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Blasts' Fallout Chokes East Africa Tourism

August 15, 1998|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NAIROBI, Kenya — Snow-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro stands sentinel over the vast plains of the Serengeti and the Masai Mara, where lions roar, elephants thunder and buffalo slip sloppily and gratefully into water holes. For tourists and adventurers, there's no place like it.

But in the wake of the Aug. 7 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, safari operators have been inundated with a wave of what one called "panic cancellations," almost all of them from Americans.

The lost business is one ripple effect of the bombs that exploded almost simultaneously in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The blasts, which killed more than 250 people and wounded more than 5,000, promise now to unleash a powerful, lingering financial woe on two East African nations that can ill afford it.

Kenya's ailing economy, for instance, depends significantly on the lucrative tourist trade.

Noting the wave of safari cancellations, Najib Balala, who is both the mayor of Mombasa, Kenya's second-largest city, and the chairman of the Mombasa and Coast Tourist Assn., asked Friday: "Why should Kenya be punished for something we had nothing to do with?"

Other politicians and community activists voiced much the same question, with many also sharply critical of the U.S. government for cautioning American travelers shortly after the blasts not to travel to Kenya or Tanzania--warnings that have since been lifted.

Beth Mugo, a member of the Kenyan parliament, said Friday at a news conference called by a group of three dozen prominent Kenyan women--who later paraded to a wreath-laying ceremony at the bomb site under a banner reading "Women in Pain"--that it was "unfair" and "inconsiderate" for the U.S. government to issue such a warning.

Charity Ngilu, who ran unsuccessfully for president in last December's elections, added that now is the time for Americans to "visit Kenya to see the damage for themselves and also show their solidarity with us."

Perhaps, said Claudio and Sarah Wolff, of Beverly Hills, who for months have planned to go on a safari later this month to the Serengeti--as a celebration of his 40th birthday--but who are now having second thoughts. "Are my fears justified?" Sara Wolff asked Friday.

Tourists Are Vital

Tourism is big business, and Kenya and Tanzania badly need the business--in particular, foreign investment and exchange.

Kenya's economy has been racked by scandals that have shaken investor confidence and even led some months back to the suspension of a $220-million International Monetary Fund loan because of the government's failure to curb high-level corruption and mismanagement.

Simply put, the bombings have made a bad situation worse. Earlier this week, Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi estimated that it will cost $500 million to repair Nairobi's central business district. Where that kind of money will come from is unclear.

Tourism is Kenya's No. 2 source--after tea exports--of foreign exchange. Last year, it brought in $465 million.

Even before the bombings, Kenyan tourism had been reeling from unseasonable, heavy rain and flooding; increased incidence of cholera, malaria and hemorrhagic Rift Valley fever; and fallout from unrest on Kenya's Indian Ocean coast last August and Rift Valley this year that left scores dead. Because of those troubles, officials estimated earlier this year that the industry had lost $300 million.

About 1 million tourists visit Kenya annually. Americans account for about 5% of the total but 10% of the country's tourist revenue. Unlike the British and Germans, who are drawn to the Kenyan coast, Americans tend to go on safari and that's a "much higher earner," said Jim Flannery, acting chief executive of the government-affiliated Kenya Tourist Board.

In Tanzania, meanwhile, the tourism operates on a much smaller scale. For one thing, virtually anyone arriving from outside Africa must fly to Nairobi to get to any point in Tanzania.

Figures on the scope of tourism in Tanzania were not readily available. Still, there had been hopes 1998 would be a breakthrough year. In May, in the northern town of Arusha, the gateway for safaris to the Serengeti and for trekkers heading up Kilimanjaro, officials played host to a four-day travel convention--at which the major focus, according to a local newspaper account, was creating interest in Tanzania among American tourists.

Setback for Campaign

The idea, Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, said in opening the conference, was to change the minds of those Americans, who, when they thought of Africa at all, hearkened to television news coverage of refugees and famine, a "negative image of the continent."

Tanzanian officials quickly learned they had to start with basics: simple geography. One ignorant American "caused an uproar" at the conference by arguing that Kilimanjaro is in Kenya; the 19,344-foot high mountain, the tallest peak in Africa, shades the Kenyan border but is within Tanzania to the south.

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