Kenyans desperate to see a vanishing species on safari

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The Independent Online
With the approach of the holiday high season in East Africa, tourism operators in Kenya are anxiously wondering if the country can regain the lion's share of this lucrative market.

Once king of the safari scene, Kenya has been toppled from its plinth. Last year the number of tourists fell by an alarming 20 per cent, from 863,000 to 690,000, Earnings from tourism, the country's main source of foreign exchange, fell by 11 per cent.

In recent years, visitors wishing to view the "Big Five" - elephants, lions, rhinos, buffalos and leopards - have increasingly turned their sights southwards.

With South Africa and Zimbabwe now drawing a greater number of holidaymakers, Kenya has only just managed to retain its place among the continent's "Big Five" tourist destinations. Ahead of it, in order, lie South Africa, Tunisia, Morocco and Zimbabwe.

The Kenyan government has become so concerned about the falling number of tourists that President Daniel arap Moi recently appointed a new organisation, the Kenya Tourist Board, to re-establish the country as a prime destination. At its head is a former British Airways executive, Brian Davies, the managing director of the national airline, Kenya Airways.

"An air of crisis has developed", Mr Davies admits. "But the situation is far from hopeless. Kenya is the best-known wildlife destination in the world. The wildlife in this country is unique. What is needed is massive promotion of Kenya's assets. If we can launch a satisfactory promotion campaign, we could start to see its impact by next year."

Britain accounts for the largest percentage of visitors to Kenya. Hence the Tourist Board's decision to focus its attentions on the World Travel Market, the leading tourism trade fair held in London towards the end of the year.

To sustain its promotion campaign, Mr Davies believes the Board will need an annual budget of up to pounds 10m per annum. A request for "start-up" funding has been made to the European Union.

Like many other developing countries around the world, Kenya has been faced with the dilemma of whether to promote itself as an exclusive, or a package, destination. The government until recently pursued a goal of "One Million Tourists by the Year 2000." But this year, following the example of neighbouring Tanzania, which wants to keep its annual quota at half a million arrivals, the authorities have started talking of more limited, eco-tourism.

"Mass tourism lowers the image of the country and destroys the environment", Mr Davies says. "We should go up-market. The quantity of tourists is not so important, it's more about how much people spend."

Many tour operators believe the industry's problems have been caused by a failure to diversify. While clients have become more sophisticated, the product - a few days at a game lodge followed by a trip to the coast - has remained the same. The safari cliche of a lion surrounded by 10 minibuses is all too real in the Maasai Mara and Amboseli game parks. Yet tour operators visit only seven of the 59 parks and reserves.

The Kenyan government blames bad publicity in the media. It says the coverage of Kenya's rising crime rate has been sensational and misleading.

"Kenya has been battered in the press", a spokesman for the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife says. "A lot of scaring reports about mugging and crime have been put out. We feel there's been unfair reporting about the country".

According to one tour operator, the murder of Briton Julie Ward in the Maasai Mara eight years ago continues to cast a long shadow over tourism sales.

Kenya can, however, draw solace from its nomination as "best tourist destination in Africa" in this year's British Travel Trade Gazette poll.

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