Kenya’s tourism private sector getting restless

There is outright disenchantment being displayed by the tourism fraternity, many of whom hold the ministry directly responsible for the worsening state of the industry in Kenya.

Kenya’s tourism private sector getting restless

There is outright disenchantment being displayed by the tourism fraternity, many of whom hold the ministry directly responsible for the worsening state of the industry in Kenya.

A meeting earlier in the week between the tourism recovery task force and members of the tourism fraternity in Mombasa, Kenya, once again showed the widening rift between the official government position and the reality on the ground, described by some to be “as bad as it was never ever before.” Some senior stakeholders in fact suggested that having failed to launch sufficient countermeasures, and in view of ongoing security concerns, recovery may be much further away than the Kenyan government has led the public to believe.

Information that Tanzania’s parliament has again thrown out proposals to levy Value Added Tax (VAT) on tourism services, in line with what Uganda and Rwanda have been doing, too, has further inflamed the situation with several regular contributors suggesting that the powers that be in the Kenyan government, in charge of tourism, are completely removed from reality and have failed to impress upon the cabinet that the continued charge of a 16 percent VAT on a range of tourism services, is in fact one factor which has all but killed coast tourism by making the services more expensive at a time when demand was withering away.

While it was openly suggested that the sector requires its own ministry of tourism together with wildlife and perhaps other related portfolios like environment and natural resources, it was only whispered behind closed doors that the current cabinet secretary was not on the shortlist of the tourism industry’s who’s who for such a position. Former Tourism minister Najib Balala was the undisputed lead candidate for in particular the coast tourism stakeholders according to every single communication received, showing the level of confidence the sector has in his ability to more effectively lead the recovery marketing efforts and stand up for his portfolio in cabinet meetings and when the national tax cake is being divided vis-a-vis resource allocation for tourism marketing and other crucial areas.

Other points highlighted by stakeholder feedback were the reduction or temporary waiver of visa fees for tourists; further incentives for airlines, in particular scheduled airlines to fly into Mombasa; and the restructuring of the Kenya Tourism Board into a tourism authority where under one roof all the presently fragmented functions and separate parastatals will be unified to save costs and to make the organization stronger. One source added: “What we also need is cheaper flights from the region to Mombasa and it is high time Fastjet gets their licenses to start operations in Kenya and bring fares down even more. We are facing very hard times and keeping airlines out of Kenya to protect those who have objected is counterproductive for tourism.”

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Resort operators added access to affordable finance to the list of demands, to allow them to refurbish their often aged properties and install solar technology to save on utility costs, besides bringing Kenya’s beach resorts in line with the international competition, something a few like the Leopard Beach, the Whitesands and the Serena Beach have done in recent years but where most in fact lag behind now.

“Unless this government now acts, we will see banks to start foreclosure proceedings against many hotels and resorts which have failed to pay their installments in time. For hotel managers, it is a monthly struggle now to figure out what to pay first. Taxes before KRA [Kenya Revenue Authority] locks up the front gate, utilities before the water and electricity company cut services and ground operations, the banks where overdrafts are at record highs and loan repayments have been missed by many, or the staff before they go on strike or just walk away? We are fed up with the attitude of government, from [the] cabinet secretary to the very top, because they were all told that there will be consequences, and now that it is happening, they still are clueless. When that task force hands in their report, and we only hope that they will mince no words and drop the diplomatic language and call a spade a space, we want to see instant implementation of all those suggestions. If not, God knows what will happen to this industry.”

Another coast-based source cited the Lamu Festival as an example, where it took the government until literally the very last moment to confirm the lifting of a night-time curfew, keeping the organizers, sponsors, and most important the potential visitors to the festival in suspense if the Lamu Cultural Festival could go ahead until just a few days prior to the event, which started today. “It shows the full insensitivity of our government. They just have no clue at all, and our security forces have become part of the problem and are right now not part of the solution. Where is the tourism police? Where are regular forces visible on day and night time patrols? Why blame those who complain about all the lapses over the past 15 months instead of blaming those who have failed in their jobs? I hate to say it, after all I voted for him, but if our President jet sets around for Formula 1 races while Kenyans are dying, prances around doing selfies and then has the audacity to shift the blame to us, saying we the people have failed, there is something fundamentally wrong with our system and the understanding of issues our leaders have.”

These sentiments coincided with news from Tanzania that for the 2015 financial year, the VAT has again been shelved, a shot in the arm for Tanzanian operators who are more competitive in their safari quotations and other pricing, hoping for more visitors, in part syphoned away from Kenya which has remained more expensive during the longest tourism downturn period in the history of the country.

No doubt will there be howls of outrage again from the usual suspects, but truth told, these are the very sentiments of the tourism stakeholders who have lost confidence and faith in the system and are looking for alternative means to have their opinion voiced without being identified and subjected to repercussions if not outright sanctions.

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