Our hotel culture exploits and regards locals as second class

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Kenya is the most beautiful country in the world. And our hotels were some of the cleanest and the best on the continent.

I took a quick peek last week and my heart broke. I know tourism was supposed to have had a “stellar year” in 2018 with two million foreign arrivals. It sure doesn’t show.

When I was a young guy reading a bit of Economics, I learnt that the Kenyan economy was about tea, coffee, horticulture and tourism. So long as the sun shone on the beaches, the rains came on time and we didn’t have pests eating our crops, we were fine. Little has changed.

Our destinations are still wonderful, but our level of service is getting frayed on the edges. And the reason is easy to see: tourists are few. It was Easter and our best hotels were struggling to achieve full occupancy. What happened? Why don’t we have more people in our hotels, round the year?

In my opinion, three things. First, I think our hotel culture is exploitative and discriminative against locals. In the DNA of our waiters and hotel managers, local tourists are second class guests. I know the best hotels do their best, but on average, locals still get the worst rooms, the worst tables and are served last. It’s the truth. And the so-called holiday supplements have priced Kenyan hotels out of the market: It’s cheaper to go to Dubai, flights and accommodation included, than to Diani during the big holidays. That’s the truth, too.

Secondly, people take a holiday to go and relax, be spoilt, rest and rejuvenate. They don’t take a holiday to go and duck bullets, drink tear gas, be cut with machetes or go through the horror of having to be evacuated from the roofs of their hotels by special forces. Our violent politics, which consists in mobilising bloodthirsty ethnic militias and panga gangs, street confrontations and police violence, discourages the sensible tourist.

Our all-devouring political class has operated as if success comes through stealing or by accident. They forget that it took long-term planning and careful management for our tourism to get where they found it. The integrated process of training — complete with a college established for the purpose — and marketing, supported by parastatals that showed off the country to the world and provided resources for private sector investment in hotels, were part of the success.

I don’t know how hard Jubilee is working for the tourism sector. These days politicians and civil servants don’t think it’s their job to work for business. They think business should work for them.

The third reason is an unlucky stroke of fate. Where we are located is both a blessing and a curse. I remember doing a story many years ago about Osama Bin Laden’s view of Somalia, which he saw as the southern border of Muslim lands, a kind of the southern extremities of the religious kingdom he wished to create. I think state collapse in Somalia almost 30 years ago and the arrival of extremists from the Middle East into that country has set off a series of events, which have resulted in terrorism and radicalisation in the region.

Perhaps Kenya has not handled itself very well in the circumstances, but the truth of the matter is that terrorism has had a massive impact on regional economies, particularly tourism.

If Somalia were to find peace and the war in Yemen were to end, then the future would brighten not just for Kenyan tourism, but for Somalia as well. The country would be a tourism jewel, with beautiful beaches and a wonderful maritime ecosystem.

Coupled with the Somali international network and business acumen, the tourism business in the region would be transformed. The countries in the region would also be able to direct some of the resources now trapped in security and counterterrorism to productive investment.

The nightmare scenario for everyone concerned is if the conditions of state collapse persist in Somalia into the foreseeable future. It would mean continued suffering for ordinary people in that country, wasted opportunities for their economy and long term state of hopeless for those trapped in refugee camps. For the rest of the region, it means more money poured into security, conflict and violence and retarded growth for economies — and bad hotels.

While our politicians may not have full control over what happens outside of our borders, they can step up regional efforts for a peaceful settlement in Somalia. And they can do more locally by supporting tourism better. As for the hoteliers, keep bungling at your own peril.

Government must do everything possible to open up migration routes for pastoral communities to move their herds during drought. For herders in areas such as Kajiado, which are cut off by urban settlements and fences, and who can’t drive their cattle into Tanzania because the government there will confiscate and sell them, drought means the death of thousands of cattle.

We should also open game parks and other public areas where there is grass until the drought passes. My own view is that rather than lecturing people about the need to change their culture and way of life, we should support them to live life the way they want to live it. There are communities which love cattle — huge herds — so why shouldn’t they have them if that’s what makes them happy? Blocking the pastoral communities from pasture is the worst form of tribalism.

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