The introduction of flights to Lamu County by various budget airlines has greatly improved travel in the region, boosting trade and tourism, two of the area's key economic pillars.
As the number of airlines serving the region has increased, competition has grown too driving down the cost of air tickets, much to the satisfaction of frequent flyers.
Thanks to affordable air fares, many travellers now opt for air transport to and from Lamu. This is a departure from the past when air transport was a preserve of the few who could afford the prohibitive tickets.
It now costs between Sh3,000 to 4,500 for one to travel from Lamu to Malindi and Mombasa with only Sh5,000 to 6,000 required for one to travel to Nairobi depending on the airline. This is a massive drop compared to the previous air ticket prices where it cost not less than Sh10,000 and as high as Sh30,000 to travel from Lamu to Nairobi.
Remarkably, the upward trend in the number of air passengers did not start from a good note. In June 2014, the region was put on the limelight following the most horrendous terror attack ever reported at Mpeketoni town and its surrounding areas of Kibaoni and Witu. The attack left over 90 residents dead, many others injured and property worth millions of shillings destroyed.
The extremists' strike led to a sharp reduction in the number of travellers to Lamu as people avoid the region fearing for their lives. Most people travelled on road then, becoming soft targets of terrorists.
Due to the mounting insecurity, the number of people travelling in and out of the county dropped by over 50 per cent, between 2014 and 2015.
In the dark clouds of insecurity, the airlines saw a silver lining of air transport potential and and started planning for a share of it.
For a long time, few airlines such as AirKenya Express and Safarilink, were operating the Lamu route. This began to change from 2015 when new airlines took to the Lamu skies, starting with Fly540.
In March, 2015, Kenyan low-cost carrier Jambojet launched its flights to Lamu where it served for about a year and a half before quitting in July 2017, citing bad condition of the Manda Airport. However, other airlines were undaunted by the poor state of the facility.
In April, 2017, new airline, Skyward Express introduced its Lamu route. Eight months later, the Silverstone Air followed suit. FlySax started Nairobi-Lamu flights and operates to date.
Speaking to Shipping and Logistics on Tuesday, various stakeholders in the transport, tourism and trade sectors, including travellers, hoteliers and travel agents said the introduction of budget airlines has resulted to a major growth in the number of travellers moving in and out of Lamu daily.
Former Lamu County Tourism Association (LTA) Deputy Chair, who is the proprietor of the Bush Gardens Seafront Restaurant, Ghalib Alwy noted that the introduction of the various airlines in the region has greatly boosted the county’s trade and tourism.
Mr Alwy said despite the effects brought about by the Mpeketoni Al-Shabaab attack five years ago, the new airlines serving the Lamu route have contributed significantly to the remarkable turnaround in travel patterns in the region.
“Before the Al-Shabaab attacks in Mpeketoni, Kibaoni, Witu and Hindi, most people including tourists coming to Lamu or travelling outside the county preferred to use road transport. The attacks left only very few travellers, mostly the native residents to continue using the road. Very few people who could afford air ticket were the ones travelling and this definitely dropped the travel pattern in this region,” said Mr Alwy.
“But …the many airlines that have so far introduced their flights to Lamu, have led to cheaper and affordable air ticket prices for travellers. I can confidently say the travel pattern has so far improved by over 40 per cent.”
Ali Basheikh, a hotelier, told Shipping and Logistics that the launch of the new airlines has boosted tourism growth.
“The tourism sector has grown with the increased number of both domestic and international tourists. Lamu is no longer hard to access unlike before. With only 25 or 40 minutes, you are in Malindi or Mombasa. About an hour or so, you are in Nairobi. Commuters are many and this has generally boosted our economy,” said Mr Basheikh.
Julius Kamande, a frequent flyer, called for the expansion of the Manda Airport to attract more airlines to the county.
“I believe various airlines including Kenya Airways (KQ) itself are willing to introduce flights to Lamu but the size of the Manda Airport and its runaway is constraining. I call on KAA to think of expanding the airport to enable a 24-hour landing for the Lamu economy to grow,” said Mr Kamande.