Mombasa’s hotels have grown steadily in size over the years.
I recall staying in intimate, makuti-roofed hotels as a child, with buildings nestled in tropical gardens.
Since then, most of these properties have expanded into multi-swimming pool complexes, with rooms numbering into the hundreds.
When out at sea, massive concrete blocks tower visibly over the palms.
However, not all hoteliers have followed this path.
I was reminded of one hotel group’s more enlightened approach to business when I recently stayed at their property on Mombasa’s North Coast.
This hotel draws extensively on Swahili architecture.
With small buildings clustered around fountains and benches, they strive to replicate a traditional coastal town.
I was shocked, however when I left this tranquil environment and made my way to the beach.
It was crowded, something that I’ve not been used to in Kenya.
On taking a closer look, I realised that it was not busy with tourists.
Rather, it was crowded with makeshift shops and peopled in large part by beach touts, otherwise known and beach boys, and less generously, beach bums.
As it turned out, there was room to take a good evening run.
Disappointed, I withdrew back to the hotel.
In retrospect, this is not the kind of experience we should offer visitors to our country.
I had only travelled from Nairobi and was in Mombasa on business so I was only mildly disappointed.
Had I travelled thousands of miles and spent a substantial amount of my hard earned money in the process, it would have been a whole different matter.
The chances of my booking a return visit to Kenya’s coast would have been reduced to minimal.
The issue of the informal entrepreneurs who dot Kenya’s beaches is an old and controversial one.
Beach experience touts say that they have the right to use their skills and knowledge to make an honest living and that the economic benefit of Kenya’s tourism should be spread more widely beyond the large hotels and tour companies. They make a valid point.
However, the question that begs an answer is, are these entrepreneurs’ rights being protected at the expense of a larger industry and, if it is a major one, at the expense of the wider economy?
The root of the problem is that Kenya’s beaches are public land, open to everyone.
Like many public spaces, they risk being over-exploited if not effectively managed.
One way to manage this problem is to address the question of ownership.
Perhaps it is time to privatise the resource.
Having invested substantial capital in owning a stretch of beach, it will be in the interests of its new owners to look after it, not just now but into the future.
They will actively police the kind of experience that high paying visitors have on their beach.
But Kenya’s beaches have always been open to the public and few would consent to the enjoyment of such a wonderful national resource to be restricted a paying few.
Therefore, if the beaches are not to be auctioned off into private ownership, then it falls upon the government to manage them better for long-term advantage.
Like all effective management, this will entail establishing standards and enforcing their compliance and controlling how the beaches are used so that they are not so crowded as to leave tourists with the distinct feeling of being harassed.
Simply put: controlling the beach experience touts.
Some steps that can be taken in this regard include limiting the places where shops can be set up, so as to leave the main part of the beach open for walking.
It is also important to develop and enforce guidelines on how touts can solicit visitors’ business.
Further, there should be rules about how many touts can operate on a given stretch of beach in order to avoid overcrowding.
This can probably be done through licensing.
All this may sound a little trivial (or draconian, depending on your perspective).
However, when you have substantial hospitality investments for which the main attraction is the beach, this is no trivial matter.
What happens on our beaches has the potential to substantially impact the success or failure of an investment that runs into millions of dollars.
A beach management policy—or a lack thereof—does not merely impact upon beach hotels.
Kenya’s beaches are an important part of Kenya’s larger tourism offering, often combined with inland safaris.
Managing Kenya’s beaches such that visitors have a positive experience encourages tourism in general, which, according to World Travel and Tourism Council estimates, accounts for almost 9 per cent of Kenya’s GDP and employs over 7 per cent of its work force.
The issue of beach management ought not only to concern hotels situated at the coast and the entrepreneurs who ply their trade there, but anyone who cares about Kenya’s wider economy.
It is true, however that a beach policy will without question affect the hoteliers and touts most directly.
For the hoteliers, the impact of good policy will be unambiguously positive - things can only improve from the current state of affairs.
For the touts on the other hand, fortunes may be mixed.
Those that comply with new guidelines and win licenses to work the beach may well receive support in things like product development and face less intense competition.
Their businesses would do well.
For those unable to tout their wares under a new beach regime, things will be worse.
However, the current downturn in the local tourism sector has already pushed many of them cool hustler to plain beggar so things are already looking quite dim for them.
Eventually, as Kenya’s beaches regain their reputation for being great places to relax and enjoy sun, sea and sand and local tourism picks up, new and interesting employment prospects, particularly for people who already have tourism experience