Covid-19: Paradigm shift needed to grow tourism

Thursday, April 16th, 2020 00:00 |
Visitors tour mangrove swamps at the Coast. Photo/PD/HARRIET JAMES

Najib Balala

The year begun on a positive note for Kenya’s tourism sector, with the country receiving 1.44 million arrivals between July 2019 and February 2020; compared to 1.42 million over the same period last year.

What followed is the greatest health emergency of our times: The coronavirus disease (Covid-19), an emergency that has almost brought the entire world to a standstill.

Many sectors that contribute to the thriving of economies have been affected, with tourism being one of the worst hit industries globally.

The disease, which first broke out in Wuhan, China in November of 2019, has now found itself across the globe with over 2.013 million infections as of yesterday.

This has resulted in total lockdown in some countries and closure of businesses and travel.

Governments around the world have put in place stringent travel and social restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.

The Government of Kenya has in turn taken bold, but necessary steps to fight this scourge, which include stopping of conferences and events, as well as halting international flights from coming to the country as among a raft of precautions against the spread of the disease.

Domestic market

Consequently, the tourism industry in Kenya is predicting losses in the billions owing to the disruption that has been occasioned by Covid-19 globally.

Tourism CS Najib Balala and ministry officials during a meeting with industry stakeholders on the impact of Covid-19 in Nairobi last month. Photo/COURTESY

Several hotels and hospitality establishments have temporarily closed after traffic to the outlets declined due to the limited movement and restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the disease.

That said, it is not all gloom and doom for the travel industry. We need to accept that recovery from this pandemic will take time and we must be patient as we recover from it.

Secondly, we need a paradigm shift if we want quick recovery and better tourism. It is no longer about waiting for foreigners for tourism to thrive.

As a country, we must appreciate the domestic market and offer them the right products. Therefore, we must start investing heavily on this and the regional market. 

Indeed, many international destinations established their own domestic and regional markets first before looking for foreigners.

For instance, most of the 82 million tourists that flock into Spain are either domestic or from European countries.

Intra- Africa travel 

Also, we need to start thinking about promoting intra-Africa tourism. Africa has 1.2 billion people, but only receives 62 million tourists, which is disappointing.

As the African adage says, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.’ 

Now is the time for African states to unite and form a federation to promote tourism in the continent.

If we can just have 300-400 million people travelling within the continent, we can surely boost each other’s jobs and generate revenue without being dependent on international tourists. 

Let us, therefore, have a strategy on connectivity within the continent. Open sky policy will increase travellers, trade and investments.

We should also plan for infrastructure development within Africa from road and maritime networks to railways. 

Once we have done so, the region is going to open up and the improved infrastructure is going to upscale the economy.

Free movement of people is another aspect we need to look into. We need to ensure that people can travel from one country to another without any visa restrictions or travel bureaucracies.

Already, Europeans can move around in 27 countries, with neither visas nor border posts. 

This is the way to go for Africa. It could take time to implement, but if we start now, in five years we will be resilient from any shocks whatsoever, even travel advisories imposed by the western countries.

Tourism is a leading foreign exchange earner, contributing about 10 per cent of Kenya’s GDP.

However, the impact of tourism goes beyond 20 per cent as it cuts across other sectors, ranging from manufacturing, agriculture, financial services, education and many others.

The more we focus on promoting travelling within the continent, the more we shall create jobs and develop our economies.

So, in Kenya, for the next two years, it is imperative for us to look into the opportunities in our domestic and regional markets.

This can only be achieved when we rethink our marketing strategy, redesign our products and make the destinations affordable and interactive.

Covid-19, can be an opportunity to act now and expand further to create more jobs and be self-reliant.

This time we should also take care of the communities around us and be sensitive to the environment. - The writer is Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife

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