenya in 2015 citing a stabilising security situation. If the momentum is maintained, 2016 could still be a bumper year for Kenyan businesses seeking to attract travellers to the country.
This article first appeared at This Is Africa and reappears here with kind permission.