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Ebola derails Kenyan tourism prospects

By Li Lianxing | China Daily | Updated: 2014-11-13 08:50

Epidemic fears, safety issues lead to sharp fall in number of Chinese tourists to the African nation, reports Li Lianxing in Nairobi.

The Great Wildebeest Migration may not bring much cheer to the tourism industry in Kenya this year as the Ebola epidemic and rising safety concerns may keep tourists, especially from China, away from the country, industry sources said.

Though prospects look bleak, sources expressed confidence that the industry would be back on track in 2015, spurred by a record surge in the number of Chinese tourists and investment from the world's second-largest economy.

The 1.3 million strong wildebeest herd of Tanzania and Kenya trace a clockwise circuit of East Africa's great grassland plains from June to October every year and the event is described as one of the "Seven New Wonders of the World". It has been a big draw for Chinese tourists in the past few years.

"The peak season for Kenyan tourism normally lasts from June to the end of September, when the great animal migration on the savannah ends. But this year, the market has already cooled and we are now facing a winter of sorts," said Han Jun, chairman of the China General Chamber of Commerce in East Africa, who also runs a travel agency in Nairobi, the Kenya capital.

According to Han, while it is still too early to estimate the number of Chinese tourists to Kenya this year, unofficial statistics point to a year-on-year decline of over 50 percent.

Even as industry officials admit that there has been a sharp loss in business, Phyllis Jepkosgei Kandie, Kenya's minister for East African affairs, commerce and tourism, said the recent setbacks (Ebola and sporadic violence in parts of Africa) have had a limited impact on the tourism industry.

"We expect more Chinese tourists to visit Kenya in the peak season and also throughout next year. Our attractions are not confined to the great animal migration. There are several other sights to see throughout the year," she said.

"Though Kenya is realtively far away from the Ebola epidemic, we are prepared to combat outbreak of the disease. We will ensure that it will not affect tourism sector."

The main focus for Kenya will be to attract more Chinese tourists with tailored services like Chinese cuisine and Chinese language services, the minister said during a recent trip to Beijing. "We are also encouraging more college students in Kenya to learn Chinese," she said.

The Kenyan government has teamed up with an agency in Beijing to promote its tourist attractions in China. This, coupled with direct flights from Nairobi to Shanghai and Beijing by Kenyan Airways would help attract more Chinese tourists, sources said.

Shao Qiwei, former director of the China National Tourism Administration, said: "Cooperation between China and Kenya in the tourism sector has been limited. Concerted efforts are needed to step up the scope of engagements."

He said China should encourage more cooperation between tourism agencies from both sides, establish direct flights to Kenya from China, boost tourism investments in Kenya and train more Kenyan tourism professionals.

During the Kenyan minister's recent trip to China, tourism officials from both sides signed an agreement for further cooperation in the sector.

"Chinese tourists also should take advantage of the multi-entry visa to eastern African countries to enjoy more wonders," the Kenyan minister said, referring to the East Africa Tourist Visa launched last year, which aims to promote tourism in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.

But according to some tour agencies, Chinese tourists are keen on attractions in Kenya and Tanzania only as travel destinations in the other areas are yet to be developed.

Kenya experienced a decline in tourist numbers in 2013 when only 1.49 million tourists visited the country, a decline from 1.78 million in 2012, mainly due to safety concerns, especially after the West Gate Shopping Mall incident in September that year, according to the Ministry of East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism.

Han said apart from the terrorist concerns, decreasing Chinese tourists to the country this year was also a result of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the anti-corruption campaign in China.

"Africa is a relatively new destination for Chinese tourists, so they are sensitive to what has been reported in the media. The problem is that they have a quite generalized idea on Africa and consider it as one country. But West Africa is far from us and we are leading a normal life in Kenya," Han said, adding "There is always the threat of a terrorist attack. But such incidents are really rare."

Government delegations coming to Kenya for business used to constitute a significant part of Chinese tourists, but the number of delegations has dropped by 80 percent this year due to the anti-corruption campaign in China, Han said.

"But this will not be a deterrant as Kenya is a unique destination and is being gradually discovered by more Chinese tourists. We expect a steady flow of tourists in the future," he said.

Tourism is the second-largest industry in Kenya, contributing 12 percent of its total GDP with an estimated annual revenue of more than $1 billion. Many Chinese investors still believe Kenya is an attractive and promising market and have also accelerated their investments in the country.

Li Donge, manager of the Nairobi-based Polaris Tourism Co Ltd, said: "The Ebola epidemic was something that was totally unexpected. It has affected our business badly. But for that, our business would have grown at a much larger pace than in 2013," she said.

"We had a pretty good booking record before the peak season. But all of that changed after the Ebola outbreak. Nearly half of my bookings have been cancelled," she said.

"Although we tried to explain the reality to them, tourists remained suspicious." But she said she believes that most tourists would still list Kenya as a must-go destination.

"I haven't seen a single instance of a tourist saying that Kenya is not a country worth visiting. The landscape and experience that you get here are so different from other parts of the world and we are confident that the number of Chinese tourists will grow rapidly in the near future," she said.

To satisfy the demand from tourists, some Chinese investors are planning to build eco-friendly hotels in or around national parks.

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