On the banks of the Mara River sits a newly erected tourist facility that hopes to fill its tents soon, having lost millions of shillings.
The Karen Blixen Camp, situated outside the famous Masai Mara Game Reserve, is struggling to fill its 22 luxurious tents three months into the year as the number of tourists visiting the country remains low.
The camp, which opened in June 2007, had hoped to accommodate 1,250 people this year, but this does not look possible, having lost about Sh10 million due to cancellations
“Although the cancellations have stopped , we already missed a huge pre-sale from July which are mainly sold early in the year especially for the European market,” a director of the camp, Mr Martin Nielsen, says.
The camp is not the only one. The whole tourism sector is still struggling to get back on its feet following post-election violence and stakeholders are striving to tell the world that Kenya is safe and tourists can come and enjoy the country’s delights.
Sector players have been globe-trotting with this message in a bid to rebuild the country’s image abroad and encourage tourists to visit the country. From Germany to China, Moscow to the US, the sector is rolling out aggressive marketing campaigns.
As delegations are sent out to various corners of the world, the sector is at the drawing board, coming up with other aggressive strategies to help boost its image. There is also more emphasis on the use of the media to sell the country.
A major media campaign is set to be rolled out in the next few weeks targeting key markets in Europe, the US and Asia. It is expected to change people’s perception of Kenya to erase the images the world saw earlier in the year during the political unrest.
Although Kenya is no longer top news, especially after the signing of a peace deal between President Kibaki and ODM leader Raila Odinga, the bloody images remain. “Tourists are still staying away, which shows the power of the international media,” Mr Nielsen says.
These scenes of violence along with travel advisories issued by various Western governments saw potential tourists cancel their holidays. Even though most governments have revised their advisories, only a few visitors are reassured.
The campaign will see Kenya feature in major television networks, print media and billboards among other media outlets. It will mirror a similar campaign that was rolled out in 2003 under the Tourism Recovery Management Plan (TRMP).
TRMP proved to be a success, bringing the sector back from the ashes after a major slump in the 1990s on the back of politically instigated clashes in Likoni in 1997 and the terrorist attacks the following year.
Five years later, stakeholders are looking at replicating TRMP’s success and save the sector under the recovery plan that will need three times the money used previously.
According to sector players, the recovery plan will need over one billion shillings to see it through this rough patch. The money is expected to cover the media campaigns, the travel to various markets, road shows, familiarisation trips to the country by tour operators and the media from various markets, among other activities.
Mr Mike Macharia, the chief executive of Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers and Caterers (KAHC), and a member of the tourism crisis team, notes that for now the budget stands at between Sh1.5 billion and Sh2 billion.
He said the sector was looking to Treasury for the money. “We are hoping to benefit from the kitty the president announced for the country’s recovery,” he says.
In March, President Kibaki announced that at least Sh31.5 billion would be required for economic reconstruction. The money, which will be sourced from Treasury and the international community, is expected to help rebuild the country and help it regain its lost image.
Already Sh1.5 of has been released from this kitty to address immediate recovery issues like relocation of displaced people.
For now, the sector is using money budgeted for other programmes, including the Tourism Sustainability Programme (TSP), to support the recovery plan as they wait for Treasury.
“We are using the money meant for other activities from the previous budget to fund our current marketing campaigns,” Ms Rebecca Nabutola, the PS ,Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife and chair of the crisis committee said in a previous press briefing.
Since the recovery of the sector, players have been asking for more allocations to support marketing, a move which has borne no fruits.
In the recently released budgetary estimates for 2008/2009 financial year, Treasury will allocate the tourism sector Sh400 million. But industry players say this is way below what is required.
A chunk of the money is expected to cover overhead costs for the ministry and the various parastatals affiliated to it, leaving little for marketing. The sector was hoping for increased allocations of about Sh1 billion, but this does not look like the case. In the current financial year that ends in June, the sectors allocations were slashed by Sh300 million from the Sh864 billion it got in 2006.
However, marketing of the destination is not entirely left to the main body, Kenya Tourist Board. Private players in the sector have always played a major role in marketing and have increased their effort this time around. As major losers they are not waiting for Treasury and have invested their own money in trying to attract business to the country. Hotels and tour operators have rolled out promotional materials above the usual annual programmes.
These include special packages for tourists, both local and international to fill their tour vans, hotels and planes. Hotels are adding value to their products by discounts, extra nights for every five nights booked, free massages and dinners among other things to entice tourists to visit.
Kenya Wildlife Service, which was meant to increase park fees mid this year, has put the plan on hold until 2009. It has also invested in media campaigns both locally and internationally.
Ms Janet Omido, Fairmont’s director of sales and marketing, is out to sell her products to the US market this month. She was part of the sector team that was to travel to the US to promote Kenya. But the road show was postponed following the political crisis .
Undeterred, she was in Moscow in March with other sector players, selling her products and the country’s beauty to the Russians. Russia is seen as one of the potential growth markets for the destination. Early March, a large delegation—made up of hoteliers, tour operators and government bodies —set out for the ITB in Berlin.
As the world’s largest tourism fair, the country set out to get seek the goodwill of the market and reassure it that Kenya was back. Operators who attended the fair say the Kenyan stand was popular.
“It was a positive and an encouraging event,” Ms Nabutolla, said. Players have just come back from China where they spent days touring various provinces and promoting the destination.
These tours are expected to help the country recover at least in the fourth quarter of the year. Having fully lost the first quarter, not much is expected during this period when bookings for the high season trickle in.
Statistics from KTB show that only 55,906 tourists visited the country in January compared to 177,314 the same period last year.
The situation was worse in February, with only 37,184 tourists visiting the destination, leading to a projected loss of Sh5.5 billion during the first quarter. Tourism has risen over the years to become one of the leading sectors in the country’s economy and is a key pillar in its growth as stipulated by vision 2030.
Last year , the sector raked in Sh65.4 million compared to Sh56.2 billion in 2006. Hotel occupancy in Nairobi was poor, with so me hotels recording as low as nine per cent in the month of February while Mombasa struggled at an average of 25 per cent occupancy. This is the lowest the hotels have experienced in years , players say.
Mr Mohammed Hersi, the chairperson of KAHC in Mombasa, said previously business in January and February cushioned the hotels during the low season but this time around, hotels are cutting costs. “The sector is not back and we are far from it,” he adds.
A camp like Karen Blixen was looking at almost 75 per cent occupancy for the high season – July to September.
This has been reduced to less than 40 per cent. Other players are also just waiting to see what the high season bring as they seek innovative ways of staying afloat.