Interview: Mahmud Janmohamed

What are the main obstacles for the sector?

MAHMUD JANMOHAMED: The Tourism Recovery Task Force recently submitted a report to the president that included input from the industry’s main stakeholders and detailed the challenges the sector is currently facing. The principal obstacle is the negative perception of Kenya as a destination. We see this as primarily a public relations problem, as many other countries have dealt with similar issues, and yet they have not seen their tourism numbers affected to the same extent. Until now, we have taken the misguided approach of focusing on public relations when things go wrong, when in reality, there should always be a promotion campaign in place. Indeed, Kenya needs to be more proactive in terms of engaging with the outside world. It is important that we actively correct the misper-ceptions about our country, and we must work to convince certain foreign governments to reconsider what we view to be outdated and reactionary travel advisories that continue to undermine the sector.

On the policy front, it is important that the government provides an environment that enables the sector to succeed. Progress on the security situation has been satisfactory. However, the industry views the introduction of the value-added tax in 2013 as excessive and ill-timed, while a lack of regulation has led to overdevelopment in certain areas, especially along the coast and in game reserves. Overall, what Kenya truly needs is a comprehensive strategic vision for the sector, one that will guide the country for years to come. With proper coordination and cooperation, recovery will not come quickly – but it will come.

What markets should Kenya focus on attracting?

JANMOHAMED: Of course the domestic and wider African markets have a lot of potential for growth in terms of tourism revenues, as do emerging markets such as India, China and other Asian countries. These are all exciting opportunities that the sector has been developing for years. However, Kenya cannot simply forget the traditional markets – the UK, Europe and the US – that built the tourism industry. It is not about targeting one or the other; it is about ensuring that the country has sufficient offerings to attract anyone and everyone. Essential to this will be developing a more sophisticated tourism sector by looking at how to add value to the Kenya tourism experience. Globally we have seen the health market take off, while sports tourism is a huge untapped market in Kenya. More than anything, the sector needs to ensure it is doing more than simply offering a bed for the night.

With the recent spate of five-star hotels opening in Nairobi, is there a concern of overcapacity?

JANMOHAMED: The pace of development in Nairobi is reminiscent of the development in Mombasa in the 1980s. It is something that has been seen in other markets when they have come of age, where the industry built too much too soon and later had to scale back. The thing is, Nairobi is primarily a business market, and corporate tourism is not growing at the same pace as rooms are being built. There are serious concerns about supply far outstripping demand. It will be interesting to see how the industry reacts.

What policies would boost regional cooperation?

JANMOHAMED: The key to success for the tourism market in East Africa is ease of travel, as the region offers everything that a potential tourist would be looking for. The current lack of cooperation is based on misplaced concerns about certain countries benefitting more than others from such policies, whereas in reality enhanced cooperation is essential if East Africa wants to be seen as a world-class tourism destination. The single-visa agreement between Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda was a great achievement; however, we would like to see more progress made towards additional visa and open skies agreements.