Published: April 2008 Special Report: Kenya
Kenya's Road to Recovery: Can the Parks Be Saved?
When violence flared in the wake of Kenya's disputed presidential elections last December, tourist areas were largely unaffected, but tourism took a downturn. Can the priciples of sustainable tourism be the country's blueprint for a better future?
Text by Nick Wadhams

Back in early December much of the talk here in Kenya was about how the incoming government would manage the country's growing problem: An unprecedented flood of tourists was fueling a never before seen economic boom. Beaches were packed. It was difficult to snap a photo of the abundant wildlife in Kenya's national parks without getting a safari van in the frame, or at least the spidery tracks of dozens that had just left. The tourism industry, some argued, had become too successful.

Less than a month later, in the wake of shocking violence that erupted following the flawed December 27 election, in which President Mwai Kibaki defeated opposition candidate Raila Odinga by just 230,000 votes out of some ten million cast, such dilemmas seemed awfully small. Television footage of the chaos featured men sharpening machetes on the pavement and burning tires in the streets. In the ensuing weeks, some 1,000 people were killed and more than 300,000 fled their homes. By January, occupancy rates in Kenya's hotels had plunged from higher than 80 percent to less than 20 percent. Kenya's parks sat practically empty, their fate tied to political struggle and violence happening far away, while the economy was facing what's been called Kenya's worst crisis since independence from Britain in 1963.

"The images we've seen on television have been totally frightening. You'd be reluctant to say, 'Ah, that's a good place to go on a holiday,'" said Martin Dunford, chief executive chairman of the Tamarind Group, which runs the popular Carnivore restaurant in Nairobi.

The impact of the conflict was instantaneous. Britain slapped a travel warning on Kenya that prevented most tourists from obtaining the insurance required to travel here—at the peak of the busy winter season. The robust economy was suddenly bleeding an estimated $80 million each day. By early February, 120,000 tourism-related jobs had been lost. Visitors were going elsewhere in Africa, or not going at all. Ethiopian Airlines reported 60 percent fewer travelers in January, and South African Airways scrapped its daily flight between Johannesburg and Nairobi. Charter flights to Mombasa were cut from 26 to just two. Domestic tourism by Kenyan citizens, which had accounted for 30 percent of the market, fell off to almost nothing.

The reaction among most Kenyans was anger, mixed with sadness and confusion over how this could have happened in their country. While the hardscrabble reality of life here has never matched the romantic myth of Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa, Kenya was still considered one of the continent's safest and most rewarding destinations, where a visitor could swim in the Indian Ocean one day and watch lions take down an impala the next.

"If you want to go on holiday in the middle of winter, you want to sit on the beach in Kenya," said Lucy McKinley, a 28-year-old London law student who booked a last-minute December trip, much of which she wound up spending poolside at her downtown Nairobi hotel, under instructions not to venture out into the city. "It's shocking because it's Kenya, and you don't think of Kenya as a place where this happens."

Communication Breakdown

"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."

A large portion of Kenya, a country twice the size of Nevada, was left untouched by the violence. There were no reported uprisings near Tsavo and Amboseli National Parks in the south, or the northern preserves, Meru National Park and Samburu National Reserve. Even Nairobi, the epicenter of early violence, soon experienced relative calm. "I was on safari throughout Christmas, the New Year, and again just now. We haven't seen any problems, none, because you just don't get riots in the wilderness," said safari guide Johann du Toit in February. Somewhat surprisingly, the normally-cautious U.S. Embassy even issued an alert specific to the Rift Valley instead of a countrywide travel warning, advising U.S. citizens to "depart from the cities of Kisumu, Nakuru, Eldoret, and Naivasha and [to] defer all travel to the remaining portions of Kenya's three provinces—Nyanza, Western, and Rift Valley—which are most affected by the unrest."

Conservationists now worry that lingering turmoil and residual fear among travelers could have lasting effects not just for the tourist industry—which contributed $1 billion to Kenya's economy, far outpacing flower farming and tea—but also for the biological diversity that makes the country so popular with adventure travelers. Given the economic crisis, many unemployed Kenyans may turn to the wildlife as a readily available source of food.

"If the tourists stop coming for a long period, none of the national parks will have the income to be able to sustain their security," said noted conservationist Richard Leakey, a former Kenya Wildlife Service director and current chairman of Wildlife Direct, a Web-based conservation organization. "In those circumstances, people will try to take the land. They will also try to take the meat because they will need it, and without the security, what will happen will happen." By February, the Kenya Wildlife Service, which is almost entirely dependent on tourist fees for its parks, had already suspended road and fence repairs and purchases of new vehicles. According to Leakey, it would require only $150,000 to prop up the Masai Mara in the event that a resolution cannot be reached within the year.

Many high-end operators have seen just a 30 to 40 percent decrease in bookings for the next high season (July through September). "We have rescheduled one group, but we haven't lost a single booking," said Mahen Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours and Expeditions.

Famous for their cheer and resilience, Kenyans survived a similarly devastating economic downturn in the late 1990s. At the time Kenya favored a tourism model that emphasized big groups and big resorts, prompting complaints similar to those heard prior to the current uprising. But in 1997 ethnic clashes emptied the mega-resorts along the beaches, and in 1998 al Qaeda terrorists blew up the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, crushing the tourist economy.

"That marked the end of the traditional tourism model in Kenya," said Western. "I think this conflict will similarly refocus the infrastructure away from minibus safaris and toward community wildlife areas and small groups of discerning travelers. The future of the industry—in both the short and long term—is dependent on a close relationship between guides and their clients."