Obama visit portends good fortunes for tourism industry

In 2015, Pope Francis and President Obama’s visits to Kenya were great marketing stories in international tourism, but the effects were only felt a year later

Munira Mandano, Peter Leshan and Harrison Kivisu 

Players and investors in the tourism sector foresee a bullish second half of 2018 and  a booming 2019 season after former US President Obama visited Kenya this week. However, dividends from  Obama’s visit will only  be fully realised  next year.

Bobby Kamani, Managing Director, Diani Reef Beach Resort, says the industry is set to cash in on thriving domestic tourism, especially from August, the climax of high travel season at the Coast. “In 2015, Pope Francis and President Barack Obama’s visits to Kenya were great international marketing stories for  Kenyan tourism,” he says. 

“The effects of the heightened international interest in Kenya, were however, only felt a year later, when  arrivals into the country increased,” he says.

Kamani says the industry should continue to see increased interest in Kenya from the international community similar to the outcome of the 2015 visit, by seeing a positive growth in arrivals into the country in 2019. “For now, it would be wise for our hoteliers to continue with their efforts in attracting more local and regional travellers to their properties,” he says.

Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers executive officer Sam Ikwaye says similar visits by prominent global icons instil investor and tourism confidence, signifying a promising growth in future. “We look at him as a global icon and his visit is a big endorsement to the tourism sector. It’s just adding to the global footprints of the people visiting the destination, which is good,” said Ikwaye.

The players are also banking on the oncoming introduction of Kenya-US direct flights. Kenya Airways (KQ) set to commence daily flights between Nairobi and New York in October,  marking a milestone for the national carrier that will cut the flight time between the two cities by more than seven hours.

Currently, average bed occupancy at the Coast is reading 60 per cent, especially contributed by domestic tourists. The sector is set for a boom in a few weeks as the high tourism season continues. “We are witnessing good international arrivals, especially from European countries. The high tourism season is taking shape and we are confident things will be better before the end year holidays,” he added.

Mara focus

With about 114,000 US tourists visiting Kenya last year for leisure and business, the country remains the top source market, according to Kenya Tourism Board data. Kenya has recently implemented a raft of recommendations by the US government to enhance security, among them separation of passenger arrival and departure terminals, clearing the flight path and fencing off the airport.

In Masai Mara Game Reserve, hotel managers  are upbeat that this week’s visit by Obama will spur arrivals even as the annual peak season takes off. They say the visit was an expression of confidence in Kenya’s administration and expressed hope that US tourists will soon top the list of foreign arrivals .

There are also indications that tourists who have been visiting Serengeti National Park in Tanzania where Obama spent eight days before jetting into the country will soon start visiting. “Since 2008 after the post-election violence, American tourists kept off the Mara, preferring to visit Serengeti instead. Obama’s visit will certainly nudge them to change their mind,” says Lily Wadington, the proprietor of Osero Camp.

In 2006, when he was the Junior Senator for Illinois, Obama visited the reserve and spent a night at BaseCamp just outside the park. The exclusive camp is owned by BaseCamp Foundation, a US charity.  Tent number 10, where Obama spent a night, located along a corner of Talek River, has since been a preferred by visiting tourists. 

Waddington told Travelwise that although virtually all lodges and camps in the reserve are full as visitors arrive to watch the annual wildebeest migration from Serengeti into the Mara, Obama’s visit and the expected launch of KQ flights into the US market, would spur arrivals of Americans in future. “The visit has both long- and short-term benefits for the Mara and the country as a whole. Even after the season, we expect more US tourists,” she says.

Tourists from US, hoteliers hope, will from next season troop in, probably surpassing those from Asia. “Since the Americans left citing security reasons, tourists from Asia, especially China, have been topping the list of arrivals. We see Americans taking back the position they used to occupy before  2008,” says Theophilus Shumwe, manager Tipilikwani Camp.

Meanwhile, visitors are patiently waiting for the delayed wildebeest migration (due to rains in Tanzania and burning of bush by Serengeti rangers), now set to take place anytime before the end of the month. Guests have for the last one month been camping along Mara River daily, hoping to watch the spectacular event, one of the  wonders of the world.

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