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Tourism in Kenya

Kenya has a market-based economy, and it is the largest economy of east and central Africa. Over the past few decades, the economy has been heavily dependent on agriculture and tourism. Kenya’s main exports are tea and flowers, and the country’s economic stability has been dependent on its citizens’ ability to grow an assortment of food crops. Kenya’s long term economic future is not entirely certain, because potential climate change could adversely affect the food producers in Kenya. In the near term, tourism in the country is down, and a lack of visitors cripples the local economy.

Soon after Kenya gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1963, it opened its boarders for tourism. After approximately 20 years, Kenya’s wildlife and white-sand beaches attracted visitors and helped make tourism a vital part of the economy. However, the tourism industry in Kenya took its first major hit in 2008 when a controversial election led to political instability within the country. The instability deterred visitors from coming and led to the cancellation of many international business conferences. After the crisis, tourism began to rebound, but an uptick in terrorism attacks since 2011 have once again stifled the growth in tourism.

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Since 2011, many of the terrorism attacks, including the Westgate Mall attack in 2013, have been purportedly carried out by Al-Shabaab, which is an Islamic group based in Somalia. The terrorist attacks on Kenya have included a broad range of targets, including government buildings, government officials, locals and Westerners. Some attacks have even been on tourist destinations such as Diani Beach and  areas of Mombassa.

Before going to Kenya with the Culturs team, I had obvious concerns. Leading up to my trip, the State Department of the United States issued a travel warning that informed U.S. citizens of the elevated travel risks when going to Kenya. In particular, there was an abnormally high risk of terrorist attacks, especially at the coastal cities like Mombassa. In addition to the travel warning, I was concerned about the trip because I had limited international travel experience and our travel plans where not finalized. I even had opportunity to back out of the trip, but I did not want to force others to pick up my slack, and I didn’t want to regret not going. The decision to go was one of the hardest I’ve made in my life, but I ultimately decided to go.

For the first half of the trip, we visited places in Kenya that are not accessible to many tourists. However, we went to some of the tourist destinations during the second half of the trip. The first tourist destination we went to that was outside Nairobi was Amboseli National Park. This park is roughly a four hour drive from Nairobi, and it is one of the premiere locations for wildlife viewing. It features an abundant amount of game, open savannah, and it is located at the base of of Mt. Kilimanjaro, which is the highest peak on the continent.

We arrived at Amboseli late in the afternoon and went on a game drive. After the drive, we checked into a lodge that was just outside the main entrance to the park. The loge was basically a luxury resort hotel. When we pulled into the lodge, we were greeted by an extremely enthusiastic staff. As soon as we got out of the car, several staff members grabbed our bags, other staff members offered us an assortment of snacks and drinks and others offered hot towels and bowls to wash off some of the dirt off of our skin from the game drive. The staff made every effort to accommodate our needs, yet they did not expect any tips.

The rooms at the Amboseli Lodge are designed to look like rural huts that are found in Kenya.
The rooms at the Amboseli Lodge are designed to look like rural huts that are found in Kenya.

As the staff took our bags to our rooms, I began to check out the hotel. In my opinion, the resort was fairly high end. The lodge featured all the amenities you would expect at a resort  such as a nice restaurant, pool, bars and some form of nightly entertainment. The lodge displayed afrocentric decor throughout, which enhanced the ambiance and really and made the loge fit in with its surrounding. Even the rooms were unique, because each room wad crafted to resemble an individual hut.

What was eerie about the lodge was that there were very few guests. We were there in early January. This is just after peak season, but usually there should be a substantial amount of tourism during this time. The lodge seemed to hold between 100 and 200 people, but I only saw a few guest while I was there. Even during dinner, the Culturs team and I ate in a large dining hall, but we had the entire room to ourselves. The kitchen staff only consisted of a few members but it seemed kind of awkward that we were the only ones they had to attend to. After the waitresses came to check on us, they quietly walked away but kept an eye on us. The minute we finished a dish they promptly came over. It seemed as if they haven’t had many people to attend to in some time. Over dinner, the thoughts came to my head that the travel warnings were really taking a toll on the country.

After resting for the night, we got up early for another game drive, and then continued on our way to the coast. Before arriving in Diani, we passed through Mombassa, which is about 20 miles North of Diani Beach. Mombassa is the first time I have been in a city that has a large, if not majority, Muslim population. It seemed as though it was a gateway to the Middle East. Many of the women were dressed in niqabs, burkas and chadors, while we could hear calls to prayer being played over loud speakers. When we first entered the city, I could not get the travel warning out of my head. As time moved on, I began to relax and I was finally able to shake off the travel warning. After being in the city for some time, I began to realize it was a city like any other. It consisted of people going about on their daily lives, with the same ambient noise you would find in any congested city in the world.

After we made it to Diani, we found our hotel and drove our car into the hotel’s beautiful open air lobby. Like the lodge in Amboseli, the staff quickly assembled and was prepared to meet all of our immediate needs. The place was luxurious and featured many entertainment amenities, but there only seemed to be a few guest around. This hotel was very large and housed several hundred people. However, I walked though multiple halls on a few floors, and I could not hear any sounds from televisions, children running or any of the usual noises associated with large hotels.

Empty beach chairs sit outside our hotel in Diani Beach
Empty beach chairs sit outside our hotel in Diani Beach

After I settled in to my room, I decided to walk out to the beach. On my way out, I walked through the pavilion, which had a stage and theater seating for the nightly entertainment. Just past the pavilion I walked through an empty courtyard. A swimming pool was on my left, and lawn chairs in front of me, and volleyball nets to my right. Even though it was nice and relaxing to have the place to myself, I could not shake the thought that this place should be full of guests. As I made my way to the beach, I stood before a lone security guard and a tall iron gate. I struck up a bit of small talk with the security guard, and he told me that the beach was gated to prevent  any thieves or unchecked people from entering the hotel grounds. After chatting, I made my way onto the beach before turning in for the night.

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The next day I took a break from my work and I managed to chat with some of the staff members of the hotel. Most of the staff that dealt with guest relations were in their early-to-mid 20s and started working at the hotel when they finished high school. I managed to ask them how busy the hotel usually is and when is the hotel’s peak season. They told me usually the highest volume of tourist come between December and January. They then affirmed that the threat of terrorism and the travel warnings have deterred tourists from coming. They even mentioned that there are days where they have no guests at all. On those days, they rely on each other to find things to do to prevent them from getting bored.

Overall, I am thankful that I visited the coastal cities of Kenya. What was most important for me was to get real sense of the dangers of traveling to an area such as this. Even though the travel warning exist, the odds are that I will remain safe. What I learned is how fear and uncertainty can cause me to obtain a false sense of insecurity. I realize that this is inherent within all of us, and this is what keeps the tourism industry in Kenya down. I can’t blame anyone for looking out for their own safety and not choosing to go on a trip such as this, because I had the same fears. However, it is important to keep a realistic sense of the danger and realize that it is fear that hurts the Kenyan economy the most.

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