It has been more than 100 days since Najib Balala was appointed as the Tourism Cabinet secretary in a reshuffle.
He was moved from the mining docket to a ministry he once led and recorded noticeable gains in the Kibaki Administration.
While observers and critics are waiting to see what he can do, Business Daily talked with him to assess his first three months in office and what the future holds.
Top on the agenda for most observers is the achieving the goal of growing tourism numbers to three million visitors by 2017 against a backdrop of difficulties linked to security.
The ministry estimates that about 30,000 jobs were lost in the tourism decline tied to a wave of terrorist attacks. The bulk of these are yet to be recovered.
The skydiving minister says this is still attainable over two or three years while his most important agenda is to place the sector on a sustainable recovery path that will return the country to 1.2 million visitors in months.
Mr Balala ties returning the sector to its glory to the private sector playing a leading role.
“You look at the private sector elsewhere, they are the driving force and the work they do is amazing; so, why not have the same thing for tourism if we are able to build their capacity, the industry players will be able to speak in one voice,” he says.
The private operators, he said, need to find ways of improving the services within the sector right from luggage collection at the airport to when they get to the hotels and visit other attractions.
“In Singapore, it takes 17 minutes from the minute the plane lands to the minute you reach the taxi station outside the terminal. Why not have the same for Kenya?”
According to the CS, reducing the time tourists take to reach their hotels “avoiding traffic is one of the swiftest ways to create lasting impressions.”
Another step is refurbishing hotels to meet the global trends and promise a predictable stream of domestic and international tourists, he said.
The ministry, through the sector regulator, is classifying hotels to create awareness on facilities and services available and the accompanying prices.
For a voice of the industry players on the recovery, the ministry is implementing a task force report.
Redefining who a tourist is, the minister says, and creating a mental shift among players and supporting sectors will be key to the steady growth of numbers of both local and international tourists
“Especially for the hoteliers, a tourist is not just a mzungu; anybody who travels is a tourist, nor is it a matter of nationality provided they pay for the services,” he said.
While hosting a string of global meetings in the recent past cemented the country’s image as a conference destination, Mr Balala says Kenya has more to offer like marine life preservation, sport tourism, and conservation.
Tourism needs to be viewed as it is, not a stand-alone sector that can only thrive with the support of other industries from telecommunications, IT, infrastructure and even agriculture.
“Even as the country focuses on creating niche products we need to improve what we already have, including beach, safari, and conference tourism.”
Devolution, he says, provides an opportunity to develop unique county products, thus creating niche tourism. It is these gems that the national government can leverage on to attract visitors, the minister added.
“We need to develop a 10-year tourism strategy that will include the counties products as well as establish a fund for refurbishing hotels.”
“We are also looking for strategic investors to partner in the construction of the Mombasa International Convention Centre (MICC) and the Bomas International Convention and Exhibition Centre (BICEC) .”
Reversing the impact of travel advisories that saw charters flying to Mombasa and Malindi suspended, is already beginning to take shape.
Through the Charter Incentive Programme, the ministry has waived landing fees for charters with 80 per cent of the passengers terminating at Mombasa and Malindi for the next two years.
Under the programme, there is a passenger subsidy of $30 (Sh3,000) per tourist.
The government waived visa fees for children below 16 years from February 1 with the aim of promoting family travel.
“My ministry in consultation with the Kenya Wildlife Service has reduced park fees from $90 (Sh9,000) to a high of $60 (Sh6,000) from February 1. Value added tax on park fees has been scrapped effective July 1, 2016,” he said. When Mr Balala was named the new Tourism CS, parastatal heads in the sector were also moved.
Muriithi Ndegwa, the former Kenya Tourism Board managing director, was replaced by Jacinta Nzioka who was the acting director of marketing at KTB.
Jonah Orumoi was appointed acting chief executive officer of the Tourism Finance Corporation, replacing Marianne Ndegwa and Mary Luseka as the acting CEO of Brand Kenya Board.
KTB that has a Sh1.7 billion budget, says it has collected information on how tourists in the traditional and emerging markets like UK and China respectively perceive the Kenyan market.
Top on the list of concerns is safety, what with the spate of terrorist attacks that prompted a slew of travel advisories by the some of the respected source markets.
It is these attacks and related threats that pushed the government into action, coming up with marketing campaigns targeting the international audience, through the media, for example on the American news channel CNN or branding plans like Make It Kenya launched last year.
Make It Kenya is a global online marketing lobbying that showcases Kenya’s tourism potential affluence on the Nat Geo channel. Ms Nzioka said the KTB research shows a world of difference between the perceptions tourists have before coming to the country and after visits.
“Our efforts of marketing during the slump are bearing fruit because an increasing number of people are aware of Kenya as a tourist destination.”