Kenya’s tourism sector now game for bigger local market

Giraffes are seen among wildebeests (Connochaetes taurinus) as they prepare to cross the Mara river during their migration to the greener pastures, between the Maasai Mara game reserve and the open plains of the Serengeti, southwest of Nairobi, in the Maasai Mara game reserve, Kenya August 9, 2020. Picture taken August 9, 2020.
Giraffes are seen among wildebeests (Connochaetes taurinus) as they prepare to cross the Mara river during their migration to the greener pastures, between the Maasai Mara game reserve and the open plains of the Serengeti, southwest of Nairobi, in the Maasai Mara game reserve, Kenya August 9, 2020. Picture taken August 9, 2020.
Image: THOMAS MUKOYA

At a time when hundreds of thousands of tourists would be making their way to Kenya to witness the famed wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara, the national reserve is quiet in 2020 as Covid-19 puts a stop to tourist arrivals in East Africa’s largest economy.  

Despite the removal of an international travel ban on August 1, tourists are expected to return only in limited numbers as the government requires all travellers to carry negative Covid-19 certificates and it limits entries to countries with low infection rates.

For a sector that makes up about 10% of GDP, the loss of virtually all tourist arrivals since March has spelt disaster for hotels and tour operators that once relied on a steady stream of long-haul visitors.

Though the government set aside $5m (R88.5m) to support the ailing sector, industry losses of $752m (R13.3bn)have forced several large hotels to close.

While industry insiders believe the international market could take up to four years to fully recover, many businesses are entering uncharted waters as they attempt to refashion themselves for domestic consumers.

“It’s a strategic repositioning,” Muthuri Kinyamu, cofounder of Turnup Travel, a tour operator that provides services for Kenyan tourists, said.

“If all your relationships have been with Australia and the UK, and you have done that for about a decade, then of course there will be some challenges when you come to focus on the domestic and local tourism angle.”

Some companies have already experienced difficulties when communicating with the local marketplace.

The Giraffe Manor, one of Nairobi’s most expensive hotels, faced a torrent of criticism after it announced on social media that it would be “opening for Kenyans from June 1” — implying it had previously been available to wealthy foreigners only.  

Aside from marketing issues, the repositioning is expected to offer handsome returns for savvy businesses as Kenya’s extensive middle class provides for a thriving domestic tourism market relative to other African countries.

The key will be understanding how to tap into this market while recognising the fundamental changes brought about by Covid-19, Kinyamu said.

“I feel proximity has become a lot more important,” he said.

“People are not necessarily looking at driving for longer periods of time or going on long breaks.

“They want to explore around themselves first. People from Nairobi will start by exploring the local area, then to Maasai Mara, and perhaps onwards to Zanzibar by Christmas.”

Working to rebrand a popular backpackers’ hostel on the coast, Christine Akoth Obanda, CEO of public relations and communications firm Evolution East Africa, believes that hospitality businesses must redesign their services to fit the needs of the local market.

“With the loss of international tourists, the hostel is looking to build on its East African following by catering more to regional consumer preferences,” she said, while also trying to secure external funding from the ministry of tourism to help the establishment avoid permanent closure.

“They are going to change their marketing strategy and change their brand to penetrate further into the immediate market.”

Known for hosting well-known DJs during its New Year’s Eve celebrations, the hostel is now looking to attract more East African artists as it seeks to accommodate local music tastes.

It is also moving away from an image associated with backpackers, towards the slightly fancier Nairobi nightlife scene.

While it may take some time for local purchasing power to make up for the millions of dollars spent annually by foreign tourists, the repositioning of the market will ultimately help Kenya ward off future shocks as Covid-19 continues to cast uncertainty over the future of international travel.

• Collins is East Africa correspondent for African Business magazine.

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