Where Have All the Tourists Gone?

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The sun shines on the empty seafront in Mombasa, Kenya.

Abdi Aden makes his living by charging tourists to ride on his large, red-costumed camel on Kenya's picturesque eastern coast. But ever since last month's fiercely contested presidential elections broke into violence, tourists have stopped flocking to the coastal town of Mombasa — and Aden's camel sits in the middle of a glistening white beach — alone.

On December 27, Kenya held its elections, which saw incumbent President Mwai Kibaki claim victory over opposition Raila Odinga, whose supporters then accused Kibaki of fraud. Mass riots and looting occurred across the country, blocking trade routes and killing over 600. Aid agencies estimate 250,000 people have been displaced due to the conflict.

"Tourism on the coast has been brought to its knees," says Rose Kwena, public relations manager with the Kenya Tourist Board. Tourism is Kenya's biggest industry. Coastal tourism has been hit even harder than the country's famed wildlife attractions because the coast relies on charter flights from Europe for the bulk of its commerce. Several European countries, including the U.K. and France, have issued travel advisories discouraging their citizens from non-essential travel to Kenya. Foreign travel insurance companies have pulled coverage from the area.

"Since morning there's been no business," complains Aden, who is covered in sand as he brushes the tan hairs of his camel. Behind him stretches a nearly empty beach bordered by a sparkling aqua-blue ocean. Aden previously earned around $60 a day; he says that number is now down to nearly zero.

An estimated 120,000 jobs will be lost in Mombasa between now and March 2008, according to the Kenya Tourist Board; 80% of the town's residents rely on tourism for work. Mombasa is home to east Africa's largest port, and is traditionally a hub for holiday travel. But, with the decline in tourist arrivals, Kenya's national airline says that it will be forced to limit capacity on its domestic flights to cut costs. Flights from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, to Mombasa will be reduced by 1,200 seats, according to Kenya Airways.

Kenya's second-largest city, however, is hardly a ghost town. Locals bustle about pastel-colored shops crammed along sandy avenues, as brightly painted taxis cruised under palm trees in the sticky heat. But foreign faces are nowhere to be seen. On the northern tip of another of Mombasa's deserted beaches, Masai tribesmen with glittering bracelets draped on their arms unsuccessfully tried to hawk their jewelry to the rare visitor passing by. Curio sellers bemoaned their lack of customers. "We regret that we ever had elections," says Joseph Mutie, stretched out under racks of kaleidoscopic cloths billowing in the wind. "Before the election, the season was picking up. Now even getting daily bread is difficult."

Kenya's peak season for tourism is between December and February. The Kenya Tourist Board estimates that $75 million will be lost in revenue for January and another $90 million in February. Mutie says that most of his beach colleagues have returned home in northeastern Kenya to take up farming. "Mombasa people are starving," says curio seller Elias Gitonga. He sits on a carved ebony stool surrounded by miniature carvings of elephants and giraffes. "We couldn't imagine all the tourists going away and us being left alone."