Managing Kenya’s Tourism Crisis
The Kenya Tourism Federation deserves a great deal of credit for quickly issuing a statement in response to the outbreak of post-election violence in Kenya. The KTF’s call for a peaceful resolution of political issues for the sake of the national economy is unarguable. The statement’s overall assessment of the safety of tourism attractions and the overall security of major tourism attractions in Kenya reflects the current status in what is a very fluid and unpredictable environment.
The KTF statement for all its merits is not the most effective way to manage Kenya’s current tourism crisis. It does not address the rash of negative government travel advisories issued by most of Kenya’s key source markets or the decision taken by the British Federation of Travel Operators to suspend package tours (albeit on a day-by-day basis) to Kenya. The statement as it stands is not an effective response to the intense and overwhelmingly negative global media coverage of Kenya. A location such as Amboseli National Park (near Mt Kilimanjaro) may be calm but tourists or prospective tourists need to know if it is possible to travel from there to other parts of Kenya or more importantly to the international airports in Nairobi and Mombassa to exit the country .
The key to managing a rapidly changing crisis situation is to ensure there are accurate and reliable real-time updates on the situation as it affects tourism. In September 2007 Tourism California showed the way by regularly updating tourists and all its stakeholders during the Southern California fires.
Statements made by KTF claiming that tourist destinations are secure are meaningless without specificity, especially in Kenya’s situation where some parts of the capital Nairobi are aflame and other districts are unaffected.
During the height of the Intifada in Israel 2001-03, the website of the Israel Ministry of Tourism posted regular updates on places which were open or closed. A phone hot line was available for tourists. Visit Britain (the British Tourism Authority in 2001) adopted a similar approach to Britain’s Foot and Mouth outbreak and Tourism California successfully managed the recent forest fire crisis with a similar strategy.
In the short-term such openness and honesty may not necessarily benefit parts of destination Kenya and may even result in a temporary drop in tourism. However, in the longer term honesty insures that the tourism authority is regarded as a provider of credible and trustworthy information which builds far more confidence in travellers and stakeholders than morale-boosting statements.
The successful management of a tourism crisis is predicated on the local tourism industry clearly illustrating the contrast between perception and fact and on the destination marketing authority being a trustworthy source of factual information.
A critical element in managing Kenya’s current volatile situation is the adoption of the “isolation strategy”. This involves clearly identifying the problem areas, trouble free areas and safe transport routes. Vital to the credibility of this information it is important to ensure that regularly updated information is displayed in a simple and ideally visual fashion equally clear to travellers and stakeholders. The Internet has made this process a very inexpensive exercise. Accurate information is power. It will also be helpful to Kenya if updates are readily communicated to the media and to diplomatic legations. One of the major perception problems Kenya is currently experiencing is media portrayal of the entire country embroiled in riots. Although this is not factually correct it has become the overriding perception.
I have had the privilege of being involved in working with Kenya’s tourism industry leaders in helping restore Kenya’s tourism following the crisis they experienced with negative travel advisories in 2003. The key to recovery then was honest and open co-operation with stakeholders and negotiation with the diplomatic corps to address security concerns of source markets. The result of this alliance between the various elements of Kenya’s tourism industry towards addressing negative perceptions then was a long term recovery of tourism to Kenya until the events of the past week.
Kenya’s tourism circumstances today are very different from those of 2003 when the challenge to Kenya’s tourism was alternatively a real and imagined external threat. The current crisis involves internal political instability manifesting itself into inter-tribal violence.
The recovery of tourism to Kenya from now on must focus on restoring confidence in the destination and this requires an honest, specific and transparent approach to the security and safety issues.
The cruel fact is that while Kenya is a magnificent tourism destination, there are geographically proximate alternatives for at least some of Kenya’s main tourist attractions, especially wildlife safaris and beaches. Few tourists are motivated to visit Kenya for the altruistic purposes of boosting the country’s economy although most tourism professionals who specialise in Africa do understand the importance of this to the people of Kenya.
KTF’s statements and updates must directly address the concerns of the tourists and tour operators. The prime concern is safety. During this recovery phase, solidarity campaigns in which a portion of a tour cost will assist the victims of this latest outburst of violence may add a socially conscious element to the recovery campaign.
It is inevitable that Kenya’s tourism, which has undergone sustained growth between 2003-2007, will take a dive for at least some of 2008. The length of the downturn will largely depend on the time Kenya is perceived to have returned to national stability.
Kenya’s tourism industry should be actively managing the crisis now and preparing a massive recovery marketing blitz to quickly bring the tourists back to Kenya once the political situation is stabilised. Tourists will rapidly return to a country in which the tourism industry has won respect and trust. Fortunately, in the global tourism industry there are many positive examples in which destinations recovered within a short period from adversity by applying successful and proven crisis management practices. Kenya can benefit by adapting successful strategies to its current situation.