The Kenya Tourism Board, ahead of the much-anticipated Magical Kenya Travel Expo 2013, has decided to tackle global perception about the destination head-on by sending Hosted Buyers across the country to experience Kenya’s star attractions and see for themselves that the destination is fundamentally safe to travel to and for tourists to visit. The buyers who come to attend Kenya’s premier international tourism showcase on home soil, held from October 18-20 at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, has attracted over 150 high-powered individuals responsible for making decisions on which destinations will feature in their vacation programs for the forthcoming seasons, forming basically a panel of “judges” on the future of Kenya’s tourism industry.
Kenya has seen arrivals in the first half of this year decline below last year’s figures by double digits, a trend which the industry says needs reversing, though the opinions are divided on how best to accomplish this turnaround.
Hosting buyers and international media is of course an excellent start to bring the spotlight back to the destination, and a positive spotlight for that matter, as key decision makers gain their own experience on site rather than by googling the destination. Travel writers worth their salt of course also have the ability to attract the attention of their readers to a particular destination and create those images in their minds, vibrant and colorful and enticing, to have them just want to come to a place like Kenya. A unique destination, offering sundrenched beaches along the Indian Ocean shores to the shores of Lake Victoria and the UNESCO World Heritage Site Rift Valley lakes in between, dozens of national parks, game reserves and private conservancies giving the Big Five experience a new dimension and of course Mt. Kenya right in the middle of the country, where the snows fall right on the equator.
Therefore, KTB’s efforts are commendable and targeting the right groups, hoping for returns on this significant investment they are injecting into the generic marketing of the destination.
At home though challenges have arisen too which need urgent attention, and strangely the position is maintained in much of the mainstream media as if the last few weeks would not have had a very significant impact on hotel, resort and lodge occupancies. To the contrary I should say after only a day in Nairobi, as all my calls to contacts in the Kenyan hospitality industry confirmed one thing – a downward trend.
Equally strangely it seems also that industry leaders have not yet come out in force, standing united, and telling government from an open platform what needs to be done on the home front to reverse this negative trend.
When discussing the issue with several key stakeholders yesterday, they all agreed with me that an immediate five point plan may be the start to inject new growth into the vital tourism industry, which for decades has been in the top three of Kenya’s economy in terms of foreign exchange earnings and job creation.
For one, the ridiculous VAT impositions must be reversed immediately. They have added a huge extra cost burden on packages at a time when – just compare Egypt here where resort prices were dropped by over 50 percent from regular contract levels to stay in business – special offers are needed and not higher prices. Tourism, which the same government professes to be an invisible export, must be treated like any other export, made free of VAT, full stop. This the government can fix with ease, and if they do not it will be a harsh lesson when the wake up to reality in coming months.
Secondly, investment incentives, including the availability of affordable low cost loans, is needed to allow in particular the coastal resorts to finally invest in modernization and refurbishments across the board. Some resorts have excelled in doing this persistently, like the Serena, the Whitesands, the Leopard Beach, Hemingways to name but a few, but most still are stuck in the time warp of 20 years ago, same old menus and same old entertainment. Here is a chance for Kenya to in one fell swoop ‘reform’ the sector and raise quality and ratings to the levels of competing destinations like Zanzibar.
Moving on to the next point, the airlines need to be engaged to come on board with joint promotions but also to find a welcome reception when it comes to traffic rights. I am a friend of Kenya Airways, no doubt there, but at times the objectives of one have to take into account the objectives of many. Offer airlines that key access to Mombasa, including where asked for fifth freedom rights, because that is one thing the coast this year lacks, enough seats to bring enough clients to fill those empty beds. Qatar Airways is just one case in point and the ball is firmly in this government’s court now.
Fourth point would be to make a very public and very visible statement vis-a-vis the darned visa fees – I wrote about that yesterday from my own experience where the attitude of the immigration officer was basically telling me – and hopefully she was the one and only rotten apple in that lot at JKIA – to either pay up or get lost. Half the fees like done in 2008, or scrap them altogether. Some might say the 25 or 50 US Dollars are hardly making a dent into the holiday budget of travelers coming to Kenya, but there is a psychological value in such a move when Kenya tells the world, “Hey we are open for business and until whatever date, you can actually come in for free…”
Lastly and perhaps one of the key issues, this government must write a check big enough to take KTB’s fight to the global market places, beyond the home soil like this week at the Magical Kenya Expo, beyond the traditional trade fairs like WTM and ITB. Give KTB the funds to go global, blitz the new and emerging markets hand in hand with those airlines flying there, first and foremost our own flag carrier Kenya Airways of course, and give KTB the ability to allow the private sector to back pack on such activities at a largely subsidized cost. Airlines should be more than happy to extend AD 75 tickets, not as recently seen a frugal 10 percent and expecting a big hug and thank you for THAT, because they will fill their seats to Kenya.
There sure will be other measures one can take, but knowing the attention span of politicians, outside election campaigns that is, a five point plan for now must do. I hope that leading stakeholders will stand up this week and tell their Minister and their President what must be done, as the time for asking nicely seems to have run out. Time to act, time to do it now or carry the burden of induced failure when the sector missed forecasts and targets by a large margin, impacting on foreign exchange earnings and the job market.