Kenya braces for more visitor misery after Islamist attack
TOURISTS are cancelling trips to Kenya after Islamist gunmen killed 148 people at a university campus last week, hoteliers and game park reserves said.
Chilling survivor testimonies recounting how gunmen from Somalia’s al-Shabaab militant group hunted down and killed students have shocked Kenya and dealt a fresh blow to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s plans to boost the tourism sector.
A vital part of East Africa’s biggest economy‚ Kenya’s tourism industry has been in decline since 2013 when al-Shabaab stormed an upmarket shopping mall in the capital Nairobi‚ killing 67 people during a bloody four-day siege.
Since then‚ repeat al-Shabaab attacks and travel warnings issued by Britain‚ the US and Australia have emptied Kenya’s palm-fringed beaches and forced hotel staff layoffs.
Al-Shabaab militants have killed more than 400 people in Kenya since April 2013, with the government struggling to stop fighters and weapons coming across the 700km border with Somalia.
Hoteliers say last week’s attack on a campus in Garissa‚ a remote town 200km from the Somalia border and far off the tourist trail‚ is likely to spark another wave of redundancies in the hospitality sector.
The terror attack claimed the lives of 142 students, three police officers and three soldiers.
“We were expecting tourists from the UK‚ Germany‚ France‚ Australia and Asia but they cancelled bookings after the attack‚” Peter Kipeno‚ the owner of a luxury tented camp in the Maasai Mara game park, 600km from Garissa, said.
Kipeno said 19 visitors cancelled their bookings on Thursday, when it became clear the raid was the deadliest attack on Kenyan soil since 1998‚ when al-Qaeda bombed the US embassy.
Along Kenya’s volatile coast region‚ where 23 hotels have closed in the first three months of the year‚ hoteliers also reported cancellations but said the true extent of the damage would become clearer today when European tour operators return to work after the Easter holiday.
“The Garissa attack simply sealed our fate‚” Mohammed Hersi‚ a veteran Kenyan hotelier and chairman of the Kenya Coast Tourism Association‚ said yesterday. Hersi said some of the management and staff at his luxury Heritage Group hotel chain had taken pay cuts of between 20% and 30%‚ hoping to avoid layoffs.
“It seems we might have to go further and lay off staff‚ because we may not sustain even this reduced wage bill,” he said.
Steve Keriga‚ assistant manager of Mara Sarova Game Camps‚ said the impact would be felt from this week, and that he was concerned about the outlook for the busiest part of the year.
“The attack might affect the July-October peak season‚” he said‚ a reference to the annual wildebeest migration between Tanzania and Kenya in the Maasai Mara reserve.
Kenya has shown no inclination to pull out of Somalia where its troops‚ part of a United Nations-backed African Union peacekeeping mission‚ have wrested swathes of territory from the Islamist group.
Western diplomats‚ however‚ said this loss of territory had not weakened al-Shabaab’s capacity to carry out one-off guerilla-style attacks in native Somalia or further afield.
Kenya’s air force bombed two al-Shabaab camps in Somalia on Sunday to try to weaken the group.
In Nairobi, dozens of grieving families are still trying to identify bodies at mortuaries.
The attack has piled pressure on Kenyatta‚ who on taking office in April 2013 vowed to triple tourist numbers to five million annually within five years‚ and get economic growth into double figures to lift millions out of poverty.
Kenya recently set up a special tourism task force to lure tourists back.
“The Garissa attacks have dented our image more as a tourist destination and our initial efforts to clean up our image have now been rendered futile‚” Sam Ikwaye‚ head of the Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers and Caterers, said.
The timing of the Garissa attack was also embarrassing for Kenyatta‚ who a day earlier had berated Britain and Australia for issuing travel warnings for Kenya.