As the sun rises in Kenya’s coastal region and the tide emanating from the blue waters of the Indian Ocean subsides, tourists gear up for an adventure—it is time for snorkelling and scuba-diving inside the sea water, to observe diverse marine life.
Marine activities have gained acceptance in Mombasa as more tourists turn to the adventurous snorkelling and scuba-diving activities as opposed to sun-bathing at beaches.
Deep inside the waters north of Indian Ocean, a 10km2 of water mass is protected by one of the largest barrier reefs in the world, which stretches from the coast of Somalia, along Kenya and to southern Tanzania.
“This protected area is the Mombasa Marine National Park, it encompasses 10km2, while its national reserves extend 200kM2,” says Kenya Wildlife Service Marine Captain Abdallah Godana. “It is among the world’s best locations for a variety of marine life.”
With numerous game reserves, parks and sand beaches, Kenya is a popular destination for holidaymakers from around the world and the thriving marine industry is set to boost tourist arrivals.
The stretch of the Indian Ocean coast along Mombasa, Malindi and Likoni is vibrant with exotic marine activities.
“Its fortunes have improved in the past decade. The parks provide a food source and shelter to a vast array of living things naturally found in water. It is really one of world’s leading exotic places,” said Dr. Mohamed Omar, a senior scientist at the Coast Conservation Area.
The robust tourism industry along the Indian Ocean has left a trail of jam-packed atmosphere along the sandy beaches.
From mid-morning hours to late afternoon, the park at Mombasa is busy with a beeline of activities as tourism picks after the 2008 post- election violence.
Protected marine reserves in Kenya care for an unspoiled reef, protect endangered species and it is also a place where fishing is forbidden.
“The marine parks in the country are all maintained by the Kenya Wildlife Service and plenty of diverse fish can be seen by snorkels or glass-bottom boats,” said Mr Abdallah.
The Mombasa Marine National Park which was established in 1986, is one of the most visited sea parks in Kenya.
The park receives between 2,000 and 4,000 visitors every month.
It has sea water, a variety of marine life such as crabs, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sea star fish, jelly fish and other attractions.
The emerging marine investment on the Kenyan Coast makes the country strategically significant, as biosphere projects are expected to stimulate the local economy.
Kenya has the potential of exploiting the exotic marine tourism into a multi-million shilling venture with its five marine parks, scientists say.
The parks; Mombasa, Kisite-Mbuguti, Kiunga, Watamu and Malindi, receive both domestic and international tourists.
According to Kenya Wildlife Service officials, 66 per cent of arrivals are international holiday makers.
“The potential is huge. If the few marine parks we have are well maintained and managed they will definitely bring a lot of revenue to the country,” Dr Omar says.
“We are proposing to create two more marine parks in the Kenyan Coast, one in Marereni area and another one on Chali Island. These two areas are very unique as they are away from the hustle and bustle of towns and that is where most tourists would like to stay,” he said.
However, analysts say Kenya is not fully benefiting from marine tourism, although it has potential to overtake the beach and wildlife segments.
Kenya Wildlife Service says its not business oriented.
“Our core mandate is to sustainably conserve and manage Kenya’s wildlife and its habitats in collaboration with stakeholders for posterity,” said Timothy Ikime, a tourism official.
In most areas surrounding the marine parks, many tourist hotels are mushrooming, taking their visitors for routine daily and weekly scuba-diving and snorkelling.
Increasing tourism activities have led to the construction of multi-million-shilling villas and resorts along the Indian Ocean.
Situated on the shores of beautiful beaches with access to diverse aquatic activities are some tourist resorts and hotels located along Malindi and Kisite-Mbuguti marine parks, where tourists pay between Sh40,000 and Sh70,000 a night.
“These are very high prices which is a worthwhile venture for Kenya. It is an emerging new market for the country,” says Dr. Omar.
Apart from the local and international tourists, the Kenyan Coast has attracted a host of local and international scientists and researchers.
“We have some very rare marine life in our parks. These have notably pulled researchers to make increasing visits,” said Mr Abdalla.”
We have for instance Sergeant-Major Fish, parrot fish among others.”
Malindi, Watamu and Kiunga marine reserves are one of the few biosphere areas globally classified as protected areas by the United Nations.
Researchers are now conducting a valuation project to estimate the value of the industry and how much it is worth.
The study is set to be completed within four months.
Within the next five years, economists say the industry will be a multi-million dollar business.
Mr. Ahmadi Ali, who has been teaching scuba diving in Mombasa for the past 20 years, says marine projects in the Indian Ocean could be the way forward for the coastal communities and for the rest of the country.
“There is a lot of widespread poverty in towns like Mombasa despite its proximity to the Indian Ocean, I think what we need is to fully invest in this new market,” he says.
Experts say that the rare industry is under-invested.
Conservationists also say the industry is not well understood by the local communities, a testimony to its slow pace of growth over the past decades.
Human activities like fishing affect the rare species in the ocean.
“The biggest challenge we are having is that, the coastal communities largely rely on fishing. These activities will of course lead to erosion of sea resources,” says Mr Omar.
Soaring poverty levels in most of the coastal towns have incapacitated the locals from exploiting the available opportunities.
“Local investment is very poor in the industry, those who are taking advantage of the vibrant marine industry are mostly international investors,” said Hussein Uthman, an economist in Mombasa. “Thus the financial benefits for the host communities is very much minimal’