The number of tourists visiting the popular Kenyan resort of Mombasa by cruise ship has dropped by 95 percent in the first part of this year. Experts say piracy off the coast of neighboring Somalia is to blame for the decline, which is threatening to slow the tourist sector's recovery from the country's 2008 post-election violence.

The Kenyan Tourist Board says the number of visitors arriving in Mombasa on cruise ships between January and April declined from 11,000 people last year to just over 500 this year.

Speaking to VOA, Mombasa and Coast Tourism Association Vice Chairman Mohammed Hersi says the impact will be felt right across the country's tourist industry.

"What happens is when you pull into the port of Mombasa, one, you tour the city, and secondly you venture out into the hotels to get a change of scene," Hersi said. "Then, most importantly for us, they normally visit the national parks, they fly to Masai Mara, and flying to Masai Mara is not cheap."

Pirate threat

But with the piracy threat apparently too high for some, passengers have settled on alternative routes or canceled trips altogether. No cruises at all were registered in the months of November and December, the traditional high season for tourism in Kenya.

The affected cruise lines are those operating in the Indian Ocean area, around the Kenyan coast and other popular vacation spots such as Mauritius, Seychelles and the Comoros.

Alongside Seychelles, Kenya is one of two countries involved in prosecuting pirates. In April, the Kenyan government announced it would stop taking on piracy cases, accusing the international community of failing to share the responsibilities and costs of legal proceedings.

Following a visit from the European Union's foreign affairs and security chief in May, Kenya re-committed to trying suspects on a case-by-case basis, after assurances from the EU that international support will be provided.

Tourism numbers up

Tourist arrivals as a whole over the same January to April period are up 16 percent this year. The number of visitors arriving through Kenya's two international airports rose by around 40,000.

Kenya Tourist Board Chairman Jake Grieves-Cook says piracy will not affect the overall number of people visiting the country.

"Our tourists arrive by air, they don't arrive by sea," he explained. "The problems of pirates and cruise liners, ocean-going ships, it doesn't affect tourists flying into Kenya."

Financial advantages

But, few as they may be compared to air passengers, Mohammed Hersi says cruise ship visitors bring added bonuses that are crucial to the well-being of Kenya's tourist industry.

"The cruise ship is traditionally a high-yield market," Hersi said. "If you are going to get 400 passengers on a cruise ship calling in the port of Mombasa for four days, the amount of money they will leave behind is equivalent to almost ten times to what a charter aircraft passenger will leave you. So those 400 will be equivalent to 4,000, and that's why we are very concerned.  The numbers may not be high, but when you look at it revenue wise, it's huge."

Kenya's tourist sector uses 2007 as its performance benchmark, before the country's deadly post-election violence and the global economic downturn dealt it a blow from which it has yet to fully recover.

The country's tourist board is hoping to attract more than a million visitors by air this year. Its leading markets include Britain, Italy and Germany, as well as the United States.