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Kenyan Tourism Hit Hard by Political Unrest, Violence

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is in Kenya trying to negotiate an end to that country's violent political crisis. The violence began last month during Kenya's disputed presidential elections and is blamed for the deaths of more than 650 people. The instability has dramatically affected Kenya's economically important tourism industry. Cathy Majtenyi files this report for VOA on how tourism officials are coping.

The Mara Serena Safari Lodge in the world-famous Masaai Mara National Reserve is normally heavily booked from late December through February.

But in the first few weeks of 2008, only about 35 percent of the lodge was occupied.

Peter Mbogua is the sales and marketing manager for Serena Hotels. He says this is typical of what is happening across the industry. "At one of our lodges in Tsavo, next week I have two days where I don't have a single client. That lodge would be enjoying an occupancy rate of about 85, 90 percent."

Riots in cities and towns across Kenya broke out shortly after the December 27th elections that opposition supporters say President Mwai Kibaki stole.

More than 5,000 tourists a week who were expected on charter flights beginning in January have canceled their bookings. "Planes are coming almost empty and picking the clients who are here (and) taking them out," Mbogua said.

This is a huge blow to Kenya, whose tourism industry pulls in about $1 billion a year. Some one million Kenyans are directly or indirectly employed in the tourism sector.

Duncan Muriuki is chairman of the Kenya Association of Tour Operators. He estimates that at least half of the projected earnings for 2008 could be lost. "If we don't solve the problem, a clear 30 to 40 billion shillings [$500,000] could be lost and if not, the whole of the projected budget for tourism will be wiped off, of which case the whole industry with over half million direct employees will go home," he said.

Tourism officials say that travelers are safe because the unrest is largely confined to urban slums and other areas where visitors normally do not go.

That view is echoed by Debbie Shillitto, a Canadian who arrived at the height of the chaos. She says, "From Nairobi we drove up to Mount Kenya and stayed at the mountain lodge. That was so nice. (We) saw a lot of wildlife and everybody was so friendly."

Tourism industry officials say it could take from six months to several years for Kenya's tourist trade to rebound, depending on when the political crisis is resolved.

Rose Musonye Kwena is the public relations manager of the Kenya Tourist Board. She says it took a lot of time, money and effort to put Kenya on the world map as a safe, friendly, beautiful tourist destination. "We were in the process of focusing on sustainability of this image and now we are back, we are back to 2002 where we have to again assure the tourism community that Kenya is really a destination to visit," she said.

Kwena says her board plans to ask the government for almost $31 million to restore Kenya's image.