Kenya's tourism sector braces for attack fallout

Travel agency manager Tomas Garcia has had a disastrous week, with one of his flagship branches, located in Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall, destroyed in the siege that followed an attack by Islamist gunmen.

Since the attack his company, Vintage Africa, has been hit by a further wave of bad news, suffering $189,000 of cancellations from nervous tourists.

"I'd feared worse," he told AFP, trying to put a brave face on the losses. "I'd thought we might have had as much as $1 million in cancellations."

Still, there is sense in Kenya's tourism business that bad days could be ahead, and that this could be catastrophic for the country. The sector, built up around luxury safari tours and white sand beach resorts, accounts for 12.5 percent of economic output, 7.4 percent of investment and 11 percent of jobs.

The concerns have been underscored by the angry reaction to travel warnings by foreign embassies, with Kenya's Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku asking the United States to lift what he said was "unneccessary" and "unfriendly" travel advice.

"We believe issuing the travel advisory is counter-productive in the fight against global terrorism," Ole Lenku said of the warning, which urged US citizens to "evaluate their personal security situation in light of continuing and recently heightened threats from terrorism".

Tourists already in Kenya, US citizens included, seemed for the most part relaxed.

"It hasn't deterred us. I was concerned about it, but thought this is the right thing to do for the country, to not hide," said Dan Woods, a Californian who was out for a stroll in the gardens of the Karen Blixen Museum -- the old colonial-era bungalow of 'Out of Africa' fame.

Farrah Butler, a young American woman who was spending the first day of her honeymoon on a visit to Nairobi's elephant orphanage, admitted that she and her husband were "kind of staying away" from the city centre.

"I was a bit worried," said a young Swedish woman who gave her name as Maya and who was on a visit to a nearby giraffe centre.

"But we talked to the couple who run this safari company and they said there was nothing much to worry about as we're only spending one night in Nairobi and then we go to the parks. We just won't do our shopping in a mall," she said.

Migrating south

Luxury tour operator Kuoni said it had not felt the effect of cancellations so far, asserting that "Nairobi as a city is not the most important destination for our customers."

"From Switzerland we offer direct flights to Mombasa for beach holidays or connecting flights to the national parks," company spokesman Peter Brun told AFP, adding that all his clients see of Nairobi is the road between the international airport and the smaller, domestic airport nearby.

But while tourists already in the country prefer to carry on regardless, those planning upcoming trips during the key winter season are likely to be far less gung-ho -- and like the iconic migrating wildebeest of the Masai Mara national park, they may prefer to travel south to Tanzania.

And a drop in visitors may compound what has been an already bad year for Kenyan tourism, hit by an almost 10 percent drop in visitors in the first half of 2013 due to fears of election-related violence.

"Tourism earnings in Kenya are heavily skewed to the second half because of the migration, because of the Christmas holidays," noted Aly-Khan Satchu, a prominent analyst and CEO of the Rich Management financial advisory group.

Tour operators, he said, would have been pinning their hopes on a robust second half of the year, which traditionally generates twice as much revenue as the first.

"To people outside looking in, if you're looking in and you saw this event happening in the capital city, you're not going to think to yourself, actually I'm going to the Maasai Mara so it doesn't really matter," Satchu said.

"I think you're going to make the connection that it's not that safe right now and it might be more prudent to go somewhere else."