Region yet to recover cruise business after Covid pandemic

Saturday August 27 2022

Tourists at the Bamburi Beach Hotel in Mombasa in July. East Africa usually receives cruise ships from August. PHOTO | FILE


Cruise business appeared to be growing in Kenya before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Now officials only talk about what could have been.

Inchcape Shipping Ltd, one of the main handling agents for cruise ships in the region, said the business would have sustained the tourism industry in its lean times.

However, the lack of common health protocols between countries on how to mitigate and manage Covid-19 and other communicable diseases has hampered growth.

“East Africa usually receives cruise ships from August, considering climatic difference between the region and Europe, but we haven’t received any bookings yet,” Inchcape operations manager Bwanaheri Lali told The EastAfrican this week.

“This, among other things, is as a result of Kenya and Zanzibar, which fall under same circuit, not coming up with cruise ship health protocols to ensure the leisure travels resume,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Kenya was the third largest travel and tourism destination in sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa and Nigeria. It averaged two million visitors per year. In 2020, those numbers dropped to 579,600. Earnings from tourism declined from $1.4 billion in 2019, to $800 million the following year.


Last year, arrivals increased by 53 percent to 870,465 as Covid-19 measures were eased. However, the business was still stuck for lack of ship calls even though Kenya had put up a $3.5 million new cruise ship terminal at Mombasa port.

Although Kenya and Tanzania have no cruise ships of their own, their ports are crucial links between onshore and offshore tourism, especially as tourists engage in safaris or tour the inland.

Cruise ships, however, had a problem when it came to containing contagious diseases. When Covid-19 hit, 40 cruise ships around the world reported cases within the first four months. One famous case was Diamond Princess, the British cruise ship that had to quarantine in Yokohama, Japan for a month with 3711 passengers, 700 of whom contracted the Covid-19 virus leading to nine deaths.

Following the incidents, governments across the world imposed bans on cruise ships, refusing to permit sails from their ports and travel insurers would not cover for tourists.

For Kenya and Tanzania, many countries now demand travellers to be fully vaccinated.

Mr Lali, however, says operators are ready to receive the vessels, banking on the terminal to turn things around.

Located at Berth 1 at the Mombasa port, the terminal has arrival and departure areas for passengers, a lounge, an immigration office, reception counters for cruise operators, restaurants and souvenir shops.

Cruise tourists will enjoy facilities just like those offered at international airports, with a capacity to handle 2,000 passengers. Tourists can gain access to the standard gauge railway and Moi International Airport and explore various destinations while in the country.

To Kenya, the belief is that once the terminal begins operations, it will create close to 300 direct jobs and boost local industries, like the transport sector, hotels, restaurants and handicraft sellers.

But they must market the facility to players in countries where ships and tourists come from. Recently, the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) commenced a joint promotional campaign with local, travelling agents targeting other European countries.

The countries in Kenyan’s radar to boost its cruise sector include France, Sweden, Poland, Mexico, Israel, Iran, Australia, Switzerland, Netherlands and Belgium.

If cruise tourism picks, there are signs it could drive related businesses. For example, Kenya has in the past been a source of ship crew. In the recovery times, some 2,000 Kenyans have already been taken up by various ships under the banner of the Royal Caribbean Cruises and Celebrity Cruises, according to firms’ dispatches on their latest recruitment.

In Tanzania, the first cruise ship, a 186-m long Silver Whisper, landed in Zanzibar in March, breaking the Covid-19 lull that had lasted more than a year.

Two more cruise liners have been lined up for the archipelago before the end of this year, officials say. They are the MS Zandaam and Oceania Nautica, expected to bring in at least 4,000 tourists by November 12. Global cruise ship tracker CrewCenter indicates that next year include Artania, Silver Shadow, Seabourn Sojourn, MS Zuiderdam, Silver Spirit and Bollete will arrive.

These cruise ships usually sail to the archipelago from Mombasa or Mahé in Seychelles, and on to Maputo and Cape Town.

- Additional reporting by Mohammed Issa