Kenya’s tourism sector shows signs of life after long pandemic winter

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For decades, Kenya’s Maasai Mara has attracted international tourists from around the world. Prior to the pandemic, hundreds of thousands would pour into this game reserve from Europe, North America and China to see African wildlife at its rawest.

These visitors, together with the dollars, euros and renminbi they bring, represent a key pillar of Kenya’s tourism sector, which in recent years has accounted for nearly a tenth of the country’s GDP. 

But last year, with the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the globe, all that changed. The Maasai Mara’s nearly one dozen hotels quickly emptied as guests fled their holidays amid the uncertainty of the virus’ early days. For a while, domestic visitors did their part to keep the businesses afloat, but later on, local travel restrictions and regional lockdowns cut of this stream of income as well. 

The area’s hotel industry quickly felt the squeeze. “Suddenly, all our guests were gone,” recalls Debbie Paul, a manager at one of the region’s luxury safari camps. “We were closed for three months. Our salaries were all cut. Without our international guests, we didn’t know how we were going to survive. 

As visitor numbers diminished to a trickle the lack of income affected the operations of NGOs and conservation authorities as well. “As park management we depend on the revenue collected from the tourists who are visiting the Maasai Mara,” explains Alfred Bett, a warden at the Mara Conservancy. 

“We need to pay our staff’s salaries. We have to maintain our roads. We also have to maintain our vehicles, he laments. “So at the moment we are really struggling.

Further up the road towards Nairobi, it’s apparent how widely the effects of the pandemic’s blow to tourism are being felt. But it’s also evident that, after many months of hardship, signs of life are returning to this crucial economic sector. 

Joshua Njeri Ng’ang’a has sold souvenirs and curios by the roadside in Kiambu County for over twenty years. His shop’s location couldn’t be more strategic: perched atop the precarious ledge overlooking the dramatic drop into Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, it forms a natural stopping point for tourists driving to the Maasai Mara from Nairobi. But when passenger traffic on the road all but vanished, he was forced to close up shop, evaporating the income for his family.

“Since the COVID outbreak, we have really suffered, because there were no tourists, Ng’ang’a explains. No one was passing through here and life became hard. Now, we thank God because tourists have started trickling back. We had closed this shop for nearly two years, since the COVID outbreak, but just two months ago, we managed to open up once again.”

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