Is the West out to sabotage Kenya through travel advisories, guided by the icy relations between the Jubilee government and some of the leaders in Europe and America?
Following the evacuation of more than 200 tourists from Mombasa after the enhancement of travel advisories by Britain, France, the United States and Australia, some industry stakeholders now believe so.
It is an action that investors in the industry say has never happened before, even in 2003 when some Western countries issued travel alerts and British Airways cancelled flights to Kenya over terrorism fears.
They believe that some recent events and remarks best explain why Western countries have taken a hard stance on Kenya citing terror.
Tourism players who spoke to The EastAfrican said the industry had lost more than Ksh5 billion ($58.1 million) in less than a week as a result of the evacuations, adding that the sector was headed for even tougher times.
The investors are now asking the Uhuru government to urgently meet Western envoys and iron out any differences between them to revive the strong and suspicion-free relations of before and stem the collapse of the sector.
“We ask the president to hold frank and fair discussions with the representatives of these countries,” the Kilifi County chairman of the Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers, Philip Chai, said.
“Even if it means sending a high-powered delegation to Britain and other Western countries to argue our case, we should do it.
“There is something more to these travel advisories than just security concerns.”
Mr Chai added that it was common knowledge that relations between Kenya and the West have been strained ever since the Jubilee Coalition came to power, saying there is a need to rectify the situation given the importance of Europe and America to Kenya’s tourism.
Out of the 1.3 million visitors to the country in 2013, as many as 786,100 were from Europe and 156,600 from North America, proof that the two continents play a major role in sustaining Kenya’s tourism industry.
The sentiments were echoed by Mombasa and Coast Tourist Association official Millicent Odhiambo, who said evacuating people in the middle of the night and putting them into buses and chartered planes back to their homeland amounted to economic sabotage.
“Such actions are only taken when a country is at war, and Kenya is not at war,” she said.
State House also condemned the move, accusing the West of double standards. In fact, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s director of media and external relations, Munyori Buku, also termed the advisories and evacuations as economic sabotage.
However, it is not known whether the government will hold talks with the Western governments concerned. President Kenyatta has remained defiant, saying Kenya will venture into regions such as Asia and Eastern Europe to expand the market.
Although Mohammed Hersi, the Mombasa and Coast Tourist Association chairman, said he had no clue whether the move by the Western countries amounted to economic sabotage, he nonetheless insisted that their actions were not what one would expect from a friendly nation.
“Travel advisories have always been there, but their enhancement and the evacuation of tourists took us by surprise,” he said. “We did not expect such an action.”
The British government has vehemently denied that Western countries are on a revenge mission or are out to sabotage Kenya’s economy, maintaining that relations are still good.
“It is a close co-operation; sometimes each side may raise issues which they strongly feel about but co-operation is going on well,” said John Bradshaw, head of communications at the British High Commission in Nairobi. He said Britain was only acting on intelligence that it had gathered and advising its citizens accordingly.
“It is up to our citizens to make wise decisions,” he said. “In this case, one of the tour companies decided to act and evacuate its clients based on the travel advisory that we issued.”
Industry players are not convinced; they fear that the advisories will affect other sectors of the economy and slow down the country’s economic growth if not urgently addressed.
Last Tuesday, the shilling fell to an eight-month low, exchanging at 87.70 to the dollar, its lowest level since August. Economic analysts fear the slide could make imports such as petroleum, machinery and edible products dearer.
Kenya could also see foreign direct investment decline due to the fear that the travel advisories have instilled in some potential investors.
While some of the hotels have let their workers go, others have closed down altogether after some charter companies announced they would suspend flights to Kenya indefinately.
Cause fear among tourists
“These actions will cause fear not only among tourists in the country but also potential ones, who may be forced to look for alternatives,” said Ms Odhiambo.
The strained relations began even before the general election in March last year when then US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Johnnie Carson, warned Kenyans to elect their leaders wisely, saying “choices have consequences.”
He said although it was the duty of Kenyans to elect their leaders, “people should be thoughtful about those they choose to be leaders, the impact their choices would have on their country, region or global community.”
Although Mr Carson did not specifically say the US-Kenya relations would suffer if Kenyatta were elected, his remarks drew strong criticism from the Jubilee team, with Kenyatta saying Kenya would work with nations that were ready to embrace mutual respect if he won the election.