As investments worth billions of shillings were burning to ashes during the 2007 post-election violence in regions like Kisumu, investors in Kisii were building new hotels to accommodate the high number of tourists seeking a safe haven.
The stability witnessed in the town as other areas were hit hard by the violence, has boosted its hospitality industry, putting Kisii is on the road to becoming western Kenya’s entertainment hub.
“Starting from the time the violence was at its peak, the calm in Kisii town started attracting many people. And there has been no looking back,” said William Kerandi, a manager at Vuvuzela Sports Pub, located near the bus terminus.
The town is now home to investors and residents from Transmara, Keroka, Rongo, Nyamira, Oyugis, Homa Bay, Migori and Kisumu with more expected to set up shop in the region.
The number of visitors has continued to rise over the years, attracted by the town’s robust economy and its strategic position to neighbouring Tanzania. The high numbers has spurred growth of the entertainment and hotel industry.
George Sarima, manager at Havannas Inn, said there is a strong link between security and recreation.
“Kisii is a relatively stable place. That helps because security is paramount to any town that needs to prosper in the recreational business,” he said.
On a Friday evening, hundreds of vehicles are parked outside many entertainment joints.
Desmond Owara is one of the people who have been drawn to Kisii.
“I was in Kisii end of January. I am back again,” said Mr Owara who works in Nairobi but often travels to Homa Bay for personal engagements and makes stopovers in Kisii.
The town has contributed to increase in bed occupancy in the region. Data from the Tourism ministry indicate that hotel bed occupancy in the larger western Kenya dropped after the post-poll chaos but steadily rose afterwards.
Bed occupancy in the region stood at 481,000 units in 2007 before the election. After the post-election violence, bed occupancy dropped by 71,000 units before rising to 532,000 in 2009.
It is not just the stability in the town that is drawing customers and investors. The town has recorded robust growth over the years, opening up opportunities for many investors.
“There is a lot of money circulating in the town, mostly because the main economic activity of the surrounding communities is farming. Add that to the fact that almost all Kenyan banks have branches in Kisii and what you have is a conducive environment for the hotel business,” said Nile Hotel manager Martin Mugi.
Mr Mugi, whose hotel targets corporate clients, said Kisii people are warm, making those who come for business want to sample more of the town. The strategic position of the town has also contributed to its growth.
Hellen Ondimu, director at Camp David Resort, said that the town is well-positioned to provide a haven for those visiting western Kenya.
“The soapstone industry in Tabaka is a blessing to us. Tourists who go there to buy carvings find Kisii a good place to operate from,” she said. Tabaka is 32 kilometres away from Kisii Town.
Visitors to the Ruma National Park and the South West Mau National Reserve, 74 and 123 kilometres away respectively, also find Kisii a good place to set camp as they travel to or from the tourist attraction spots.
“We receive a good number of white people, but I can’t tell where they come from because we hardly ask that,” Mrs Ondimu said.
Dallas Inn manager Sammy Kimwele said his hotel receives visitors from as far as Tanzania.
“Tanzanian guests visit us. It is humbling that they can bypass Migori, Rongo and other towns to come here,” Mr Kimwele said.
A town that started as an administration centre for colonialists, Kisii has grown into an investors’ hotspot.
The violence between 2007 and 2008 saw western Kenya suffer greatly and the chaos scared off investors some of who took long to re-open their doors. Other establishments were vandalised and remained empty shells.
In addition to this, the region is still fighting hard to shed the tag of being the hot bed for negative political energy that undermines investment.
All these factors make investors uncertain of the returns and thus reluctant to pump millions into a seemingly unpredictable market, with some turning to neighbouring counties like Kisii.
Construction of new hotels and entertainment joints since 2007 has created jobs in Kisii as other tourist towns recorded approximately 120,000 job losses in tourism sector, according to Kenya Association of Manufacturers analysis.
Violence broke out in Kenya on December 30, 2007 after Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent, was declared winner of the presidential elections.
In addition to attacks by armed groups, roadblocks along highways curtailed trade and movement of goods in the region with thousands of Kenyans displaced.