Kate Simon: Kenya can't afford to bank on tourism for its future

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The Independent Travel

The problem of countries relying too much on tourism has been highlighted again by recent events in north-east Kenya.

The country has built a formidable profile as a holiday destination; its national parks are among the top places to go on safari in Africa. Consequently, tourism has become the main source of foreign exchange for Kenya, with 1.6 million holidaymakers now pouring up to $1bn into the country's coffers each year.

But the murder of David Tebbutt and the kidnapping of his wife Judith, followed by the abduction of Marie Dedieu, have inevitably hit Kenya's tourism industry just as it was recovering from the last slump in visitor numbers, in the 1990s, triggered by a wave of violence including the bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi.

The Foreign Office is currently advising against travel only to coastal areas within 150km (90 miles) of the Somali border. That leaves lots of other places to visit – the Great Rift Valley, Mombasa and Nairobi, the Tsavo National Park, to name a few. But how many people perusing travel brochures for some winter sun or safari action will flick straight past Kenya for now?

The Kenyan authorities are doing their best to limit the damage. The tourism minister has sought to point out that Kenya's offerings are not limited to the northern shores of its Indian Ocean coast.

"A glance at the map will show that these events have occurred hundreds of kilometres away from the coastal and inland destinations which are so popular with the majority of our visitors," says the minister. "With the small exception of the northern coast, none of our visitor destinations are in any way affected by some countries' travel advisories ...."

If tourism is hit hard, Kenyans will surely feel the pressure. Beyond the postcard images, this is a country entangled in regional politics, with war-torn Somalia on its doorstep. It still bears the legacy of British rule, dogged by corruption and answerable for its every move to the IMF. While it is hardly one of Africa's poorest countries, the gap between rich and poor is growing, with half its people living below the poverty line.

There are many reasons to go on holiday to Kenya and we should continue to visit. But the fallout from these tragic events show that tourism can never provide a sustainable route to prosperity.


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