Neon lights flicker, the dance floor is full of ravers waving their arms wildly, others are seated in cozy beige sofas watching big TV screens. Some men take videos of themselves gyrating while two women hand out shots of tequila, lemon and salt. A bartender stops to dance with a raver before walking back with a tray, balancing drinks with one hand.
It is 2am at Kiza Lounge in Nairobi and this is just one offering in Kenya's flourishing nightlife scene, which pub owners are seeking to start marketing as the next foreign tourist attraction.
At another nightclub in Nairobi, Brew Bistro, a mix of old-school, Bongo, Blues and Nigerian music croon from the large speakers.
“What can I get you? We have all kind of drinks. However, today, there an offer for Jack Daniel's served with ribs at Sh8,000,” a male waiter shouts amid the noise.
Here, it is not only the good music and ambience that entice party animals. Just like most clubs in Kenya, food, especially grilled meats and creative cocktails draw customers in troves who come to midweek and weekend gigs.
From cocktail bars to glitzy nightclubs perched atop high-rise buildings, entertainment joints have mushroomed at full speed and they could soon attract globetrotting party animals.
“People love to visit a good pub or restaurant either after work or just to enjoy with their friends. They are constantly looking for a good hangout place, where to get entertained and have a good nightlife or share drinks,” says Alice Opee, the national chair of Pubs, Entertainment and Restaurants Association of Kenya (Perak).
However, Alice says despite Nairobi ranking among the top cities in Africa with a thriving nightlife, Kenya has not positioned itself as a clubbing destination to grow its tourist arrivals.
Perak, an association with 70 paid-up members in Nairobi as of the last quarter, now wants to market night clubs and restaurants as tourist attractions, just as hoteliers and Kenya Tourism Board sells beaches, bush and wildlife.
With over 4,000 licensed establishments in Nairobi alone, the city and other towns such as Malindi and Nakuru could join the countless destinations across the globe for clubbing enthusiasts to explore. Some of the top picks for a party globally, where visitors flock, include Ibiza and Las Vegas.
“Pubs, entertainment joints and restaurants in major cities including Mombasa and Kisumu have not had the optimum chance to show off to dwellers and visitors. Whenever tourists visit or a foreigner settles in a country, they hope for a thriving entertainment industry. We have not given Nairobi the limelight it deserves,” she said.
Mohamed Hersi, the Kenya Tourism Federation chairman said even as hoteliers are marketing the rooms, visitors want to experience life away from the exquisite rooms and dousing in the swimming pools.
“Visitors check into the hotels, then they ask for pubs and restaurants, why can’t we sell these as additional attractions,” he said in a meeting of hoteliers, tour operators and guides in Nairobi. Already, club owners have invested heavily to give the entertainment spots a plush look, similar to those found in top party cities, with some adding casinos and kitchens.
“Most night clubs are now compelled to sell good food with beer or whisky. Others have gone an extra mile to invest in separate smoking sections,” Alice says.
However, DJ KRich, says to compete with Ibiza, a small Spanish party island attracting over three million tourists, with Britons making up the majority of incoming travellers, Kenyan investors “need to think outside the box and create new club designs including dance floors.”
“Every nightclub attracts a different crowd. The millennials have become a great influence in the clubbing scene. However, most clubs have a similar design. Open-air designs will cater for shisha smokers, for instance. Nightclub owners need to create new experiences,” says the DJ who has played for joints in Nairobi, Meru and Nanyuki.
He adds that local DJs also have a role to play in attracting clubbing tourists.
“The DJs need not to be hooked to common genre of music. Include Old School, Kenyan music to attract revellers in their 30s and 40s who have a higher spending power,” he adds.
A similar taste in music and food among revellers globally, driven by easy Internet access and disruptive technology, Perak says, makes Kenya’s nightlife attractive to any tourist who visits.
To market the clubs and entertainment joints, the national body is keen to be featured on Kenya Airways (KQ) in-flight magazines and affiliated flight companies.
“The focus has been on coastal towns and Nairobi, especially on hotels offering accommodation and drinks,” said Uyi Edokpolo, the acting CEO of Perak.
The clubbing scene has already received a boast from likes of CNN journalist Richard Quest who visited Galileo's Lounge in Nairobi.
“He spent an evening at Galileo’s Lounge while staying at Sankara Hotel. Recently, Kenya Tourism Board members visited ABC Place in Westlands and plan to start marketing them as a tourist destination,” Uyi says.
Driven by a new crop of travellers, Uyi adds that there is some level of evolving happening in the industry as some investors move from just having nice-looking clubs and charging exorbitant prices to creating experiences. Demand for experiential travel is growing globally, as adventurers look out for authentic activity-based travel experiences, whether that is mountain hikes or club hopping.
“For instance, Century Club in Nairobi has created different phases to cater for all demographics such as having Sundays set aside for old school music serving for 35 to 50 years age, Tuesday for reggae, Wednesday for rumba. This kind of concept is transitioning in almost all night clubs,” he says.
Dan Ouma, a club owner and the Kisumu Bar Owners Association chair says, in partnership with Kenya Tourism Board, the county has also been showcasing what is available in the region among them Rusinga Island. In Kisumu, over 400 pubs and restaurants are registered under Perak.
“We have been lagging behind in inclusion to serve travellers. Our intention is to have tour firms add Western region as part of the clients' itinerary,” Dan says. About 20 tour firms have visited Western Kenya, with hopes of selling its hotels, beaches, nightlife, wildlife and culture.
Alice is optimistic that once Kenya starts attracting clubbing tourists, the industry will create more jobs.
“On average, an entertainment joint employs between 10 to 100 people aged between 21 to 35 years, and some owners own five outlets in Nairobi alone. Bars and restaurants are among the top taxpayers and employers, currently paying 16 percent and two percent levy to Kenya Revenue Authority and Tourism Fund respectively. This is exclusive of water, waste and drainage collection and license fees paid to respective counties. Such contributions and collaboration with other industries like alcohol and beverages and agribusiness, local farmers, has made us see the growth we can bring to especially by attracting international and local tourists,” she says.
Despite this, the industry is facing restrictions and regulations that has seen closure of popular joints. While the statutory requirements set the levels permissible at are 55 decibel (d B) during the day and 35 d B at night, cases of non-compliance have been on the high due to conflicting regulations.
“This becomes a chicken-and-egg situation. If you open an establishment in an area and later a school, residential or offices come up, who has to vacate when you all got licenses?,” Alice says.