Why Kenya continues to lose out on billions in underwater tourism


Tourists enjoying themselves at Bamburi Beach Hotel, Mombasa in this photo taken on November 20, 2021. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Photo credit: Jeff Angote | Nation Media Group

Kenya is missing out on income from underwater tourists, seeking to dive into history and explore archaeological treasures. The looting of underwater cultural heritage in Kenya is hindering the identification, promotion, and preservation of cultural treasures.

Countries such as Italy and Greece have opened the ocean up to travellers who want to see underwater archaeological treasures. The National Museums of Kenya (NMK), has located more than 30 shipwrecks in the Indian Ocean with some dating back to 500 years ago, but the cost of excavation is too high.

Athman Hussein, the assistant director of antiquities, sites, and monuments in charge of the Coast Region also cites the lack of experts including archaeologists, cultural and scientific researchers and institutions dealing with underwater cultural heritage.

Sunken cities

The underwater cultural heritage sites include shipwrecks, aircraft wrecks, and sunken towns. They include the 17th Century Portuguese Santo Antonio de Tanna and her supply vessel that was wrecked off Mombasa’s Fort Jesus in 1697.

The Chinese Merchant ship Zheng He was also wrecked in 1418 at Pezali area near Manda Bay (Manda Toto) off Lamu while other Portuguese wrecks EL REL ran aground off Mombasa on March 8, 1500 and Nossa Senhora Da Graca that ran aground off Malindi.

In 2015, the museum also identified Ras Ngomeni in Kilifi County as the home of the historical site, where a Portuguese ship sank in 1516.

There are also sunken cities like the Ungwana city on the mouth of River Tana. “NMK alone can’t undertake the expensive duty of identifying, preserving, and protecting underwater cultural heritage. We’ve few staff and experts to undertake such activities.

We even fear doing research and identifying these underwater cultural heritages. We’re aware that if we do so, foreign treasure hunters, looters, and commercial exploiters might invade those sites with their advanced technologies and rob us of this important history under the water,” says Mr Hussein.

NMK has partnered with the Kenya Navy, the Kenya Coast Guard Services, the Marine Police, and the Kenya Maritime Authority to help identify and protect the underwater cultural heritage.

“We’ve trained some of the officers to help us identify areas that are possible sites for underwater cultural heritage. The officers have also been helpful in ensuring those sites are preserved and protected,” adds Mr Hussein.

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