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Destinations connected with Obama capitalize on associations with new US president

Andrew Princz,  Jan 20, 2009

From Nairobi to Waikiki, to the small Irish community of Moneygall; the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of United States has generated what is termed the “Obama effect” on tourism destinations that are hoping to benefit from their association with the president-elect's journey to the White House.

"We brought The Boys Choir of Kenya to perform at several events," says Jennifer Jacobson, North American Marketing Manager for the Kenyan Tourism Board, reached in Washington on Monday shortly after an appearance on the US broadcaster CNN.

The Boys Choir of Kenya will be presenting at several of the pre-inauguration Washington galas. They perform a range of traditional chants from Massaai and Sumburu, and contemporary African pieces. They are popular in their native Kenya, which boasts over forty-two ethnic groups; their repertoire also covers European and American choral classics from Bach, Mozart, Negro Spirituals and Caribbean folk songs.

"They are treated like rock stars; there is a feeling that on the street of celebration of the connection to Obama," says Jacobson of the reception of the choir.

Barack Obama, whose late father was born in Kenya, is celebrated as a national hero and a source of pride in the East African country. Kenyan officials are counting on using the cache of Barack Obama's presidency to attract tourists to the country that only a year ago was undergoing a period of violence and civil strife.

Local tour operators in Kenya have already incorporated visits to the village of Kogelo in their travel offerings. It is where Obama's father grew up and where his grandmother still lives. A project to build a museum in the village dedicated to Barrack Obama is also expected to attract large numbers of American visitors keen on learning about the roots of their first non-white American president. US carrier Delta Airlines has recently opened offices in Nairobi and will launch flights from Atlanta to Nairobi via the Senegalese capital of Dakar.

"It is obvious that it has given a lot of hope to people here, and you can sense that," says Paris-based event organizer Patrick Jucaud of Basic Lead talking from the Senegalese capital of Dakar.

"It is a very special day. Every magazine, newspaper and television show have been talking about Obama. I had a meeting with the director of the national broadcaster and all he could talk about was Obama, so there is a huge impact on the morale of the people here."

While already leading the production of a pan-African television market called Discop Africa - set to take place at the end of next month in Dakar - Jucaud would like to capitalize on the peaked interest in Africa following the Obama interest to develop a new tourism marketplace either in Dakar or Nairobi within the next six months.

"There are many expectations of the United States," continues Jucaud, "With all the plans people here believe that it will be a powerful help for the development of Africa. And it has given them a lot of pride."

"While there are many opportunities, though, it is still too early. The main thing is to find the right angle to bring the right kind of tourism."

Some tourism insiders say that finding right angle came a little bit late in the game for one of the most obvious places on Obama's biographical map, where he grew up in the leafy Hawaiian islands - a destination that is suffering the devastating effects of a recent downswing in tourism numbers.

"They don't really do enough," says Juergen Steinmetz, president of the newly formed Hawaii Tourism Association, and long-time publisher of the travel-trade site eTurboNews.

"When Obama was here for Christmas and the New Year, CNN was basically camped out at in Waikiki. That kind of publicity cannot be bought and you cannot put a dollar value to it: it's tremendous and had quite an impact."

But it was almost as if these islands had neglected the potential benefits of having the president-elect spend his 12-night vacation on the island of Oahu, says Steinmetz, who has spearheaded an industry-backed tourism promotion organization in order to attempt to rejuvenate the Hawaiian tourism industry - and initiate new opportunities.

"The Obama-effect has only been happening on a small scale here so far," he says, "A restaurant has named a burger after him, a store has a sign that says 'Obama was here', and there is a tour that drives by the apartment where he grew up."

Kenyan Tourism Minister Najib Balala is scheduled to hold talks in New York about a strategy on capitalizing on the Obama effect.

The Barack Obama effect doesn't stop there, however. Even a small remote Irish village is laying claim to its own piece of the next US leader's heritage. An amusing local band's video - which has been viewed almost a million times on YouTube - sings a tune that goes, "there's nobody as Irish as Barack Obama".

Stephen Neill, an Anglican rector in the small village claimed to have discovered a genealogical connect between Obama's great-great-great-grandfather, Fulmuth Kearney, and claims that he was raised in Moneygall before leaving, at the age of 19, for America in 1850.

While the Obama team has reportedly not confirmed or denied his connection to the town of less than 300, it has not stopped the celebrations there; nor has it stopped the international media attention that the community has received in recent days.

It just goes to show that even a remote connection of over a century and a half ago can launch Obama-mania, the Obama effect.

Montreal-based cultural navigator Andrew Princz is the editor of the travel portal He is involved in journalism, country awareness, tourism promotion and cultural-oriented projects globally. He has traveled to over fifty countries around the globe; from Nigeria to Ecuador; Kazakhstan to India. He is constantly on the move, seeking out opportunities to interact with new cultures and communities.

Destinations connected with Obama capitalize on associations with new US president
Photograph by Nelson Alcantara

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