Marketers pray Pope visit will draw tourists

Will Pope Francis’ visit to Nairobi trigger the much needed spark to revive the country’s flagging tourism where US President Barack Obama’s visit failed?

This is the question tourism sector players were asking yesterday as Kenya prepared to receive the pontiff on Wednesday.

The Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) managing director Ndegwa Muriithi says the visit presents Kenya with an enviable opportunity to showcase to the world its tourism offerings such as safari trails, scenery and capacity to host global leaders and events.

Tourism is a key forex earner for Kenya but a spate of terrorism attacks has caused a big drop in foreign visitor arrivals after Western nations issued travel aisories, denying the economy much-needed revenue inflows.

The visit by the Pope, who heads the 1.2 billion-member Catholic Church, is expected to draw the world’s attention to Kenya and help spruce up the country’s image with good tidings for the leisure and hospitality sector.

Mr Muriithi reckons that the pontiff’s visit is a bold statement that Kenya is a peaceful, tolerant country with its doors wide open to visitors.

Against expectations, Mr Obama’s visit to Nairobi in July failed to lift tourist numbers in the months that followed. The hospitality industry was highly expectant that the Obama visit would be a big boost to the country’s revenues when tourists start arriving in big numbers.

Official data shows that foreign visitor arrivals dropped to 70,878 in August, a month after President Obama’s visit, down from 93,427 a similar month last year.

That dropped further to 59,276 in September from 60,521, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) data.

Besides drawing in a large number of international delegates for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, Mr Obama’s visit was expected to boost Kenya’s profile and limit the damage caused by the travel aisories issued by Western nations following attacks by militant group Al-Shabaab.

The Treasury had hoped Kenya would earn a dividend from the visit, the first ever by a sitting US president to Kenya, and said holiday inquiries had risen ahead of Mr Obama’s arrival on July 24.

Three-day visit

“All these obviously will boost tourism and give more support to the exchange rate. We see the (weakening) trend that has happened over the last few months reversing because of the positive developments with the visit,” Treasury secretary Henry Rotich said days before Mr Obama’s visit.

It remains to be seen whether the Pope’s three-day stay in Kenya will trigger increased interest in the number of foreign visitors to Kenya.

The US and Britain have since lifted their travel aisories on coastal holiday-making towns of Mombasa and Malindi, raising hopes of sector revival to be further boosted by the Pope’s visit.

Overall, foreign visitor numbers fell by 16.9 per cent to 555,795 between January and September, a signal that the tourism sector is far from recovery.

Kenya has hinged recovery of the sector on a Sh5.2 billion marketing plan.

The promo will see a marketing offensive in Western capitals in an effort to woo tourists back to the sunny beaches of coastal towns and sprawling game parks.

Kenya’s coastal resort city of Mombasa experienced the biggest drop in foreign visitor arrivals in the year to September compared to the rest of the country, underlining the impact of travel aisories.

The KNBS data shows that the number of international visitors arriving through Moi International Airport in Mombasa decreased to 53,084 in the period to September from 94,750 in a similar period last year.

A majority of foreign visitors to Mombasa port city are holidaymakers looking to enjoy the warm weather in the palm-fringed sandy beaches and resorts.  

“The sector is not out of the woods yet,” said Mohamed Hersi, the chief executive of Heritage Hotels and chair of Kenya Coast Tourist Association.

Following last year’s terrorist attacks, Britain, the US, France and Australia issued travel warnings to their citizens which saw a decline in tourist numbers and led to the closure of more than 40 hotels at the Coast due to low bed occupancy.

Other hotels have seen management and staff take pay cuts of between 20 to 30 per cent to avoid layoffs.

Besides hotels, tourism supports auxiliary sectors like handicraft makers, taxi business, fishermen and farmers who have been affected by the slowdown. Official data shows that tourism earned the country Sh87.1 billion last year compared to Sh94 billion in 2013.