New chapter of growth in tourism for East Africa

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Tourism between East Africa and the granted Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport as Category One status is expected to herald the new beginning of direct flights to America from Nairobi, with a new chapter of growth in regional tourism.

After Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) won Category One status from the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last month, there are new hopes heralding East African tourism, looking for faster growth through the Kenyan entry point. By attaining the highest International Aviation Safety Assessment status, Kenya is now standing as East Africa’s aviation hub for American tourists booked to the East African Community (EAC) member states most of whom are lacking key tourist services.


Kenya’s Transport Cabinet Secretary, James Macharia, was quoted by The EastAfrican as saying that Kenya Airways and other interested local operators will fly directly from Kenya to the United States once the necessary approvals and last point of departure (LPD) rights are granted. Mr. Macharia said that with the attainment of Category One status, Kenya Airways will immediately apply for approval to codeshare with US airlines while concurrently pursuing approval for direct flights.

RwandAir, the other major airline in the EAC says going through Kenya is also an opportunity the airline can explore. Jimmy Musoni, the Head of Commercial Planning at RwandAir, noted, however, that they were yet to undertake a study to weigh their options.

Direct flights to the US will significantly reduce the time taken between the US and East Africa to as little as a day. Passengers will also save on the time it takes transiting through Europe or the Middle East. To this date, travelers between East Africa and the US have to transit through London, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Dubai, or Addis Ababa, whose airports have been approved for direct flights to the United States. Flying to the US from Nairobi and connecting via Addis Ababa takes approximately 30 hours and some layover time, which can be between 15 hours, at a cost of about $1,620 for a one-way trip.

There are a few direct flights from Lagos, Nigeria, to New York, and a traveler from Nairobi connecting via Nigeria will take approximately 23 hours. If one chooses to connect via Oliver Tambo Airport in Johannesburg from Nairobi, the journey will be 20 hours. Direct flights are usually more expensive than connecting ones and so travelers should expect shorter but costlier flights.

Although it may be a while before Kenya Airways commences direct flights to the US, the development is a major win for JKIA, as the airport and national carrier Kenya Airways can now consolidate United States-bound traffic that has been leaking through hubs in Europe and the Middle East.

Director General of the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority, Gilbert Kibe, said it will take 8 months before direct flights between United States and Kenya take off, but the Authority will have to be vetted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on competence in overseeing the airspace. The Kenya Airports Authority will also have to undergo a security audit by the US Transport Safety Authority to ensure passengers from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport pose no threat once on American soil. If a clean bill of health is given, the airport will be given a last point of departure approval. Airlines wishing to run direct flights to the United States from JKIA will then individually apply for commercial and technical licenses.

For travelers, tickets to the United States via Europe or the Middle East are bound to become cheaper as competition between the Middle East and European-registered airlines heats up.


Kenya’s efforts to attain the higher status started in October 2014, when the FAA conducted a technical review of the safety oversight system in Kenya. This was followed by a Corrective Action Plan that was developed in Washington in January 2015 to address deficiencies identified in the technical review. A total of 81 corrective actions were developed. Last year, FAA inspectors were in Kenya and cleared the way for the final audit after they were satisfied that the Kenyan government had put in place all requisite measures. Apart from coming up with a new Civil Aviation Law, Kenya also set up a Civil Aviation Tribunal as part of the requirements.

The Kenyan government has invested in the expansion of airport infrastructure at JKIA which now boasts a new Terminal 1-A for international arrivals and departures.

The chief executive officer of the Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers, Mike Macharia, was quoted as aying easy access was important for development of Kenyan tourist economy. The association is in the middle of a study of how tourism numbers will be affected by the opening up of direct flights. “We are doing a value chain analysis, interviewing market players like grocers, butchers, and drinks suppliers to see how easy access to and from the US will lead to a shift in trade,” Mr. Macharia said.

He said the tourism market has not leveraged the Middle and Far East markets of Japan and Korea, or even markets like the French and German; after these countries stopped their own direct flights to Kenya. “Cancelling a route is very easy but getting it back is a long process; we have been trying to persuade charter flights to fly direct from these countries to Kenya, but it is yet to happen,” said Mr. Macharia.

Tanzania, the closer neighbor to Kenya, is looking to benefit from the FAA’s approval of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for direct flights from the United States. Lacking a reliable and internationally-recognized airline company, Tanzania is still going at a snail’s pace in East African aviation business, with only a single, privately-owned airline company, Precision Air, flying domestic and regional routes. The politically-run Air Tanzania Company Limited (ATCL) is still limping with 2 Canadian-made 76-seater Bombardier D8 Q400 aircraft bought in September last year. Hired from Government Flights, at least, to revive the wingless airline, the 2 aircraft serve only but few domestic routes with additional flights to Comoro islands in the Indian Ocean.

Nairobi still remains the hub of East African tourism, having good and reliable connections across the 5 continents through Kenya Airways, the leading airline in East Africa.