Conference tourism faces headwinds as competition rises

Thursday, February 13th, 2020 00:00 |
Kenyatta International Convention Centre hosts most global conferences held in Kenya. Photo/PD/File

Growing competition in hosting of international conferences and conventions in Africa is forcing Kenya back to the drawing board amid infrastructure concerns at Kenyatta International Conventions Centre (Kicc) in Nairobi. 

The country is ranked fourth in Africa after South Africa, Morocco and Egypt in hosting international conferences. That position is now under threat from the new kids on the block — Rwanda and Ethiopia— who have been busy diverting meetings from Nairobi. 

“Rwanda has put the right infrastructure in place, but the number one thing that they worked on is their image,” admits Jacinta Nzioka Mbithi, National Coordinator of Kenya National  Convention Bureau,  a body launched last year by Tourism Minister Najib Balala to boost business tourism arrivals.  

“Kigali also has a Conventions Bureau, which ensures that Rwanda has international meetings. Furthermore, they have a new convention centre and are working on a new international airport,” she adds.

Qatar Airways recently acquired a 60 per cent stake in Bugesera airport (east of Kigali), a project worth nearly $1.3 billion (Sh132 billion) scheduled for completion this year.

Last week, the carrier acquired a 49 per cent stake in RwandAir as Kigali positions itself to grab business from  Nairobi and Addis Ababa.

“It will be a very efficient hub in a stable country in the heart of Africa. We see Africa as another region that has huge growth potential,”  says Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker. 

Ethiopia is also luring international conferences traditionally held in Nairobi, such as the Africa Hotel Investment conference, which has been held several times in Addis Ababa.   

Delegates at the ICPD conference held at KICC last year.  Photo/PD/PSCU

Nzioka is confident Kenya will weather the storm. “We already have a trusted image and are far ahead of Rwanda in terms of rankings. We now have a national bureau, giving us a greater chance to do better,” she says. 

On Kenya’s ranking in position four in the continent, she says:  “This is a position, which I believe can change now that the convention bureau has been established to increase the number of meetings in our country”. 

 Unfortunately, her bureau is yet to be allocated adequate funding and staff three months after it was set up.

The state agency is charged with promoting Kenya as a preferred destination for business events and its main purpose is to increase the number of events, conferences and meetings held locally.

 “We lack funds as this is the first time we are doing this.  Never before have we invested in business tourism to market, promote, do research and all the other activities that we intend to.

Also, we are still a small number in the organisation to handle everything that we plan to work on,” she says. 

Traffic jams

Traffic jams remain a major threat to Nairobi as a conference hub. John Musau, a tourism expert and General Manager, Tamarind Tree Hotel, says hotels located in the Nairobi CBD are losing out due to grid locks in the city. 

“Few corporate or international tourists want to go to city centre because of traffic jams and security concerns,” he adds. 

When CNN  business news anchor Richard Quest toured Kenya on the eve of Kenya Airways’ launch of direct flights from Nairobi to New York in October 2018, he complained about traffic jams.

“Having sat in some truly epic traffic jams this week I know, however, that transport still has a long way to go. Get that right and it will benefit tourism and business alike,” Quest told Travelwise. 

Nzioka says her bureau will be partnering with other agencies in Nairobi to help ease the jams.

“We will have a discussion with the county and national governments on how to solve this crisis.

We also intend to advice the State on infrastructure and facilities that cater for the business traveller,” she says.

The bureau will also be engaging stakeholders to work on modalities of making it easier to get around the city during conferences without overburdening residents. 

Meanwhile, trouble is looming at Kenya International Conventions Centre (KICC) as it is struggling to pay debt worth $2.12  (Sh216 million). 

A huge chunk of this dates back to supplies made during a 2015 World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference, according to an Auditor-General special audit  2018 report.

KICC woes

According to Kenya Tourism Federation (KTF) chairman Hersi, due to lethargy at KICC, hotels located in the CBD are left to struggle since corporate and tour clients avoid the city centre due to traffic.

“KICC requires a radical surgery, hence CS Balala should crack the whip. Our founding father the late Jomo Kenyatta’s dream of building KICC in 1969 was simply ahead of his time.

We will not let that dream die. We will not let others overtake us as we watch,” warns Hirsi. 

“But we are making sure that what belongs to the private sector is paid because it affects all other sectors of the economy.

When people have disposable income, then they can travel,”  Finance CS Ukur Yattani has promised. 

“We  need  a  brand new State-of- the-Art Convention Centre, though KICC has done its best and we appreciate,” Balala said while releasing the 2019 Tourism Performance report.

More on National