Executives in Kenya's tourism industry are deeply worried about massive cancellations in hotel and other bookings following violent protests over what are widely believed to be rigged elections. As Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA from Nairobi, tourism forms the backbone of the Kenyan economy.

Normally at this time of year, hotels, lodges, and other tourist attractions are almost fully booked.

But, industry executives say, bookings across the country as of mid-January range from a 15 to 30 percent occupancy rate.

Peter Mbogua, sales and marketing manager for Serena Hotels, says the situation is disturbing.

"At one of our lodges in Tsavo, next week, I have two days where I do not have a single client," he said. "That lodge would be enjoying an occupancy rate of about 85-90 percent."

Toward the end of December, bookings at most hotels, resorts and other locations were on track for the holiday season.  But countrywide protests and riots erupted shortly after the December 27 elections.

Mbogua explains what happened next. "Planes are coming almost empty and picking the clients who are here [and] taking them out," he said. The United States, Britain, and other countries have issued travel advisories on travel to the east African country.  

Tourism is a major foreign exchange earner in Kenya, bringing in more than $900 million a year.

Mbogua says 500,000 Kenyans are directly employed in tourism, with another 500,000 people such as artisans and farmers being indirectly employed by the industry.

He would not project how much the industry would lose in the first quarter of 2008 or how employment would be affected, but media reports indicate that layoffs in hotels and other places have already begun.

Kenya's Finance Minister Amos Kimunya recently estimated that the violence, which has so far claimed about 500 lives, may have cost the Kenyan economy up to $1 billion.

The chairman of the Kenya Association of Tour Operators, Duncan Muriuki, says at least half of the projected earnings of 60 billion shillings, or a half billion dollars, could be lost.

"If we don't solve the problem, a clear 30-40 billion shillings 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 explained.

President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, leader of the Orange Democratic Movement party, are locking horns over who won the presidential elections, with both claiming to be the winner.