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The travel ban was a wake-up call for Kenya’s tourism industry

So, the travel bans and nasty advisories are virtually gone. The European tourists are beginning to trickle back. Industry bigwigs, mayors, and beauty queens are usually at hand at the airport to welcome them back, dollar signs visibly gleaming in their eyes. The smiles are back. We can treat the whole episode as an ugly nightmare. It’s behind us now. Time to get back to business as usual, yes?

No! If the tourism industry learns nothing from this event, it would be an unforgivable error of judgement. If we now try to get back to the same strategies, the same products and the same modus operandi, we will truly be fools.

I have written before that the sheer complacency and lack of imagination found in large parts of our tourism industry were as much to blame for this crisis as were the actions of the British and American governments. While the traditional markets were sending a steady stream of visitors to our shores, nothing was going to shake that complacency. A serious crisis was needed, and was duly provided. Rather than view the whole travel ban episode as a calamity, we must look at it as a godsend. It is the cataclysm that could propel us into a new era of tourism in this country. Or we can carry on as before, and wait for the next travel ban to land. The choice is ours.

Let us understand one thing very clearly first: the British and American governments have told us exactly what they think of us. What we received was a well-timed kick in the teeth. For all our decades spent fawning on rich foreigners and falling at their feet, all we have achieved is the traditional fate of the sycophant: humiliation. When the chips are down, we matter not a jot. Their diplomats can wriggle as much as they like: they will never be able to justify one thing. Immediately after the September 11 attacks in 2001, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was the first to land in New York to demonstrate his support for America. He urged Britons to continue travelling to the USA and not allow ‘the terrorists to win’. This, remember, was after several thousand people had just been killed in an outrageous attack.

For us, the reaction was somewhat different. It was to stop all British flights coming into this country, and to advise Britons to avoid us like the plague. It demonstrated very clearly the prevailing orthodoxy in world affairs, as articulated by that notable statesman, George W. Bush: ‘you’re either with us or against us’. So here’s the message to the little people of the world: if you cooperate with us in implementing our new world vision, if you speak up for us in world forums, if you allow us to put military bases on your soil – why, all is well! The pounds and dollars will flow freely. If, however, you are reluctant to help us, or say the wrong things, we will show you exactly by what part of the anatomy we happen to hold you.

Never mind. The world is as it is, and rather than keep grumbling, we must mind our own businesses. Our tourist business, however, has a particular problem. It is structured to serve the European and American markets. Its marketing infrastructure is aimed only at those countries. Its international links and alliances are predominantly with UK firms. Its products are designed for consumption by Europeans. What to do?

First and foremost, we must diversify our source markets. We must reduce our reliance on the UK and Europe, and do it as quickly as possible. The Far East, India, South Africa are ripe for exploitation. But this must go beyond mere lip service and media sound bites: we must see action. We must see tourism trade fairs held in these countries. We must produce brochures for them and book slots on their TV screens. We must forge alliances with their leading travel agents. We must understand their people and cater for their preferences. We must redesign our products for these new markets. We must offer incentives and value-for-money packages. We must, in short, do all the things we have traditionally done for the Europeans – and be very serious about doing it.

Secondly, we must pay real attention to the domestic market. Every operator in Kenya talks about this intent, but with no great seriousness. Why is it that Mr and Mrs Mutiso of Nairobi, with a monthly income of KShs 100,000 and four children, have nowhere to go for a holiday other than to their rural home? A 3-night flying package to the coast would cost them a month’s income. Once there, they would be shunned by waiters and made to feel unimportant. They would find the food to be dull and catering for European palates. They would find the entertainment on offer to consist of Maasai dancers and aging crooners singing ‘Jambo bwana’ and ‘Malaika’. They would discover that the activities they can partake in are deep-sea fishing and scuba diving. For the Mutiso family, expensive irrelevances. Is it any surprise they stay away?

To take the domestic market seriously, operators must first learn to take the domestic tourist seriously. That is not the case today. No attempt is made to understand local needs and preferences. Quite the opposite: local customers are force-fed western products. This is a problem of mind-set: why is it that our operators seem happy to accept charter-loads of builders and truck-drivers from Europe, often making less then US$ 10 per person per night, but shun the bank managers and accountants of Nairobi? Why is no imagination used to solve the problem of finding products and experiences that appeal to the local tourist?

I am not for a moment advocating that all hotels need to do this. For those who have a strong and unique positioning in the European market, and have a steady stream of reliable visitors – good luck. Nor am I suggesting that we need to have a series of ‘stuck-in-the-middle’ resorts – trying to be all things to all customers and appealing to none. What I am saying is this: understand your market segment; design a winning product; and then excel in serving it. The formula is simple.

The experience of South Africa is instructive in this regard. Shut out by the world for 20 years, this country was left only with its domestic market. Did its hospitality sector collapse? Far from it! South Africa today has a huge variety of value-for-money resorts, aimed squarely at its own middle classes. Regular family holidays are affordable, and not just by the rich; and organisations of all sizes are able to hold conferences and seminars in attractive settings. In addition, South Africa has restaurants and hotels that are routinely listed as amongst the best in the world, who offer their fare at prices much more competitive than ours.

We, too, can use this ‘crisis’ to our advantage. Or we can go back to sleep on our master’s knee, and wait for it to jerk again.

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