Interview: Martin Dunford
In light of recent security threats, what can be done to expand or insulate the tourism market?
MARTIN DUNFORD: It is unfortunate that several countries have issued travel warnings over the last few months. The reality is that no tourists have been affected by any recent security incidents. The game parks and beaches are safe. Even if there were an incident, the chances of it affecting a particular individual would be tiny, and a risk not worth worrying about.
Kenya is endowed with a variety of wonderful attractions, not least its people, but we do not have a large enough marketing budget to inform the world of Kenya’s great attractions and potential. We need to focus on the positives with an aggressive marketing campaign.
Tourists traditionally come from Europe and the US. There is a push to attract new markets from the East, but we cannot ignore supportive clients from existing markets. We must also adopt an open-sky policy in Mombasa to attract more charter flights from Europe, as these are the most appealing for group tourists.
Kenya is wonderfully positioned both geographically and economically to further develop its role as the hub of East and Central Africa. We have huge regional potential for meetings, incentives, conferences, exhibitions, and retail, medical and educational tourism. With the current massive infrastructure development, Kenya will be a more attractive destination.
What has been the overall impact of Kenya’s value-added tax (VAT) on tourism?
DUNFORD: The addition of VAT on tourism has been badly received, but certain sectors have recently had a reprieve, as VAT has been removed from airline tickets and park entrance fees. It made our tourism products more expensive than our competitors in Africa. Our products do not operate in isolation from the rest of the world, and we must remain competitive.
In particular, our game park entrance fees are $80 per person per day – substantially higher than those in Tanzania, which sit at $50-60, or South Africa at $ 20-25. Our parks need to be sustainable, but at the same time must continue to offer visitors value for money.
How challenging is it to expand within Kenya’s hospitality segment?
DUNFORD: Just because a strategy works elsewhere does not necessarily mean it works in Kenya. I think South African tourism operators have been guilty of this mentality, and Kenyans have been resistant to their style of management. Kenyans are more engaging and, as a result, we seem to get a lot more out of our staff.
We have an extremely good workforce in this country that is very committed and hard working. Strength and growth is largely determined by the state of employees, and so one has to be particularly in tune with employees’ needs. For that reason, locals have traditionally done well in this country.
Many counties contain great business options but one must work at the county level to partner with someone there. Each county has opportunities and people are going to start looking at them individually. There is a lot of interest in branded county inns and hotels that provide meeting spaces of reliable quality.
What do you see as the greatest growth opportunities in the high-end segment?
DUNFORD: The jewels in the crown that have not been fully exploited in the high-end market are private ranches. They are well managed and take good care of their roads and animals. These ranches provide real quality service, primarily around Laikipia County and some around the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Another area of great potential is for boutique hotels along the coast, away from the mass tourism of Mombasa. This is particularly true of the area around Lamu, which has the most beautiful coastal waters and coastline imaginable, coupled with strong cultural traditions.
Kenya is on an exciting trajectory, despite a few setbacks. The opportunities for extensive growth throughout the sector over the next decade are clearly evident.
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