Kenya's tourism industry has always been a massive earner, but in recent years it seemingly cannot catch a break. With issues ranging from bureaucracy to poaching, the industry's stake holders are having to get creative, but happily the innovations look to leave us better than where we started. By Everlyne Mosongo
lions on a tree

Baboons stare from behind the tall grass as the truck passes by. With piqued interest they chase after it but still manage to stay in the shadows, though after a few paces they give up and go back grazing. A herd of elephant, in no hurry at all, saunters in the same direction, but as the truck reaches a wide open space where giraffes are nibbling at leaves from scenic acacia trees, the long-limbed animals, spooked by the vehicle’s roaring engine, scatter. “I’ve taken up safari work and I gotta find a camp,” Denys Finch-Hatton had told Karen Blixen – played by the talented combination of Robert Redford and Meryl Streep – in Out of Africa before they set out for this adventure into the heart of Kenya. Hatton had assured Blixen that there’s country out there she ought to see. And, true to his word, he took her on a journey, both in that particular scene and throughout the movie, that showcased Kenya’s unique natural beauty – they flew over forests so dense that one could barely see the ground, they walked with elephants and among zebra and impala and, of course, Finch-Hatton washed Karen’s hair next to a picturesque river.

Catapulted to international fame with the success of the 1985 film, Kenya’s white, sandy beaches, lush forests, stunning wildlife and diverse cultures have attracted millions of tourists annually. Consistently one of the strongest in Africa, our tourism industry has been a billion dollar business, but as the country – and the world – moves further into the 21st century, there’s no doubt that there are some hurdles to overcome.

The Industry Today

Kenya’s tourism industry has grown exponentially over the years. Today, it’s the second largest source of foreign exchange revenue in Kenya, following only agriculture. With the decline of world market prices for products like coffee and tea after 1963, the country turned to tourism as an alternative that represented an avenue for diversification of the economy. Tourism created not only employment, but also a way to attract foreign investors. It provides communities with an opportunity to display their region’s unique natural and cultural resources. It is also giving entrepreneurs an opportunity to grow and expand businesses which would have otherwise not been sustainable. Local communities are leading better lives as there’s improvement, both in infrastructure and in social necessities like schools, libraries and health care centres. Culturally, the industry has provided a platform for interaction between visitors and Kenyans – ours being a country known for its hospitality. Tourism has ensured that Kenyans not only preserve the environment, but their culture and heritage too.

The industry has, for the most part, been driven by two things – the bush and beach. The infamous Migration, where more than 1.5 million wildebeest move in unison from the plains of the Serengeti to the champagne coloured hills of Kenya’s Masai Mara is a phenomena and breathtaking experience in equal measure, but our parks offer up spectacular game drives and close wildlife encounters throughout the year. The beach, on the other hand, offers waking up to a sunrise on the Indian Ocean’s horizon or sitting by a bonfire as you watch the sun make its final bow on the reddish-orange skies while relaxing on the sandy shores of the Kenyan coast

Problems from the Top

A new system of laws was passed in 2010, which gave Kenya county and constitutional governments, and the tourism industry wasn’t left untouched. County governments have the mandate to employ tourist officers, whose work is to promote the industry – something that was previously managed by the national government. However, in a confusing turn of events the constitutional government still has its own tourist officers on the books, and there aren’t enough resources for the multiples.

police patrolling lamu

Police patrolling Lamu Town in the wake of the high profile kidnappings in late 2011.

Meanwhile, the 2011 Tourism Act, which was to change the management and structure of bodies under the industry, determined that the tourism department should set up the Tourism Regulatory Board (TRB) to issue and renew licenses. While the department has stopped dealing with licenses, the TRB is yet to be established, meaning that Kenya’s venues have been floating in limbo for two years. For the foreseeable future, Kenyan hotels will have to continue using provided letters to demonstrate that they are legal and registered.

“Hotels have been complaining that they cannot access loans from their benefactors, who don’t give them to unlicensed companies. And, even though they can market their products, they can’t do so to serious companies in countries outside Kenya, as these will want to see that you are a duly registered, bonafide hotel,” says Machira* my source at the government tourism department. It seems, however, to be an issue mostly affecting small-scale or locally based brands, as Karina Davies, Fairmont’s Director of Sales and Marketing, insists that these changes have not affected Fairmont’s marketing strategies locally or internationally.

However, one problem every venue in Kenya has had to deal with is the country’s changing reputation. In the past 10 years, the industry has grown steadily. Kenya reached a milestone in 2000 when it received 1 million tourists, and by 2005 that number had grown to 1.62 million. However, a series of unfortunate developments – and the international headlines that came with them – disrupted the upward trend. First came the 2007/2008 Post Election

Violence that rocked Kenya, after which the tourism numbers plunged to less than 1 million in 2009. The sector bounced back in 2010, with a record 15 percent growth, before tragedy struck again. The death of British tourist David Tebutt and the kidnapping of his wife, Judith, in Lamu in 2011 led to the issuance of travel advisories for Kenya. Then another kidnapping – this time of French resident Marie Dedieu – and the entrance into Somalia by the Kenya Defence Forces led to grenade attacks in Kenya, which in turn led to a decline of tourism revenue – from USD 1.3 billion in 2011 to 1.1 billion in 2012.

“The pirates in the high seas have also led to withdrawal of flights and the issuance of travel advisories [from international governments], which have hurt the tourism industry,” says Phyllis Nyakiba, Market Research Manager at the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). As a result, there’s been a decrease in tourist numbers visiting the marine parks at the Coast and a decrease in revenue collected by the KWS.

However, the Westgate mall attack, which occurred from Sept. 21 to Sept. 23 last year, has perhaps done the most damage to our country’s reputation, with onlookers coming to the conclusion that the country in general is insecure, and that Kenya’s anti-terrorism measures aren’t up to snuff. Officially, it led to more travel advisories and the loss of even more tourists – while international visitors who have been here before or who even make annual trips to the country might not be swayed, it’s difficult to attract new tourists when their governments are essentially telling them not to travel to Kenya.

diani beach

Diani Beach

In the wake of this, hotels with international partners have had to step up communication, clarifying the information about Kenya that’s appearing on the internet and ensuring that it’s correct and up to date. “It is important that we work closely with all the relevant stakeholders, including [the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB)], in ensuring [that] Kenya is portrayed in the best light possible,” says Davies. This is not merely a PR measure, but an understood need to reduce media-generated hysteria while portraying an accurate and honest picture of the situation in the country.

However, perhaps the biggest issue coming from perceived insecurity is not that tourists aren’t coming this year or even next, it’s that they’re finding alternative places to go. In January, 52 percent of the guests at Emakoko – a family owned lodge that’s artfully built on the edge of Nairobi National Park – visited for a single night while ‘passing through’ to Tanzania. They were only here because they were forced to stop in Kenya, as we receive many of the international flights coming into the region. While Kenya certainly isn’t the only country grappling with security threats (consider last year’s acid attack in Zanzibar, or the tourist van that was held up at gunpoint in the Ngorongoro Crater on Jan. 27), it’s certainly been the most visible. Maggie Davis*, a guest from Washington, D.C., who had been to Kenya on previous occasions, told me that Americans are horrified by the way authorities handled the situation at Westgate. “Had they been on their game there is no doubt that it would have been contained quicker.”

Our Own Worst Enemy

While Rwanda and Uganda have the added benefit of gorilla encounters, much of East Africa’s offerings are, on the surface, comparable – if someone wants to do a bit of safari bookended with a bit of beach, they can plan that trip in Kenya or Tanzania. However different the cultures and experiences are, all but the most well-informed tourists are likely to notice only one large difference when planning their trips – the price.

Kenya opted, in 2013, to partner with Uganda and Rwanda in creating the East Africa Community (EAC) joint tourist visa. While it may seem a positive step at first glance, as tourists will pay USD $100 to be able to access all three countries, it’s questionable when you examine how many tourists really plan to visit more than one country on their trip. Tanzania, part of the original EAC, bowed out of the joint visa, perhaps because it is doing well on its own. With 1,077,058 tourists last year, our neighbour to the south attracted the most visitors in the East African region.


The Great Wildebeest Migration, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, is also one of Kenya’s biggest tourist attractions.

While Tanzania’s tourism sector increased its earnings from USD $1.3 billion in 2012 to $1.82 billion in 2013, Kenya took a hit, with the industry’s revenue dropping 7.4 percent from 2012 to USD $1.11 billion. And the increase in visa cost is only one way that we’re making ourselves visibly pricey. Kenya’s Vision 2030 holds the tourism industry as its cornerstone. The government is working to ensure that in the next 16 years, Kenya can easily pull 5 million tourists into the country – though the short-term goal is to get 3 million tourists by 2017. In the even shorter term, however, the government has taken several steps that will make achieving this figure harder than need be.

Kenya is a very popular country – the tourism industry’s rebounds throughout a difficult decade is proof enough – but even the highest-paying tourists are looking for deals. Unfortunately, in September 2013 the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) added a 16 percent VAT levy on all Kenyan game parks, another unneeded hurdle in the industry’s path that has had a rippling effect on its key players.

As Kenya imposed taxes on its parks, Tanzania lowered its fees – with the levies, visitors are now passing through Kenya to get to Tanzania, where they can enjoy similar products for less money. The levy, which has also been added to ground and air package prices, has increased the overall cost of visitors’ stays as well. At the moment Kenya’s tourism industry is a billion dollar earner, but losing an annual 7.4 percent of revenue is not sustainable, even for a five-year period.

But perhaps the worst threat of all is the potentially irrevocable damage being done to Kenya’s eco-systems. Our wildlife, once numbering in the millions, is now declining, to the point that some species, like elephants, might be completely absent from our plains in 10 years according to some estimates. In 1979, Kenya had 167,000 elephants, but due to poaching and an insatiable demand for ivory, their populations have dropped to approximately 38,000.

With a population of about 1,000, Kenya has the most rhinos in East and Central Africa. But, rhino horn is fiercely sought after, as much as ivory. A study by WildlifeDirect – an organisation that supports conservationists who are fighting against wildlife poaching – last year revealed that, in Kenya, only 4 percent of criminals convicted of wildlife crimes are imprisoned. The rest are either fined, serve suspended jail terms, do community service or go free. “This explains why Kenya is seen as a safe haven for traffickers and poachers... the penal system is very lenient,” says Dr. Paula Kahumbu, Executive Director at WildlifeDirect.

While there are those trying to help – Canada, for instance, has just committed KSH 160 million to the KWS – we are not always able to make the most of the opportunities we’re given. For example, the money from Canada is earmarked for enhancing wildlife security, running anti-poaching campaigns and equipping the DNA forensic laboratory – measures that should lead to curbing poaching in Kenya – but between poor communication within government agencies and outright corruption, there’s a very real possibility that large amounts of the money will be squandered.

In June last year, the KWS suspended 32 officers who had been suspected of secretly providing poachers with confidential information. On Jan. 17, a suspected Chinese smuggler, who’d been running his operations from Nairobi for close to eight years, was caught then extradited back to China the following day. Clearly, smuggling cartels in Kenya might be running deeper than we realise, but is it possible that the poachers are operating with the help, or at least the knowledge, of the government? “It’s believed that there are some KWS people involved, either by omission or commission, in poaching. The head of security, head of intelligence and other senior staff at KWS [were sent home but] none were charged. Most are now back at work,” says Dr. Kahumbu. Paul Mbugua, the KWS Spokesman, did not “wish to comment on the issue” but stated that, due to the cooperation between the Kenyan and Chinese government, the man arrested for smuggling was deported for a reason.

“He is wanted [in China] for more charges, and the penalties there are stiffer than what he would have gotten had he been charged in Kenya.” It is through park fees and massive grants from donors that the country still has parks and game reserves today, marking the unfortunate fact that the international world puts a higher value on Kenya’s wildlife areas than the locals do. Without international tourists, wildlife areas – and the animals – would become extinct because “while we are passionate and proud of what we have, safeguarding these areas is more than our pockets can stretch to,” asserts Anthony Childs, owner of Emakoko.

Creating Solutions

It’s not, however, all bad news. There are steps, of varying efficacy, being taken to mitigate the effects of these issues, and stakeholders in Kenya’s tourism industry are nothing if not innovative. The new Wildlife Conservation and Management Act, which was signed by President Uhuru Kenyatta in December 2013, is a step towards banning the illegal trade of wildlife products. The Bill imposes harsher penalties on poachers, financiers and traders, as anyone found in possession of ivory or other prohibited wildlife items faces a fine of KSH 1 million or imprisonment for five years. Animals living in unprotected areas are the most affected by poaching, and the KWS has embarked on an initiative to train community scouts to promote their conservation. The UK, through the British High Commission, has also joined the fight and will contribute KSH 1.4 billion to fund anti-poaching projects and target illegal wildlife trade.

“One of the things we are doing is trying to get the Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) to collaborate and support the KWS,” says Dr. Kahumbu. The KWS can only prosecute wildlife crime, but with DPP officers prosecuting on behalf of the state, poaching cases won’t be taken lightly. “That is why we are pushing the DPP to take over all cases involving elephants and rhinos,” she reveals. Westgate – a national tragedy of epic proportions – did have one positive affect, in that the government has drastically beefed up its security measures. A joint team of officers from the National Intelligence Service, the Criminal Intelligence Unit and the Anti-terrorism Police Unit are covertly operating in areas identified as terrorist risks. Airports have also introduced tougher security measures, and vehicles have to stop for security checks and their occupants have to alight to be frisked. Meanwhile, as the county and constitutional governments learn to work with each other, issues of duplication and lack of clarity are slowly being ironed out.

Of particular note in Kenya, due to our status as the business hub of East Africa, we’re further advanced when it comes to financial infrastructure than our neighbours. While Kigali has a relentless preference for Visa and Tanzania’s ATMs are unreliable at best, Kenya is – and has been for the past decade – more than happy to accept our visitors’ plastic, cutting out the hassle of operating in a cash-dominant economy. Also, these cards are increasingly catching on locally.

In Kenya, credit has not been traditionally popular, as people have preferred to pay for things with cash or through M-Pesa. But, with the popularisation of Visa and MasterCard – Kenya leads the region with over 3 million cards in use – local Kenyans are able to buy ‘luxury items’, nice vacations being one of them, and low interest rates mean they don’t have to pay in one lump sum. This is allowing more and more Kenyans to enjoy the best holidays the country has to offer, and, as they do, domestic tourism is becoming more of a factor in the local industry than it ever has been before.

It’s local visitors that sustain tourism in countries like France and Italy, and as the Kenyan middle class continues to rapidly grow, there’s no reason why this cannot be the case here. More focus is being diverted towards marketing products to locals, encouraging them that Kenyan wildlife and beaches are a part of the country’s national heritage and that Kenyans should actively enjoy and support our assets. “Our local clientele can also be our best advocates to refer business, with so many people in Nairobi and the surrounding areas having worked or schooled abroad, [so they] now have many international friends and family that come to visit,” says Davies. As such, Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club is a favoured location for local tourists, who make up more than 50 percent of the historically upmarket venue’s business.

John Kariuki, the Chairman of Sarova Hotels, Resorts & Game Lodges, also insists that domestic tourism will be the lifeline for the future of the industry. “When you look at before, we weren’t getting a lot of locals into our hotels [due to] financial capability, but now we have more and more people [who are] able to go to these places.” But more than fixing the problems that are arising, Kenya’s tourism brands are creating new avenues for success.


Kenya still has unique, emerging products that it can capitalise on to realise increased revenue. With more than 42 communities and an incredible variety of landscapes, Kenya has diverse cultures and regions in spades. Marketing the uniqueness of certain aspects of the country is bound to attract more visitors than trying to create a neat, sterile package of what Kenya is.

“We are developing homestays where tourists now stay in the village with the villagers. This is going to help the residents get money without adding any extra cost to the visitor,” says Kimutai Ngeno, KTB Public Relations Officer. The sole purpose of this exercise is to enable tourists to experience the traditional life led in Kenyan villages. However, to ensure their safety KTB and the tourism department vet the homesteads prior to their visit, to certify that the hosts are registered and that the tourists will be living in a hygienic and safe environment. Homestays, especially with repeat visitors, are catching on and becoming part of ‘cultural tourism’, a trend that has been growing steadily on a global level.

Sporting events are also being used to attract tourists. Once a year, local and international athletes convene here for the Lewa Marathon, a race in the wild alongside zebra, giraffes and elands. With 1,000 runners and more than 3,000 spectators, this race is attracting an increasing number of tourists each year who come to sample this exclusive event. For those looking for something a little more unusual and further afoot, Maralal, a small, lazy hillside town in northern Kenya, offers the Camel Derby and Festival – a three-day event that provides visitors with a chance to experience culture, action and adventure first hand. Being the first of its kind in Southern, Eastern and Central Africa, the Derby draws competitors from countries as far away as New Zealand, Spain, Australia, Japan and South Africa. These are unique activities that the government can capitalise on to draw more tourists into the country, and the creation of more events in this vein certainly wouldn’t hurt.

On the Coast, local organisations like the Mombasa & Coast Tourist Association (MCTA) are looking for ways to expand Kenya’s appeal beyond simply focusing on the beaches and resorts. For example, in cooperation with the National Museums of Kenya, they’re planning a carnival that will be a week-long event with dances, cultural parades and traditional dishes. “We believe this is a major product that will boost tourism,” states Julius Owino, MCTA Marketing and Communications Officer.

Also, the success or failure of a tourism destination depends on being able to provide a safe and secure environment for visitors. And, with the Coast getting about 40 percent of Kenya’s tourists, MCTA is working with various stakeholders on security. “We want our visitors to feel safe and can only do so with heightened security. This is also another way to attract more tourists to Mombasa,” affirms Owino.

Additionally, there are development projects trying to cash in on the more traditional pull of the beach, but by putting an international spin on Kenya’s offerings – take the dreamy seaside town of Kilifi, for example, which is endeavouring to become a resort centre. But progress is slow. In fact, there’s doubt that the country overall could handle the 2017 goal of 3 million tourists. “If [the project in Kilifi] had been fast tracked, this would have been very helpful in increasing bed capacity.

You cannot say that you want 3 million people but you don’t have bed capacity for them,” states Macharia. There’s a very long list of aspects unique to Kenya, and while some might not be enough to pull tourists in on their own, paired with each other – or with our bread and butter, the parks and beaches – there’s no reason we can’t experience the growth we’re looking for.

The Eco Way

By the 1970s, Kenya had already developed some of its large safari lodges and business was good. Samburu National Reserve is a tranquil, arid stretch of the Northern Frontier, home to rare species of a wide variety of bird and wildlife. But in 1978 the anonymous area became famous for something entirely different. The local Samburu, who the park is named after, had grown frustrated – the park was on their land but they weren’t benefiting from it – so that year, as camera wielding tourists excitedly took shots of the wildlife, the Samburu set the preserve on fire, prompting the giraffe, impala and gerenuk to bound to higher ground. Thankfully, Costas Christou, who had been standing on the roof of a land rover that day, saw the fire and acted swiftly. Together with the reserve’s rangers, whose footwear consisted only of loose sandals, he beat the fire down and saved Samburu from being razed to the ground.

It was a wake-up call, to be sure, a sign that local communities who had not shown much interest in tourism before were now starting to resent the wealth it was bringing to operators in their vicinity. Hence the entry of ecotourism, a way for people to experience the land in a way that is beneficial to the local population and not detrimental to the local environment. Today, the Samburu operate community owned wildlife reserves and practise tourism that promotes social and economic cooperation, and Kenya has become one of the leading ecotourism destinations in the world, in terms of the industry genuinely making a difference.

Up north still, to protect the black rhinos that had shrunk from an estimated 20,000 to fewer than 300, David and Delia Craig, in 1983, set aside 5,000 acres of their ranch for the preservation of those ancient creatures. More philanthropists and conservationists, as well as local communities, joined in the cause and soon they were recapturing every wild rhino in the region and taking it back to the conservancy for safekeeping and breeding. In 1995, the Craigs formed the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (LWC), which currently sits on 55,000 acres of land. The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), which was established in 2004, is based at LWC. It began with a handful of people, but now works with 26 communities and 20 conservancies in the region. “It multiplies the land available for wildlife on a massive scale, offers a new product to tourism and creates a new source of income,” says Ian Craig, NRT’s Director of Conservation, when I ask whether community conservation is helping to increase tourism in any way. The initiative has grown to include six conservancies at the Coast, and there’s on-going research on the relevance of introducing the movement within Turkana County.


Kenya’s wildlife is one of our greatest assets, but increased poaching is gravely threatening certain species, like rhinos and elephants, which now require greater protection.

Ecotourism is the reason why Anthony and Emma Childs built Emakoko on Nairobi National Park’s border. “It would seem a very un-eco thing to build a lodge in a national park that was being squeezed out of existence by humanity,” Anthony admits, before explaining how that couldn’t be further from the truth. Nairobi National Park, being one of the last remaining black rhino conservancies in the world, needs all the protection it can get to keep poachers out, and the lodge was strategically built to secure the boundary. The community living in the area is, for the first time, benefitting from the park’s existence through jobs, trade and donations towards anti human-wildlife conflict initiatives.

More and more Western travellers are looking for ethical tourism, and venues are taking advantage – perhaps the happiest use of that phrase. This is one of the key areas in which Kenya, compared to Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda, is excelling.

Full of Potential

Kenya has been a captivating destination for over five decades, and with the emergence of the internet, all the modern traveller has to do is look up a destination online to see the beautiful beaches and game parks that we have to offer. Of course, the powerful tool of the World Wide Web is a double-edged sword, in that it also makes it easier for the foibles of Kenya to become an integral part of our identity. Kenya has the potential to become one of the leading tourist destinations in the world. We have everything – beaches, bush, game, scenery, history, culture. The raw material is there, what’s standing in the way is what we do with it.

*Names have been changed