The ruggedness of our tourist location used to be a competitive advantage. It attracted a particular kind of tourist: the nature-loving, intrepid, outdoors traveller clad in a multi-pocketed khaki safari suit, camping from game reserve to game reserve, ferried by vintage British-made SUVs.
This tourist was a hunter, not unlike Theodore Roosevelt or Earnest Hemmingway, only that he now carries a camera with a folding photo lens instead of a gun.
We have sold Kenya as a tourist destination for this kind of tourist for a long time. The fact that tourism tastes have evolved with the times is one that we have not contended with. And so we continue to sell a 19th century product to a 21st century tourist.
To compete globally we must update our tourist products. While we saw the change coming when we developed vision 2030 ten years ago, we did not do much to change our products.
There is a whole lot that we can learn from Dubai. A few years ago, Dubai was a desolate desert outpost with cranky air conditioners. Today it is a different world altogether. They have built world-class infrastructure, from airports to highways and seaports.
Tourists can come using different modes of transport. The iconic Dubai Marina stands out. With 4.6 million square metres of new spaces, several kilometres of public walkways and 200 restaurants, that has created thousands of employment opportunities. Several other parts of Dubai are undergoing impressive transformation that will convert them into tourism attractions.
Transformation doesn’t always require money. More than anything, it requires passionate leadership and a vision that everybody subscribes to.
Our beech tourism is lacking in creativity. No wonder it has few tourist products. The Dubai Marina is in my view a case study for our coastal counties. In Mombasa, the English Point Marina was not the works of government.
Its expansion, however, requires the governments to create the necessary space for public walkways and a wider variety of restaurants to create more inclusive tourist products. Even without considering international tourists, the annual migration of domestic tourists to Mombasa means there is a ready market for a variety of products.
The current land use policy in the coastal areas is exclusive. Yet such land should provide for riparian land that the public could utilise for a common purpose. Transformation should, therefore, begin with a new land use policy. Land speculators that hinder expansion of tourist products with a potential to create more jobs and attract more tourists should be heavily taxed.
By now we should accept that there is something fundamentally wrong with our tourism sector. We keep on celebrating year-to-year increases in the number of visitors, but no one reveals the fact that in the past we have performed better than where we stand today.
Such headlines as “visitors arriving by air and sea jumped from 752,073 in 2015 to 877,602 in 2016, representing a 16.7% increase” are deceptive when in 2011, only 1.8 million tourists visited Kenya. We should be on the upward trajectory and aim for five to 10 million visitors by investing in more tourist products and facilities.
Our biggest downfall is the love of excuses. A common excuse is that due to the political situation, we were not been able to attain our goals.
We surrender and leave it to the visitors to decide on their own safety. Yet there are countries such as Turkey with even worse political uncertainty that see the number of visitors increase every year.
Those who promote tourism in such countries never undermine their own countries by recommending that the time isn’t right to visit. In 2017, despite the political crisis, tourists kept on arriving against the recommendation of local promoters who wanted them to postpone their visits.
The future of tourism will also depend on how much investments we put into infrastructure, especially airports, to avoid dependence on the two main airports in the country.
NAIROBI CAN BE AVOIDED
Nairobi, which is always a hotbed of political activity, could be avoided if tourists could land in Nakuru or Narok to allow tourists to enjoy the tranquil Maasai Mara of the Northern tourist circuit. Similarly, Mombasa can be bypassed if Ukunda airport is expanded.
It is also necessary to conduct a comprehensive study to understand our sources of tourists, what they desire, what we need to do to improve their experience and what products they want.