Tourist Kidnappings Ravage Kenyan Resort Area

During high season in this Kenyan luxury resort area, foreign tourists snorkel by day and sleep in rustic dwellings with woven coconut leaves for doors. Now they're leaving town early and canceling reservations after gunmen kidnapped two Europeans and killed another in only a month.

Already, droves of workers who depend on tourism in this gorgeous but poor corner of East Africa are losing their jobs.

Hours after a French woman was abducted last weekend, eight guests checked out of Stefano Moccia's nearby hotel and hurriedly boarded a plane. Usually busy taxi boats now lay idle along the coasts. Some tourists have come despite the violence and travel warnings, but the outlook is grim.

"This season is over. That is for sure," said Stefano Moccia, who already has fired nearly half his 100 staff members in just two days. Unless business at The Majlis rebounds quickly, he says he'll have to let go most of the rest.

Nervous hotel owners like Moccia are urging Kenya's government to step up security in this area long popular with tourists and rich Kenyans. High tourist season traditionally begins here in November, but the $1,800-a-night rooms could sit empty, the white sand beaches bare of sunbathers.

"Tens of thousands of people depend on the tourism -- their livelihoods are at stake," said Dario Urbani, the marketing director of the Romantic Hotels Ltd, which owns Lamu Palace Hotel, where an American tourist also checked out right after the Saturday attack.

"Without thinking too much, tourists will say 'I don't want to risk my life by going there. The Kenyan government has to flex its muscle and chase away criminals," he added.

Tourism is a $1 billion industry and employs tens of thousands of Kenyans in a country where many people live on less than a $1 a day.

The sector has just picked up after Kenya's deadly 2007-2008 postelection violence, when photos of angry men roaming the streets with machetes forced waves of vacation cancellations.
Now, the U.S., British and French governments have issued travel warnings to their citizens after the recent abductions.

Kenyan Tourism Minister Najib Balala urged the businesses to stay open.

"When you close hotels, you create unnecessary panic," he told them at a crisis meeting held Monday in Lamu, a world heritage town with centuries-old cultures and ruins. The people here wear sarongs, Islamic hats and robes; the modes of transport on the archipelago, which is on the Indian Ocean, are donkeys and taxi boats.

Balala said ambassadors of the three governments told him that they will review the travel warnings after a month.

"It will be very hard to convince tourists that nothing will happen to them, and that Lamu is safe when they know what happened two days ago," said Joseph Koi, a tour coordinator from Lamu Holiday Solutions.

Somali gunmen have been penetrating Kenya's borders since Somalia's central government collapsed in 1991. Two decades later, Al Qaeda-linked militants wage war in the capital, and pirates hijack ships off the coast for millions of dollars in ransom.

Somali attackers have abducted Kenyans and foreigners several times in the past, but never before have they traveled around 130 kilometers from their country on speedboats to grab foreigners in their guesthouses in Lamu.

Situated on Kenya's northern coast line, the Lamu archipelago consists of several islands.
On Tuesday, the normally bustling hotels were sparely populated, as were the beautiful beaches. No navy vessels were visible this weekend to protect the luxury hotels and guesthouse along the beach.

Abdalla Fadhil, the owner of the house where the French woman was kidnapped, said tourists like houses made of mangrove poles with thatched roofs and coconut leaves.

"Tourists ran away from concrete houses, ceramic tiles and steel beams to experience this natural life," he said.

Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere said hotels and villas on the coast will be patrolled by security officers whose cell phone numbers will be made public. He said police and soldiers also will intensify border patrols to stop any infiltration. He also said surveillance planes will be also deployed.

"We require a lot of cooperation from the locals," he said, blaming some locals for sympathizing with the criminals.

Fadhil said locals may have helped Somali gunmen for money, "because many people live in poverty here." He said while residents on Manda island may earn about $3 a day from tourism, others in Lamu town scrape by on $1 a day.

On Monday, about a dozen men marched along Lamu's beachfront and called for government action against Somali pirates and al-Qaida-linked militants known as al-Shabab. They carried banners reading "Attack al-Shabab in Somalia," "Down with al-Shabab and Pirates."

"We want peace and to get peace we need a strong security force that can stop abductions in our islands," said 60-year-old Ziwa Abdalla, who said he worked as a guide for 35 years. "If tourists don't come here we will suffer, and worse our jobless people can turn to piracy."

Some are going ahead with their vacation plans, venturing out on boat excursions and safaris on the mainland.

"We're shocked by the incident, but it didn't make us leave earlier," said Peter Kelly, a 62-year-old Canadian traveling with more than 10 other tourists.

One prominent hotel was bustling with tourists Sunday night. Its owner asked an Associated Press reporter not to interview his customers. He did not want to be named, fearing it would attract negative attention to his business at a delicate time.

"We're lucky to be open," he curtly said.