Comments on the UK travel advice against Kenya

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advises against all but essential travel to Kenya, to

• areas within 60 km of the Kenya-Somali border

• Garissa District

• the Eastleigh area of Nairobi

• Mombasa island and within 5 km of the coast from Mtwapa creek in the north down to and including Tiwi in the south (this area does not include Diani or Moi international airport)

• Lamu County and those areas of Tana River County north of the Tana river itself

This is the short version of what travelers from the UK and from across the Commonwealth find on the site of the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, advice unchanged as evident for over two-and-a-half months to the increasing frustration of the Kenyan tourism industry at the coast. Occupancies plunged to record lows and an equal record number of hotels and resorts had to close down as their monthly revenues were no longer sufficient to pay taxes, utilities, supplier,s and wages.

Stakeholders are at a loss to understand why after several months of a markedly improved security situation, largely attributed to the appointment of a new and more savvy Inspector General of Police alongside a new Cabinet Secretary overseeing the security docket, there is still no change in the wording of the advisory, as a result of which transit through Mombasa to Diani has been made a no-go area.

A recent chance meeting with a senior diplomat, who should as a result of his nationality be in a position to competently comment on the behind-the-scene workings of the FCO, brought some interesting perspective to the fore: “You will remember the CHOICES HAVE CONSEQUENCES issue of last year and the year before. I follow your blog and was, of course, not happy how you made the FCO and the British High Commission look at the time. Britain is and always has been a friend to Kenya as are we, too. Their first responsibility however is to UK citizens. The security situation in Kenya a year ago, from what I have read, was leaving little choice but to put things the way they were put.

“I agree that a case could be made to look at a softer version now, take the sting out of the present wording, but then there are other issues which come into play. When for a long time a country gets her nose rubbed into the dirt, when traditional trade ties are tossed in favor of what I can only term a very inferior alternative from other parts of the world just to make a political point, when you get lambasted at every turn, don’t you think that breeds some resentment? As you put it, choices have consequences but it goes both ways. If Kenya would reach out to her western friends and allies, it would make a lot of difference. But, and I remind you not to quote my name, if you have maneuvered yourself into such a tight corner with constant off-the-cuff remarks and utterances trashing them, and have a foreign secretary who has gained some notoriety over how she treats certain countries, a resolution might be a long way off. Perhaps the private sector should take the lead on that one to open those doors again which ill-tempered statements slammed shut. And maybe you can remind your readers that the entire ICC scenario was created in Kenya when the parliament failed to institute legal measures to hold perpetrators of the PEV to account. It was them who referred the pending cases to The Hague. Any anger should, therefore, be directed to those who failed to keep the present cases out of the ICC. Kenya, in footballing language, scored not just one but several own goals at that time. It was not THE WEST which indicted Kenyans at the ICC, it was Kenya’s failure to act accordingly when the chance was there.

“True enough, some of the statements made in White Hall and in Washington were not helpful either that they would not want to deal with someone who has a case to answer at The Hague. Even for such high-profile cases, the standard should be nothing else but presumed innocence until proven guilty. What I am saying is that errors were made on both sides, but the reactions from Kenya were maybe disproportional and rubbed certain countries and their leaders the wrong way. Remember also that even if the travel advice would be substantially altered today, it would take months before charters from the UK could resume flights to Mombasa, simply because of the logistics involved. But now is better than later, and I hope that this can be resolved soon. The impact, economic and social, has been severe for the Kenya coast and the people there. Rising poverty, and subsequent rising crime, ordinary crime, not terrorism, is in no one’s interest.”

Perhaps it is time for the Kenyan private sector to map out a strategy how to befriend and charm foreign diplomats accredited to Kenya, if their own foreign office is not capable or willing to do that, and add this element to the many proposals handed to government how tourism can be revived.

None of those major points has yet been implemented, however, from what has been learned from regular sources in Nairobi and Mombasa, raising doubts that the powers that be really understand the urgency of the matter and to work hand in hand with the private sector and not use committees as mere window dresses. VAT on tourism services is still in place as are a range of other proposals gathering dust either on desks, or worse, in the filing cabinets of the powers that be.

Kenya, in spite of having all the plus points on her side with great beaches and even greater safari parks, needs to once again come out and show her friendly disposition towards not just visitors but their countries and governments, too.