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Dark Easter whirls in Tsavo as coronavirus lacerates tourism

Thursday, April 9th, 2020 00:00 |
A pair of long-toed lapwing takes a walk along a deserted pool at the hotel.

It brings about an image of a tourism postcard: A solitary man in faded blue uniform sweeping with a long-handled sieve across the still waters of a shallow pool at a posh hotel, bordering a world-famous national park in Kenya.

Behind him, acres of wild green grasslands, tangled bush and undulating hills stretch out to the skies at the far horizon.   

Sadly, this is not a postcard. The man is a pool-cleaner at the Voi Wildlife Lodge, a Four-Star classy Lodge, which borders Tsavo East National Park.

His slow, almost lethargic, moves conceal deep turmoil within. From time to time, he looks up as if seeking human company or God’s divine intervention.

 Except for a family of cattle egrets perched on the rims of an elephant watering hole behind him, he is all alone.

From the worker cutting a hauntingly forlorn figure, the suffocating silence around the deserted pool area, usually the epicenter of all fun activities at this establishment in the countdown to Easter weekend, magnifies eerie, sense of crushing emptiness.

The worker is lucky. At least for now, he is among a skeleton workforce retained to keep the basic operations running. Hotels and lodges in the world-famous Tsavo, dubbed as ‘Theater of Wild’, have virtually closed down.

Located within Tsavo National Park and Amboseli, they have sent hundreds of employees away, only retaining a lean workforce to maintain the facilities from falling into disuse.

Even then, fear abounds. Every day dawns with an overwhelming uncertainty of whether even the staff in the lean workforce will not eventually be laid-off until normalcy resumes and tourists return. If ever.

A section of the luxurious tents at Manyatta Camp in the hotel. The camp is under renovation until May.

“This is worse than what we went through during the post-election violence in 2008,” admits David Gaitho, Manager of Sagalla Lodge Hotel near the iconic Tsavo East.

Massive cancellations

While many sectors convulse from the devastating effects of the Corona pathogen in Kenya, hotel industry in Tsavo, a top tourism hub and famous for her spectacular bush safaris, are amongst the hardest hit. 

When the threat posed by coronavirus hit home, the effects were instantaneous. The streams of tourists, both local and foreign who flock into the Park, abruptly dried up. This was followed by massive cancellations of booking.

Currently, hotels have become ghost structures registering zero business. Cases of walk-in guests have vanished. Parking yards, normally crowded with tour vehicles, remain empty.              

Cobbled yards have become playing grounds for rock lizards. The telephones at the receptions have stopped buzzing. Human noises and equipment from kitchens, dining rooms, gyms, swimming pools and others areas frequented by guests have disappeared. Emptiness is the new reality facing Tsavo hotels.

 Gaitho is operating with a ‘skeleton’ staff to maintain his facility and ensure the lodge remains clean. “We have very lean workforce to keep the hotel clean and well-maintained. Otherwise, there is no business at all,” he discloses.

The hoteliers’ agony of closure becomes more acute with the looming Easter Holiday. Traditionally, all Easter weekends have been ‘harvest time’ for hotels in the region.

In fact, Easter is considered the second most lucrative seasons for hotel industry; the first being the Christmas holiday.

Past data on Easter bookings showed hotels reporting 90 per cent occupancy. Thousands of visitors, family members, friends and lovers secure early bookings for rooms.

Zero earnings. 

Others simply drive into park hotels for meals, drinks and game-drives before leaving to seek other wild thrills. 

 Sometimes, many hotels, overwhelmed by the incoming tourists, employ additional staff to serve the clients. The numbers translate to millions in revenue to the hotels hence revenue too for both the National and the County governments.

With coronavirus threat, the 2020’ Easter is shaping up to be the worst with hotels expected to have zero earnings. Willy Mwadilo, the Manager for Sarova Saltlick and Taita Hills, says hotels in Tsavo and Amboseli had to close down.

This came from loss of business through booking cancellations, lack of customers and deliberate efforts by hotel management to comply with the Ministry of Health’s directives to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Mwadilo, who also doubles up as Chair of Hoteliers in Tsavo and Amboseli, says workers were allowed to proceed on their leave during the duration of the shutdown.

“Most of our workers are entitled to annual leave. They had accumulated their days, so they will be away for that period before coming back,” he adds.

Only the most essential of cadres, including security guards, gardeners, pool cleaners and general cleaners have been retained.

In Tsavo West, Severin, Finch Hutton, Ngulia, Kilaguni and Ngulia Bandas have ceased operations. Others like Saltlick, Taita Hills, Ngutuni, Sagalla, Sentrim, Aruba Ashnil, Lions Hill, Galdessa and Satao and Man-Eaters in Tsavo East have also closed down.     - KNA

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