Malindi is no longer the beloved ‘Little Italy’

Thursday, October 31st, 2019 07:00 |

A few years back, Malindi town was famously known as “Little Italy”. It really was an extension of Italy,  with Europeans having found a second home and others frequenting it as a tourist destination. They flooded supermarkets, neighbourhoods and hotels at the beaches. They owned and ran businesses around the town and it was all so merry. But not any more! 

I have been to Malindi many times and it always was vibrating with energy, especially it’s lit nightlife. But my recent visit to the town was not all that merry. Where are the owners of the ‘Little Italy’? Where is everyone and what could possibly be happening?  I wondered.

Driving around the deserted streets makes you think some bad disease might have struck Malindi and people are being forced to move out. So many empty parking spaces. And where once blooming live fences blossomed, sign boards now stand announcing owners’ intentions to sell off their villas. 

Overtime, Malindi’s fortunes have changed, compelling most settlers and investors to flee the resort town. Taking a leisurely walk down the Malindi beach recently, we found the Malindi Marine Beach Hotel empty. Not more than six people were walking around the beach. 

“Normally, we make meals on order. Visitors then go for a boat ride or other adventures as we cook. But today we haven’t cooked anything,” said Valarie Ayuma, a waiter at the hotel.

Famau Muhaj, a boat operator popularly known as Captain Mauro, said the waters are fine. “Perfect for a boat ride. The storms were here for only a few days, these are spring waters, but there are no customers,” he said.  

No customers

Business is bad. Thousands have lost their jobs and it’s not getting any better. “Many wazungus are leaving because there is no business and they are tired of waiting. We are in dire straits,” Mauro said.

Yet between the years 1980 and 2000, the town was bursting with European settlers, hotel owners and other investors, which greatly contributed to stability of the tourism sector in the region. By 2005, an estimated 3,500 European who had settled in Malindi used to jam supermarkets, restaurants, bars and beach hotels. 

According to tourism promoter Freddie Del Curatolo a resident of Malindi since 1990 who also runs the blog, the enclave’s decline has been a culmination of a long and winding process. “We went through many crises. Terrorism attacks began in November 2002 with an attack on a Kikambala hotel that targeted Israelis; 13 were killed and 80 injured,” he said.

Terrorist strikes

 Almost simultaneously, two surface-to-air missiles were fired, but missed an Israeli airliner as it took off from Mombasa airport.  

That was when Malindi was at its best, winning prizes as the greenest and cleanest town in Kenya as tourists flocked in. Panic over insecurity hit the tourist source markets in America and Europe.  

“We had to survive without tourism for about four years. Many settlers went back to Europe while others relocated their non-tourism businesses to Nairobi and up country. Those who remained changed their businesses from tourism,” says Curatolo. 

Westgate attacked

Italian businessman and Formula One car racing manager, Flavio Briatore, helped change Malindi’s fortunes from 2006, but only temporarily. “He promoted Malindi in Italy and we had a new shining season, with 80,000 Italian tourists visiting the town. Watamu grew faster as an important tourist destination. Many hotels were built in those years, not only by Italians,” says Curatolo. 

Unfortunately, the 2008 post-election violence and the ensuing political crisis stopped everything again. Malindi and the country suffered economically for two years. Frustrated hotel owners and managers tried to market the Coast positively, pegging their marketing campaign on the fact that Malindi and Watamu were quiet and safe places; a perfect serene place to unwind.

Recovery was slow and painful. “It took three years to recover... The year 2011 and 2012 were not bad and some investors  returned,” says Curatolo. 

But almost immediately, the Westgate terror attack in Nairobi in 2013 sent tourists fleeing. The Garissa University massacre did the same through negative international media publicity in 2015.

In 2014, Italy was caught up in a deep economic crisis and many people did not travel abroad. The few with money preferred safe countries instead of Kenya. This was the time that some Italians who had houses in Malindi tried to sell them, to take back money home to their motherland.

Today, Malindi is almost a ghost town. “There are no visitors any more. Many foreigners are leaving, especially owners of villas and apartments. They are selling their properties,” says the hotel manager, Eden House Cottages, Ruth Okik.

Many villas in Malindi were built in the 90s when land prices were low and investors could afford two acre plots and built five-six-roomed villas. “Few can afford today’s prices, or even just to keep the house,” adds Curatolo. 

Worse, fires have razed makuti-thatched properties owned by Italians, destroying almost 100 houses in the last five years, especially in Casuarina and Kibokoni. “That’s another reason many people sold their plots; no money to rebuild them and in most of the cases, no insurance payments,” says Curatolo.

Despite such woes, investors are praying hard for a recovery. Daniela Cellini, owner of Casino Malindi, says the future of tourism in Malindi is now bright. “It is not investors who are leaving, but just home owners going back home. Taxes in Italy are high for those in the diaspora, so they prefer to go back home,” she says.

Daniela says Watamu and Diani have taken much attention from the Kenya Tourism Board, leaving Malindi at the mercy of foreigners. “KTB needs to focus on Malindi too, rather than giving all the attention to Watamu, Diani and Mombasa. Malindi needs proper marketing. If this is done life is going to be injected again into what the town used to be or even better,” she adds. 

Meanwhile, residents of Malindi have been cleaning the town and the beaches. The Malindi Clean up Day happens every second Saturday of the month, since April 2019. The police close down the streets and the municipal managers support us. 

“We are trying to revive Malindi, through a movement called Malindi Green and Blue, mobilising and sensitising residents through garbage collection and recycling,” says Curatolo, who heads the movement.

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