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Safari guide Henrik Hult.
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Safari Patrol:
Future tourism in Kenya
March 2009
The Kenyan authorities are planning to upscale the tourist industry, as part of a long-term plan (Kenya Vision 2030) to improve the Kenyan economy and the quality of life for the Kenyans.

The prospect of higher incomes, more jobs, improved infrastructure etc should be good news to the Kenyans. Kenya needs it. It's an ambitious plan. Let us hope it is a good plan.

The Medium Term Plan for tourism 2008–2012 is a part of the overall vision and has the following goals:
·Raise the number of international visitors from 1.6 million in 2006 to 3 million in 2012.
·Raise average spent per visitor from the present KES 40,000 (USD 500) to at least KES 70,000 (USD 875).
·Increase the number of hotel beds from 40,000 to about 65,000, combined with an emphasis on a high quality service.
·Quadruple tourism’s GDP contribution to over KES 80 billion (USD 1 billion).
Professional safari guide Henrik Hult in Serengeti, Tanzania.
Safari guide Henrik Hult
on future tourism in Kenya
(Download the Medium Term Plan from Hac Kenya)

The plan includes actions such as diversifying the activities and destinations offered in Kenya (for example business tourism, eco-tourism, sports tourism, cultural tourism, shopping, and conference tourism), upgrading poor parks and increasing the good ones, building one inland resort city and two on the coast, etc. Infrastructure work planned in other sectors of the vision, for example better roads, will also benefit tourism.

From a tourism quality perspective, the plan is both interesting and worrying. Imagining new local destinations in Kenya, for example parks that today have few or virtually no visitors, is highly interesting. Imagining close to a doubling of visitors in premier parks such as Masai Mara is highly worrying.

Diversification
Diversification within the Kenyan tourist industry would be welcome. Until now, the industry hasn't been very good at diversifying, but has rather dogmatically followed a few single main concepts, mainly safaris and hotels on the coast. The mindset hasn't appeared either flexible or open, but rather "a safari includes X and Y and Z, is executed like this, and that's how we do it".

This has been a problem for us who market and sell tours. There have been few options but marketing the dominating products (i.e. safaris on the main tourist routes). And because of this, the consumers and media have remained focusing on those products. The consumers, i.e. those prepared to pay USD 2,000, 3,000 or even more for visiting Kenya, are generally sceptical to local destinations that are not widely featured in the press and on the web. It's a lot of money, and the consumers want to ensure they get good value in return. If Masai Mara and other popular parks are not in the safari itinerary, a tour is hard to sell.

Most diversification seen so far has been small-scale private ventures, for example eco-friendly camps targeting the eco market. It takes new ways of thinking, and the tourist industry appears less than keen on experimenting. The good thing is that the Kenyans seem open to try new things once they see it working and generating good money. Successful small-scale diversification may grow into larger proportions.

I'd say that diversification within the tourist industry will come to Kenya, but not on a scale that will contribute a lot to the number of visitors and the GDP in 2012. It will take much longer. It's a long-term strategy.

The outcome of diversification out of the Kenyan safari brand is of course much depending on what happens in other parts of the world, where destinations compete for the same tourists.

The Kenyan brand
Visit an international tourist industry trade fair and behold the competition Kenya is facing. It's fierce. Yet Kenya has a strong brand in there. Most know Kenya as the #1 safari destination.

Many countries can develop and offer resorts, four and five star hotels, quality service, family activities, golf courses etc. Many of them can probably do it much better than Kenya can. But few can offer safaris, lions, and the smell of the African bush. The tourist destination Kenya is equivalent with safaris, and to many, safaris are equivalent with Kenya. Safaris are Kenya's brand. It's strong and established.

But the brand itself won't double the number of visitors to Kenya. Marketing the brand won't help much, because it's already so strong. Safari = Kenya = Safari. Marketing may make some tourists choose Kenya instead of Tanzania or South Africa. But you can't close to double the number of visitors by telling the potential visitors that you have what they already know that you have. Or that you now have even more hotels.

Kenya's tourist industry doesn't face full occupancy. It may have 90% occupancy during short peaks, less or much less in between. The availability of capacity doesn't make the tourists come.

What makes people not go to Kenya, even if they've been dreaming about going all their lives, is that safaris costs so much. Not only are they resource intensive, meaning costly. According to me, safari accommodation and service in Kenya is generally overpriced, if compared to the quality you'd get in other parts of the world.

I can't see what can make 1.4 million extra tourists decide to visit Kenya apart from lower prices. And lower prices don't seem to be in the Medium Term Plan. On the contrary, it's about "upmarket" and "premium rates". Tourists are to be made to pay more visiting Kenya.

Safari capacity
The Kenyan parks already have too many visitors to offer exclusive old-style safaris. Today it's mainly mass tourism.

Seven out of some fifty Kenyan parks get 80% of the safari-goers. Why? Because they are the best parks. These parks can't receive twice as many visitors in 2012 without it affecting the quality of the experience. So the authorities mean to use pricing (and building a resort city) to channel visitors to parks that are today under-utilized, as they are not as good and therefore receive few visitors. Lower park entry fees for these parks, and higher fees for the best parks, are meant to make them attractive to visitors.

This won't work for me. I can't convince a client to buy a USD 2,000 or 3,000 safari tour unless it's a good tour. And a good tour to Kenya means a lot of animals. That's why you go to those seven parks. That's where you see the animals.

At the present, the park fee difference between going to the best parks and going to the cheap parks for a six-day safari is some USD 250. Choosing the cheap parks means a 10% tour price cut, and a 50–100% wildlife quality cut. Those cheaper parks are not good enough to uphold Kenya's safari brand.

Efforts are planned to improve the quality of the under-utilized parks. The Medium Term Plan says: "In particular, the current bed capacity will be improved and expanded." But building good lodges isn't enough. The clients want elephants. They want the Big Five. That's why they spend their money going to Kenya, and not to the Caribbean, Thailand, China or Brazil.

The necessary wildlife quality improvement of neglected parks takes more than a few years, and won't be done by 2012, if attempted at all. After that, spreading their name enough to make visitors willing to go there also takes time.

If such an improvement is not undertaken, or if twice as many safari-goers begin arriving before the parks and the wildlife are ready to see them, it will damage Kenya's safari brand. Tourists will come to visit overly crowded parks or parks that don't have the good wildlife that Kenya is said to offer. That would benefit tourism in Tanzania and South Africa only.

Kenya's best-selling brand today is wildlife. Kenya can sell that reasonably well. But doubling the number of visitors without doubling the wildlife capacity isn't a good plan.

Glancing at South Africa
Kenya seems to have glanced at the South African tourist industry for inspiration, and decided to plan for a resort city in Isiolo in central Kenya (and two more on the coast). It is planned in a sort of safari hub location in a region that has parks such as Samburu, Shaba, Meru, Mount Kenya and Aberdare. A little bit further north are Losai and Marsabit, which will be served by a new road that is now being built. The plan appears to be an attempt to establish a new main safari region. Such a region is a good idea, not least because of the neighbouring Laikipia Plateau, which offers good wildlife and has a lot of potential for tourism.

The resort city idea resembles South African Sun City, which has luxury hotels, casinos, family entertainment, shopping, dining, water park and golf courses, and a nearby safari park. It's a new concept for Kenya.

None of the surrounding parks is a prime park, but together they may offer a region of interest. Samburu is a small park that is already fairly crowded, while Meru and Shaba have interesting potential. But will tourists travel half way round the world to stay in an artificial destination in Isiolo, an area that has no wildlife, is known for banditry, and where you shouldn't take pictures because of the Muslim population? And why stay in a resort city some distance away from the parks when you can stay in lodges or tented camps inside the parks, right in the bush with the elephants?

To be done in five years
At the present, Kenya doesn't offer only safaris to tourists, but also coastal holidays. The coast has capacity to see more tourists, but the competition worldwide is hard, and the Kenyan beaches simply aren't good enough to compete with quality. As an exotic destination, the coast may do quite well, though, if pricing is reasonable.

New markets are growing, for example in Asia. Kenya may receive its share of visitors from these markets. Diversification, marketing and other measures may bring in even more new visitors.

It's all to be done in a five-year plan. Four years remain. 2008 wasn't a good year for Kenyan tourism, following the post-election unrest early in 2008. Business is not expected to be back to usual until 2010. Doubling the number of sales and tripling the profit by 2012 appears highly unlikely.

Which isn't bad. Hosts of extra tourists would strain the parks, the coast and other areas of interest in Kenya. And as these make up the brand that make people choose Kenya, a careful and slower rate of development is probably much better.

 
 
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Page updated 9 March 2009