By Duncan Miriri
WATAMU, Kenya Jan 18 – Kenya’s tourism sector will take another two years to recover after the government beefed up security and boosted funding for the sector, a key source of hard currency revenues, new tourism minister Najib Balala told Reuters.
Visitor numbers and earnings have plunged in the last four years as Al Shabaab militants from neighboring Somalia launched a series of attacks on Kenyan soil in retaliation for Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia.
That has hit the shilling currency, which fell 11 percent against the dollar last year after a 4.5 percent decline in 2014, and dragged on growth in the Kenyan economy, East Africa’s largest.
Balala, who took over the tourism ministry last month, said the fact there had been no serious attack in the last eight months showed security had improved as a result of investments in equipment, vehicles and security personnel. Smaller attacks have continued, mainly near the border with Somalia.
“We are going to work hard to not only create jobs and improve our GDP, but also to stabilize our currency by getting the numbers in, by getting the foreign currency in,” he told Reuters on Sunday.
During campaigning for the 2013 elections, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee coalition set a target of 3 million visitors a year by 2017.
Balala said the tourism ministry planned to spend 5.2 billion shillings $50.83 million) this fiscal year, which began in July, on measures to foster growth in tourism.
“From December this year we are going to see a lot of visitors come in … To fully recover, I think it will be winter 2018,” he said after skydiving onto a white sandy beach to promote Kenyan resorts.
Visitor numbers dropped 12 percent in the first 11 months of 2015 to 690,893, reflecting the impact of travel warnings issued by western governments after a spate of Islamist attacks that killed more than 400 people, the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) said.
These included raids by gunmen on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in 2013, coastal towns in 2014 and a university in April last year.
Balala said earnings had fallen to $870 million in 2014, from a peak of $1.2 billion in 2011.
Travel warnings— including from Britain, the source of more than half the nation’s tourists—have since been lifted, spurring an increase in the number of visitors to Kenya’s game parks and beaches. November arrivals of 62,548 marked a jump of 6.7 percent compared with the same month in 2014, KTB said.
Official figures for the peak month of December are still being compiled but individual hoteliers and safari operators have reported improved business.
Balala said the government is using 1.2 billion shillings this fiscal year to offer rebates to charter operators who take their clients to the Kenyan coast, an area that was hit hard by the decline.
It is also targeting visitors from new markets like Russia, Hungary and Nigeria as well as the European nations on which Kenya has traditionally relied.
Officials have also waived landing fees for charter flights to the coast, reduced park entry fees for tourists and urged operators to modernize their facilities.
“Most of these hotels are of the 1980s. We want to move them to 2030—fresh, modern, with a touch of culture and African heritage,” Balala said. ($1 = 102.3000 Kenyan shillings)