Lynette Jones has spent the past 18 months planning an October trip to Kenya with her husband and two cousins. The Australian supply manager is eager to watch the great wildebeest migration in the country’s Maasai Mara National Park—but a spate of recent terror attacks in the country has thrown the trip in doubt.
“I’m not overly worried and still hoping to go, but my companions are a little more nervous and anxious regarding safety and are considering other options,” Jones wrote in an e-mail.
Unfortunately for Kenya, where tourism is the country’s second-largest industry, thousands of other tourists are thinking twice before booking their flights. Recent terror attacks have led to travel warnings from the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and other Western countries. The number of tourists visiting the East African nation known for big game safaris and white-sand beaches declined 15 percent last year over 2012, according to The Standard, a Kenyan newspaper.
Mark Cahill, founder and co-owner of Odyssey Safari in Kenya, says the tourism sector is currently suffering its worst drought since opening his business a decade ago. Although his company operates tours throughout Africa, it is based in Nanyuki, a market town at the foot of Mount Kenya. Cahill says the past 10 months—beginning with the three-day siege of the Westgate Shopping Mall by al-Shabaab in September that left at least 67 dead—has been the longest stretch of discouraging news he’s seen.
“Most recently, we’ve started to see people not choosing to travel to Kenya at all,” Cahill says. “None of the attacks have been in tourist areas, but now a simple Google search brings up so many negative headlines, people are starting to reevaluate entirely.”
Since the attack on Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall in September, over 200 Kenyans have been killed during five raids on villages in the coastal northeastern region of the country, near the Somali-Kenyan border. The most recent attack on July 6 left 22 dead in the coastal town of Hindi, according to the Associated Press. The raid occurred nearly one month after the bloodiest single attack, on the trading town of Mpeketoni, near the tourist hotspot of Lamu island. More than 65 people were killed by masked gunmen there between June 15 and 17.
The Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they seek revenge for the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia, which is part of an African Union peacekeeping mission meant to bolster the country's fragile government. The group has also broadcast radio messages declaring Kenya a “war zone” and warning tourists visiting the country to “do so at their own peril.”
But Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta contradicted al-Shabaab’s claim over the Mpeketoni attack, instead saying the attacks were the work of his Kenyan political opponents and local separatist groups.
Cahill and some others in Kenya see this as an attempt to deflect attention from the government’s failure to protect its own people from a foreign militia group. Kenyatta’s reaction to the situation does more harm than good, he says, and it’s more concerning for tourists if the recent unrest is rooted in local issues—as Kenyatta claims.
“Imagine if Connecticut and Rhode Island were at war — not many foreigners would be comfortable travelling to New Haven,” Cahill says.
Harrison Misiko, an editor at The Daily Nation, the country’s largest newspaper, agrees. He says the government is loathe to admit it miscalculated the strength of al-Shabaab.
“The biggest problem is we have a country led by generals who are underestimating the might of their enemy,” Misiko says. “The president thinks these are a bunch of cowards. They are not — they’re a real threat and infectious. When I hear the president losing sight of this and subscribing to conspiracy theories, we are losing the battle.”
Many tour companies had prepared themselves for a lull in visitors around presidential elections in March 2013. During the country’s last election in 2007, Kenya erupted when disputed results favoring then-incumbent president Mwai Kibaki led to ethnic fighting that killed more than 1,100 people. Last year’s poll passed relatively peacefully, but the cutbacks tour companies made in anticipation of a downturn helped them survive after the Westgate attacks.
“When the recent violence started, they were still in that protected state and hadn’t extended themselves too far,” Cahill says. “They were in a good position for something like this to happen, but if it continues for too much longer, we’ll definitely be seeing more companies go under.”
Other travel companies are more optimistic. Jessica Brida of Micada Safaris reports “business as usual.” She says seasoned travelers interested in visiting Kenya are still able to have a peaceful vacation.
“I think it’s important for people to understand there’s been an orange alert on New York City since 9/11,” Brida says. “[Tourists] understand the geography, understand the situation, and make a decision based on that.”
“Kenya is a very large country — it’s the size of France,” Brida added. “Not all regions are affected.”
The region most affected by the attacks, Kenya’s northeast, has long been ignored by the government. Healthcare, roads and electricity all lag many other parts of the country. Misiko, of The Daily Nation, says al-Shabaab is strategically targeting it as the “soft belly of Kenya.” Tourism, the one industry that managed to succeed in the region, is now struggling to stay afloat.
“Hotels don’t have bookings,” Misiko says, noting that many are recording as low as 30 percent occupancy rates in what should be high season. “But it’s not just a lack of business and a lack of bookings — workers have to go home and then unemployment goes up.”
Despite the instability, Jones, the Australian tourist, vows to press ahead with her trip even if the rest of her family drops out. “I’ve seen many documentaries on Kenya and the fact is this is where you’ll find more of the animals,” she says.
For Kenya’s tour operators, convincing those less determined than Jones to visit will be key to a recovery.
“It becomes, ‘Why would I travel to Kenya when I could have a similar experience elsewhere?’” says Cahill. “For someone who just wants to go to Africa, usually Tanzania and South Africa are the two easier options.”