The tourism sector is a key pillar for the country’s economy, bringing in valuable foreign exchange.
And it is also about self-pride, for those who do not want visitors coming to their homes and marvelling about the wonders of it, be they domestic or international? But tourism in Kenya is ailing.
Some of the problems are external, such as the threats from Ebola and terrorism, but many are self-inflicted.
And even the external ones can be mitigated if our policy makers would only think outside the box, rather than go with their normal knee-jerk response of more marketing and branding.
The problem is a structural and systemic one. For years we have rested on our laurels based on factors that are not of our making such as wonderful weather, beautiful beaches, stunning wildlife, and topography that includes snow-capped mountains and deserts within close range of each other. We seem to believe that because it is there, people will come.
So we abandoned our infrastructure, making our roads some of the worst in the world, and we let our airports and railways decay. Until the end of the Moi regime, investment in infrastructure was almost non-existent, as corruption became a way of life, eroding our value systems and rotting us from within.
But our biggest mistake was the positioning of our tourism industry into the “high-end” category, making the wonders of Kenya out of the reach of most people domestically or internationally.
Yes, an increasing number of Kenyans now visit the Coast, national parks and engage in local tourism, but the numbers are miniscule.
I was in Bangkok recently, and Thailand has a lot to teach us.
First, Thailand aims at numbers. In 2013, 26 million people visited Thailand (from about 400,000 in 1967!!!) generating an estimated 11 billion euros in revenue. In Bangkok, accommodation is reasonably priced, and the five-star hotel I stayed in, for instance, cost $50 a night.
There are also uncountable cheaper guest houses, dormitories for lower-end hitch-hikers, rooms for hire and more!
Second, the Thai tourism industry has a massive impact on employment rates through its indirect services. All over the city, there are numerous cafes, kiosks and roadside hawkers selling delicious food, wares and clothes.
Young and old alike are gainfully employed even just outside the major hotels offering less expensive alternatives to hotel food and drink. One of the colleagues I was with decided to have all his meals at the roadside kiosks for just a $1 each.
These small businesses are a direct consequence of Thailand’s official policy of making the country accessible to as many people as possible.
VALUE OF TOURISTS
Policy-makers and the people themselves understand the value of tourists, whether they are domestic, regional or international, and they have found a way to gainfully self-employ millions of people, not just in the direct establishments but also indirectly through businesses that serve tourists.
Third, Thailand has taken advantage of being the regional hub in Asia, just as Nairobi is a hub — competing with Ethiopia — for Africa.
But to achieve all this growth, Thailand has done massive infrastructural work on many fronts.
Security is excellent in Bangkok and the tourist areas, despite some massive political upheavals, including long-term mass action on the streets of Bangkok over the last few years.
Connections to the beaches via rail, road and air are easy and reasonably priced, too. Bangkok is incredibly clean, despite all the hawkers selling fruit and food on the streets. And it has good electricity supply so the city is well lit day and night.
Of course, there are deviants among the 26 million visitors, and sex tourism, for instance, is not uncommon. But while illegal, the approach is to monitor and regulate it in order to mitigate excesses and the spread of STIs.
It is not rocket science to achieve what Thailand has done. It just needs the requisite intellectual and material investment in security, infrastructure and policies and the rest the wonderfully entrepreneurial Kenyans can handle.