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Tourists Still Scarce on Kenya's Coast

The wave of political violence that followed Kenya's disputed presidential election in December has had devastating consequences for the country's tourism industry. While the country has returned to relative calm in recent weeks, and the country's president and opposition leader recently signed a power-sharing agreement, the tourism industry faces a long road to recovery. For VOA, Derek Kilner has more from Nairobi.

Western countries have relaxed their travel advisories for Kenya's coast, which accounts for about two-thirds of tourism revenue, and a few charter flights have resumed ferrying European tourists to the resorts. But hotels that had expected to be nearly full in February and March are still at occupancy rates of 10 to 15 percent. Some 20 hotels have closed down.

Last year was a record year for Kenya's tourism industry, accounting for 15 percent of GDP. This year was forecast to be better still, with revenue of around $1 billion. But post-election violence that has killed more than 1,000 people is expected to put a dent in tourism revenue.

The Kenya Tourist Board forecasts that arrivals for the first quarter of this year will be down by 90 percent, costing the industry nearly $80 million a month.

In front of the upmarket hotels that dot Nyali beach north of Mombasa, rows of deck chairs still lie empty, if they have been set out at all. And the vendors selling wood carvings or brightly colored fabric greatly outnumber the tourists on the palm-lined sand.

Craft salesman Jacob Munywoki, says that most of the tourists still around are regular visitors to Kenya who have already bought their share of souvenirs on previous trips.

"December, there were many tourists here," he said. "Per day, I was selling about four times or five times. But from the 30th up to now, I do not sell anything. The guests who are here are the repeaters who come every year same month. So they do not buy anything because they are here up to 15 years."

The Kenya Tourist Board's most recent estimates put the number of jobs lost in the industry at around 20,000, though the figure does not include many of the workers in the informal sector or the many businesses that indirectly depend on tourism.

On Nyali beach, many vendors have stayed around, despite the lack of business. Chris Motemi works as a craft salesman during the high season, usually saving enough to spend part of the year back home.

"I normally work from September to March. When the rain starts I go home for three months," he said. "I make good money to stay for three months there. This year, I do not think I will be able."

The current crisis is only the latest setback to hit Kenya's tourism industry. In 1997, tribal clashes near Mombasa - again during election time - brought the tourism industry to a halt. The following year the U.S. embassy was the target of a terrorist bomb attack.

Terror-related travel advisories from Western nations and an attack on an Israeli-owned hotel on the coast in 2002 kept tourists away.

Kuldip Sondhi, chairman of the Mombasa and Coast Tourist Association, and owner of the Reef Hotel on Nyali beach, says the industry had only in the last few years gotten back on its feet.

"The first crisis was in 1997 and that took six years for us to recover. Recovery in this industry really started in about 2004-2005," Sondhi said. "2006, 2007 every year our income was increasing by about 20 percent. So we were really bouncing along very well indeed, and this thing came."

The current crisis is by most accounts the worst the industry has ever faced.

Sondhi says that even if the political solution holds, there is little prospect for a significant recovery before October at the earliest. Tourism, particularly on the coast, is dependent on package vacations and charter flights, many of which are booked far in advance.

In the meantime, vacations have been diverted to other destinations. The Kenya Tourist Boards' research and development director, Kennedy Manyalla, says several countries in the region stand to profit from Kenya's turmoil.

"We have competitors that would enjoy such a collapse. Tanzania is one of them," said Manyalla. "The neighboring competitors would reap from our problems. Already Zanzibar is reaping from our Italian clients, Mauritius and Seychelles are reaping the problems we are so far having."

In some ways Kenya is better equipped to launch a recovery this time around. The slowdown in 1997 prompted the formation of the Kenya Tourist Board, which Sondhi says has developed a much better capacity for promoting tourism abroad than existed several years ago.

But a recovery strategy in itself can only accomplish so much. With the power-sharing deal yet to be implemented, and with the specter of failed past attempts at political coalitions, there is still a fear that unrest could return to the country, in which case tourism officials warn the industry would face virtual collapse. For now, hopes are high that the deal will hold and the long process of recovery can get under way.