Appearances can be deceptive. On the face of it, one might assume the good times are rolling again in Kenya, with operators bullish and reporting strong summer sales.
Hayes and Jarvis says it is its fastest growing destination for 2009; topping a table that includes St Lucia, Florida, Las Vegas and New York. But that growth is based on a disastrous 2008, a year that saw bookings dry up after a disputed presidential election and the riots that followed it.
So where does the truth lie? As usual, somewhere in the middle.
The Kenya Tourist Board is still viewing 2009 as a recovery year and acknowledged there was a long way to go before clawing back the success of 2007, with its record-breaking 204,000 UK arrivals. The most recent official figures are for December 2008 – seen as a good month with a decrease of ‘only’ 16% year on year.
But there is still plenty to be positive about. For Africa specialist Somak, bookings are stronger now than this time in 2007. “Whether we’re getting a larger share of a smaller pot, I don’t know, but bookings have been improving every month since the second half of 2008,” said chief executive Ash Sofat.
Upsides include a wealth of new product, not least in the luxury accommodation sector. New for 2009 are the Kicheche Camp at Laikipia, the Almanara at Diani Beach and the Kitich Camp at Matthew’s Mountain Range, which opens in July.
These follow Ashnil’s Aruba, Samburu and Mara Lodges, plus Fairmont’s Mara Safari Club – which reopened last year. Meanwhile, refurbishment continues on the other four lodges Fairmont acquired in 2006.
Other new product includes Obama Roots tours, a quirky way to learn the family history of the world’s most popular man. Somak has also added a Great Migration safari with departures from July-December.
Abercrombie and Kent managing director Justin Wateridge cited Kenya’s tourism minister, Najib Balala, as another advantage. Balala visited London after last year’s electoral crisis to reassure the trade Kenya was still safe, and again for World Travel Market in November.
Now his ministry is issuing half-price visas to help stimulate demand. From now until the end of 2010, the visa will cost $25 for adults, while under-16s’ fees are waived completely.
Keeping costs down will be key to Kenya’s survival, but as much of its accommodation is contracted in US dollars, this won’t be easy. Many contracts have been renegotiated but operators advise travel agents to look out for added-value deals, such as extra nights, a free bush breakfast or balloon safari.
Agents should also stress prices on the ground. Unlike the euro or US dollar, the Kenyan shilling still offers good value against the pound. A Post Office survey named Kenya as the fourth best value long-haul destination this year, using holiday staples such as a cup of coffee, bottle of beer or evening meal as a barometer.
Dangerously for Kenya, South Africa also appeared on the list, with the rand second only to the Thai baht for value. More than any fears over safety, this could be the thorn in Kenya’s side in 2009. The Cape has an enviable reputation for quality and is gearing up for the marketing drive of its life as the FIFA World Cup approaches in 2010.
Nigel Vere Nicoll, chief executive of trade association Advancing Tourism to Africa, said it was this talent for marketing that had seen South African tourism flourish.
“South Africa has been very clever with its marketing and created an extraordinary tourism product – especially with the openness to its struggles. East Africa has been less willing to confront the past. It’s very difficult in Kenya to visit a flower farm or tea factory, but people would be interested in that.”
Competition, then, is a threat for Kenya. But, happily for tourists, safety is not. And with careful pricing and persistent marketing, it could yet ride out the storm.
The riots that followed the 2008 election were surprising for their lack of precedent: Kenya had previously been a model of stability in East Africa.
Can the same be said today? Broadly, yes, but exercise the same caution as you would anywhere else in the world, especially in Nairobi. Petty crime has always been a problem in Kenya’s capital.
Check the Kenya travel advice on the Foreign Office website. It will highlight any danger spots or local disturbances.
Remember roads can be chaotic and roughly paved; self-drive is only an option for experienced and adventurous travellers.
Cosmos offers seven nights all-inclusive at the four-star Sun ‘n’ Sand beach resort in Kikambala from £799 this spring, including a two-night safari excursion. (Tel: 0871 423 4822)
First Choice offers seven nights’ all-inclusive at the four-star Baobab Beach Resort at Diani Beach from £574 per person this spring. (Tel: 0871 231 5595)
Virgin offers seven nights’ all-inclusive at the four-star Voyager Beach Resort on the Mombasa coast from £749 per person this spring.
All prices include flights to Mombasa and transfers to the coast.
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