India’s Covid crisis dashes little last hope for local hoteliers

Thursday, May 13th, 2021 00:00 |
Maasai Mara game reserve.

The resurgence in coronavirus cases in the Asian country is threatening to derail Kenya’s travel industry, especially in Masai Mara ahead of the annual peak season. As a key source market, third after the US and UK, it accounts for hundrends of thousands of tourists to the country, sector players are worried.

Hotels in Masai Mara Game Reserve famous for hosting tourists from India are counting heavy losses after the government banned flights to and from the Asian country due to the runaway triple mutant Covid-19 variant that is more contagious and lethal.

The affected lodges and camps are contemplating closing down until July when the annual peak season is set to begin.

Several high-end establishments in the world famous reserve are owned and frequented by Indians.

Tourists from India, according to hoteliers kept them afloat last year when the first and second wave of Covid-19 hit Kenya. 

“Though it was expected, the government decision has hit us below the belt. After cutting down on the work force, we are now in a situation where we have to close down until the July-September peak season.

Hopefully, the situation in India will have improved to allow the resumption of air travel,” said Theo Shumwe, the manager of the Tipilikwani Camp, which is owned by a group of Indian investors.

He said the pandemic ravaging India has also affected international arrivals, predicting that tourists in the Mara and in the country would resume after five months.

Contemplating shutdown

“Within that period, vaccines would have reached all parts of the world. For now we will, like last year, depend on domestic tourism,” he said.

Sarova Mara Game Camp, Keekorok Lodge, Serena Mara Lodge, Mara Simba Lodge, Ashnil Mara Lodge and Sopa Lodge are other hotels owned by Indians in the Mara.

Tom Were, the general manager, Ashnil Group of Hotels, says the management is contemplating introducing incentives to woo locals to visit its hotels.

“We will come up with mouth watering deals for those visiting our hotels, reducing rates is among them,” he said.

Ben Kipeno, the proprietor of a camp along the Siria escarpment, outside the Mara Triangle, which is frequented by tourists from South America says since the new Covid-19 variant hit Brazil, the hotel has been doing badly and is planning to shut down its operations until the deadly virus is controlled.

“We haven’t received any bookings from South America since the beginning of the year.

The situation is really bad. Keeping the hotel doors open is now becoming too expensive,” he added.

Big spenders 

Official 2020 statistics from the Tourism and Wildlife ministry indicate that in 2019, the country registered a total of 122,649 travellers from India, coming third after the United States of America and the United Kingdom.

In trade, in the same year, the volume between India and Kenya surpassed US and UK.

Between January to October last year, the ministry recored a total of 25,251 tourist arrivals into Kenya from India, which is almost a quarter of 2019 numbers, numbers which are expected to take another plunge with the new restrictions.

The decline is attributed to the travel restrictions imposed by both Kenya and India as part of the measures to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to Kenya Tourism Board (KTB), in 2018, India was the fifth largest source market after arrivals were boosted by quick Visa approval, 48 hours after application. The board says Indians are among the highest spenders. 

Kipeno said tourists who had booked in before the coronavirus surge in the establishments main markets were now demanding refunds running to millions of dollars from travel agents.

“Travel agents are refunding money to those that had booked to stay in our hotel, in the whole of Masai Mara National Reserve and in other destinations in the country.

Every player in the tourism sector is feeling the pinch of the pandemic,” said Kipeno.

Njoroge Gichina, the national chairman of Tour Guides and Drivers Association has asked the government to press financial institutions to delay recalling loans tour operators borrowed to finance their business in the last two years until tourism rebounds.

“Our members who took loans before the beginning of the pandemic need interventions.

Repayments are due, yet they have no other sources of income. The government should come out and save them,” he says.

Gichina also asked the government to vaccinate tour operators, travel agents and hoteliers before the July-September peak season in the Mara and the coast, saying it would be useless for tourists to carry vaccination certificates, yet those that will come into contact with have not been vaccinated.

Meanwhile, most hotels in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania have closed due to non arrival of visitors because of the reported Covid-19 cases in the east African country, several sources have told Travelwise.

“After the death of President John Magufuli, international arrivals stopped. The situation was made worse by several travel advisories by many western countries, including Tanzania’s key markets to their citizens to avoid the country,” said Nicholas Murero, the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem Coordinator for Lake Victoria Basin based in Serengeti.

Cordial relationship

Prior to the fresh travel restrictions to India, Dr Betty Radier, CEO of Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) said the country had been working to put in place packages among other incentives to attract more tourists from India this year, adding that cordial relationship between the two countries is an added advantage.

“The Indian market is one that has continued to uptake our tourism offerings for many years. Our countries continue to have cordial relations, especially because both countries are bound by both history and culture.

It is certainly not by mistake that India has been one of our key source markets,” she says.

Kenya Airways flies twice daily from Mumbaito Nairobi. Other airlines, which fly in Indians through connections are Ethiopian Airlines, Emirates and Etihad airlines.

Apart from Mumbai, India’s commercial hub, most tourists who visit the country’s attractions come from Delhi and Ahmedabad. 

It is expected that the travel ban maybe renewed when it lapses because the virus has not been contained in India. 

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