"There were 40,000 tourists in Kenya when the violence broke out," said Nairobi native Jake Grieves-Cook, former chairman of the Kenya Tourist Board and managing director of Gamewatchers Safaris. "None of them reported feeling threatened, much less harmed, and 99 percent of them stayed the length of their [planned] trip. The problem is that they haven't been replaced."
The violence, which began in the slums of Nairobi after the elections, later took root in the Rift Valley in western Kenya. By mid-January, the protests had reached tourist spots such as Nakuru National Park and Lake Naivasha, as well as a two-mile (three-kilometer) section of the road that leads from the capital to the popular Masai Mara National Reserve. At the height of the conflict, safari operators responded by diverting visitors from the Rift Valley (many already shuttled clients from Nairobi to the Mara by air as a time-saving measure). Lodges like the posh Lake Naivasha Country Club, whose 46 rooms are usually booked solid, were vacant. "Other than the rerouting [away from the Rift Valley] and adding a night in the bush, we haven't had to make drastic changes to our itineraries," said Emily Baldwin, a representative of Micato Safaris, which offers high-end trips throughout Kenya.
Most of the violence in the Rift Valley sprang from grievances that had festered since before Kenyan independence. Lately conflicts were centered on land ownership, a population explosion, and resentment over the perception that ethnic Kikuyus had been favored by President Kibaki's government. Some, including Jendayi Frazer, a U.S. diplomat in Africa, labeled the hostilities "ethnic cleansing," raising the specter of places like Rwanda, Darfur, and the Balkans.
"Calling what happened 'ethnic cleansing' was an unfortunate use of the term," said David Western, director of the African Conservation Center and former director of the Kenya Wildlife Service. "It's a land issue with a strong ethnic dimension, not an ethnic war."