As the warm weather beckons tourists to the Kenyan coast on their arrival, most visitors are convinced they chose the right holiday destination.
Beaches in Diani in the South Coast, Mombasa and the North Coast, particularly in Malindi and Watamu are some of the most favoured holiday destinations in the world.
But that is until the visitors encounter pesky beach operators.
The aggressive hawkers and beach traders are scaring off tourists.
Apart from selling all manner of wares, including sex and drugs, they block the visitors from accessing the water for a swim and even deny them a peaceful holiday.
According to industry players, this harassment has reversed gains made to promote the Kenyan coast as a tourist destination.
Effects of this menace are evident in the latest tourism figures released by the minister, Najib Balala, showing that despite the recovery of the tourism sector—which has grown by 18 and 15 per cent in revenues and arrivals to Sh73.7 billion and 1.1 million respectively in 2010 compared to a year earlier—beach tourism declined by 16 per cent even when it is known to be the best bet for relaxing visitors.
“The decline can be blamed on challenges that include beach boys, lack of re-investments by players and poor infrastructure,” said Mr Balala.
Cruise tourism also declined by 90 per cent to 558 compared to 12,096 arrivals in 2009 with the ministry also blaming the poor performance on rising insecurity in international waters off the Kenyan coast following activities of pirates in the region.
Concerns over the activities of beach operators continue to rise among stakeholders who are putting up spirited campaigns to attract as many tourists in the country as possible to maintain the growth momentum amidst rising opposition from beach operators fighting eviction from the areas which they say are their source of livelihood.
Players are also concerned that this could affect Kenya’s competitive edge as a favourite tourist destination in the East African region.
The ministry is however betting on the Tourism Bill to help it streamline the sector and change the image of beach tourism which is associated with harassment of tourists, theft, selling of drugs to tourists and commercial sex.
The ministry has also initiated dialogue with the operators at the coast which it says will allow the ministry to enforce registration of all beach operators and root out all illegal operators in addition to beefing up security by tourist patrol police units.
“This legislation is good for the beach operators because we are going to have management units that will be gazetted. Apart from looking at their business interests, they will also be involved in enhancing security and cleanliness,” said Mr Balala.
This is expected to legitimise beach trade which has been frowned upon by some tourists and hotel operators at the Coast.
But data from the economic survey shows that the number of offences involving tourists reported to police stations has been declining in the five years to 2009, with five offences reported in 2009 compared to six in 2008, 10 in 2007, 84 in 2006 and 32 in 2005.
This means that most tourists a re not making formal complaints to the police.
The ministry plans to relocate beach, port, tube, camel and boat operators to special markets although it is facing growing opposition from local leaders.
The new markets plan borrows heavily from the design of structures put up by the City Council of Nairobi to accommodate hawkers.
“This bill is the cornerstone of future regulation and restoration of law and order in the tourism sector,” said Mr Balala.
Players in the tourism industry have welcomed the move saying this would allow tourists to choose either to go for leisure or shopping at their convenience.
“Every time we conduct a satisfaction survey after tourists leave the country, the feedback has always been the same—do something about the beach operators. Some have even cited beach traders as the main reason they will never return to the country as tourists,” said Mr Mike Macharia, CEO Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers & Caterers.
The sector that is targeting a 10 per cent growth to Sh80 billion this year has also rolled out several initiatives alongside the beach clean up to attain this growth as it seeks to reclaim its glory as the country’s highest foreign exchange earner.
Tourism was beaten last year to a distant third as the highest earner behind tea (Sh97 billion) and horticulture (Sh78 billion).
The industry recorded a Sh27 billion shortfall compared to its Sh100 billion target last year.
However, despite the shortfall, last year’s figures were the best since independence.
On its part, the Kenya Tourist Board (KTB), which markets Kenya as a tourist destination has announced plans to further diversify its pitch to emerging markets such as China, India, the Middle East, Russia and some African countries to reduce its over reliance on the UK.
UK remains Kenya’s leading source of visitors that gave the country 174,051 tourists last year followed by the US with 107,842 and Italy at 87,600.
India was the best performing source market with 47,611 visitors—a 30 per cent growth, compared to 36,602 in 2009.
KTB is this year is expected to increase its investment in the emerging markets to further grow earnings.
“KTB has begun focusing on positioning Kenya as high value destination to appeal to high spending tourists. This is a critical reason why the commensurate growth in revenues superseded that of arrivals (18 per cent vs 15 per cent) but not exclusively,” said Mr Balala.
The sector is also betting on growing the country’s pop as a regional conferencing hub and the ongoing classification of hotels to grow its sales.
Already, Kenya has witnessed substantial investments into high-end hospitality facilities in the race to tap growing demand for meeting space.
Tribe, Crowne Plaza, Sankara and Ole Sereni hotels were set up in the last three years, raising the city’s bed capacity by 590 to 3,000.
Other investments include Simba Group which is putting up a hotel on Waiyaki Way, South Africa’s Don Suite Hotels, and global hotel chain, Rezidor of Belgium that has announced plans to set up a Raddison in Upper Hill in 2012.
The ministry is counting on the classification of hotels and restaurants across the country to provide consumers with critical quality benchmarks that will help them match prices to services.
The exercise will elevate or downgrade the ranking of hospitality establishments, giving a true picture of their level of service.
The exercise which is being conducted based on new standards applicable across the five East African Community member states will assure consumers of similar services in line with hotel ratings in the region.
The Tourist Bill will also help the ministry to provide loans to Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) at subsidised rates.
KTB has however raised fears that escalating political tensions as the country heads for the General Election next year could affect Kenya as a tourist destination and dim these prospects.
“We are concerned about the rising political temperatures in the country since they have a direct bearing on how we are viewed by tourists,” said Kenya Tourist Board (KTB) managing director Muriithi Ndegwa.
The tourism minister has also raised concerns that players in the sector are taking too long to embrace international best practices as well in reinventing their products to keep pace with competitors.
The sector has also renewed its calls on the government to increase the marketing budget above the current Sh800 million to boost its promotion campaigns.
“We have successfully eliminated the post election violence images from the minds of international visitors and now have to focus our attention on showcasing our tourism destinations,” said Mr Ndegwa.
The sector is also mulling devolution of tourism activities to the county governments in line with the new constitution.
“Counties will develop their own tourism products to compete for tourists with other regions,” said Mr Macharia. “This should in turn result in better products for our tourists even as it generates revenue for the grassroots.”
Growing domestic tourism is also on the radar of sector players having emerged as the best bet to cushion the sector from the poor sales in low seasons.
Stakeholders are already aligning products to cash in on Easter holidays.
This is expected to be supported by more visitors from Tanzania and Uganda.