Covid brings out resilience of Kenya's tourism

Tuesday December 08 2020

Locals watch as tourists cruise Lake Victoria in a modern water vessel at Hippo Point in Kisumu, western Kenya. PHOTO | FILE


Value for money is the name of the game for travel within Kenya during the Covid-19 pandemic. When containment measures in the Nairobi metropolitan area were lifted in July 2020, Kenyan families took the opportunity to go on holiday after three months of confinement. Now hotels and travel companies are looking ahead to the festive season.

Sheila Kinyua, managing director of Gameland Tours in Nairobi, says that end-of-year bookings are still low compared with other years, citing the economic slow-down that has reduced the economic status of Kenyans and foreigners.

“Clients are also expecting heavy reductions in price,” said Kinyua.

Self-drive or exclusive vehicle hire have become more popular as clients seek to reduce interactions with other travellers. Clients want to avoid big hotels and choose smaller properties, “because it is easier to clean and sanitise small units. Self-catering units are also winning big for the same reason”, Kinyua added.

Kenya's coast is still a favourite for residents because of the large range of options for holidays and easy access via road, rail or air.

“One can do hotels on half-board or all-inclusive basis, and also easily book a self-catering property,” says Kinyua. A number of hotels are currently running early-bird offers to book now for Christmas.


Private rental

And catching onto the trend for private rental, at the luxury safari company Elewana, one can now book the entire use of three of their properties. These are Elewana Kifaru House in Lewa Conservancy which has five cottages, the 16-tented Elewana Sand River Masai Mara and the 10-bedroom Elewana Afrochic boutique hotel at the South coast.

“With these new exclusive buyouts, we are able to offer our guests the extra comforts and added privacy of having an accommodation all to themselves,” said Heath Dhana, director of operations for Elewana Collection.

Weekend getaways are also popular, especially to places that are easy to reach by road such as Naivasha, Lake Nakuru, Amboseli National Park and the Aberdare mountain range.


Work-cations, an extended vacation combined with work, are the new rage. Coastal destinations are the most popular for work-cations. At Hemingways Watamu, East Africa residents can book a two-bedroom self-catering apartment for a family. The package includes a supervised e-learning hub for up to two children. With the ongoing ban on most in-person schooling, it is possible to have school, work and holiday taking place at a seaside location.

Regional airlines as well have weighed in to capture the domestic market, with reduced prices to major towns that almost rival bus fares. Airkenya Express was promoting 20 percent discounts on all their fares in November. When you consider driving for over six hours to reach your upcountry home, taking a one-hour flight can be quite a deal.

At Jambo Jet, a low-cost carrier, you can get a Ksh1,000 ($9) discount on your ticket with their "Now Travel Ready Discount" vouchers posted online from Monday to Friday. The vouchers are issued on a first-come-first-serve basis, and are usually all gone by 7am!

International market

Enquiries from the overseas market remain low as yet another wave of the coronavirus prompts new lockdowns and restrictions in Europe and North America. These are all key source markets for Kenya's tourism.

Helen Spyropoulos, director at Supreme Safaris, which mainly deals with international visitors, says many clients have postponed their travel plans until 2021. Customers are also concerned about Covid-19 protocols and they will impact their travel.

“People want to know if they have to quarantine, how things may change once here, about travel insurance and whether they can get coronavirus or not,” says Spyropoulos.

Nevertheless, this year her clients from the UK have been impressed with the Kenya’s Covid-19 protocols such as well-controlled, efficient and orderly medical inspections at the airport and speedy immigration checks to avoid crowds building-up.

“Also notable to visitors is the high number of people wearing masks in shops and on the streets, tables spaced apart in cafes, and awareness of social distancing with reminders everywhere you go,” she said.


In 2019, Kenya received over 2.04 million tourists and Ksh164 billion ($1.48 billion) in tourism revenues. The US topped visitor arrivals, at 245,437, followed by Uganda and Tanzania at 223,010 and 193,740 respectively.

Reopening of borders and international airports in August brought some relief to the tourism sector, however overseas visitor numbers are still depressed.

Regional tourists are still coming in. In September, Tanzania overtook the US as Kenya’s top tourism country, according to the Tourism Research Institute of Kenya. There were 4,309 Tanzanian visitors, followed by Uganda at 3,812 and the US at 3,458.

By June, Kenya's Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala said the tourism industry had lost two million jobs and Ksh80 billion ($720 million) due to Covid-19.

By May, 90 percent of the hotel industry had closed and to date some properties have not recovered. In August, the iconic InterContinental Nairobi announced plans to permanently close the 51-year old hotel. Fairmont Hotels in Nairobi, Masai Mara and Mt Kenya have been closed indefinitely since May.