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Kenya's Tourism Industry Devastated Amid Fears of Terrorism

Recent travel advisories and suspension of flights lead to canceled hotel bookings, throwing thousands of people out of work.

June 20, 2003|Davan Maharaj | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, Kenya — During the past 32 years, African Heritage has withstood a weakening economy and runaway crime in downtown Nairobi to supply locals and tourists with ethnic art, fashion and artifacts. But this month, it will shut its doors, the latest victim of Kenya's crippled tourist trade.

The final blow was a decision last month by British Airways to suspend flights to the Kenyan capital after intelligence reports said a terrorist strike by Al Qaeda operatives was imminent. The governments of Britain, the United States and several Scandinavian countries subsequently advised their citizens against traveling to Kenya, causing tourists to cancel hotel bookings and throwing thousands of people out of work.

"This is the biggest kick in the teeth," said Jake Grieves-Cook, chairman of the Kenya Tourism Federation, a trade group of hoteliers, lodge owners and tour operators. "It's equivalent to leveling sanctions against Kenya."

The situation got so dire this week that Alan Donovan, the American owner of African Heritage, called for "mercy flights" of tourists from the United States to help rescue East Africa's largest economy.

"We need the Americans more than ever," said Donovan, a UCLA graduate who has lived in Kenya for 32 years. "They're our friends. Why have they deserted us?"

Among the thousands of people who have lost their jobs are hotel workers, red-robed Masai wildlife guides and factory workers who churn out T-shirts or whittle wooden curios for tourists.

"Kenya cannot be isolated in the fight against terrorism," said Foreign Minister Kalonzo Musyoka. "We should not give advantage to terrorism by giving in."

Though British and American officials say they are constantly reviewing security alerts, it seemed unlikely that the travel warnings would be lifted soon.

"The real threats to Kenya's economy are not public warnings or the acts of security forces but the terrorists and their sympathizers, and the appearance that Kenya is not doing enough to stop them," U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Johnnie Carson said in a recent newspaper commentary. "Another major attack here would inflict damage that no amount of public relations work could ever undo."

In the last five years, Kenya has been the target of two major attacks linked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. In 1998, more than 200 people died and thousands were injured when the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in neighboring Tanzania were bombed.

In November, Al Qaeda members drove a car bomb into an Israeli-owned resort in the port city of Mombasa, killing at least 16 people, authorities said. The same day, unidentified men fired missiles from shoulder-held launchers at an Israeli airliner departing nearby Moi International Airport. The missiles missed the aircraft.

The Mombasa attacks returned to the spotlight recently when Internal Security Minister Chris Murungaru declared that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who reportedly heads Al Qaeda's operations in East Africa and is a key suspect in the Mombasa and Nairobi attacks, was spotted in Mombasa. The minister said Mohammed apparently was plotting more attacks.

Western diplomats in Nairobi said intelligence from Kenyan, British and U.S. sources indicated that men were spotted photographing planes taking off and landing at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Since the warnings, Kenyan police have been patrolling five-mile stretches on both sides of the runway. Tourism Minister Raphael Tuju said the patrols pose new challenges.

"The perimeter fences are meant to keep zebras and giraffes [in nearby Nairobi National Park] from entering the airport -- not terrorists," he said.

Tourism accounts for about 15% of Kenya's economy. Each year, about 500,000 tourists come to the country's Indian Ocean beaches or wildlife parks.

Tourism has been in a slump since 1997, when ethnic clashes on the coast -- which human rights groups say were instigated by the government of former President Daniel Arap Moi -- scared away tourists. The embassy blast, rising urban crime and the Mombasa attacks dealt further blows.

Donovan said revenues at his stores plummeted from $3 million in 1996 to $300,000 last year.

There was some hope earlier this year that the industry would turn around when U.S. diplomats asked Donovan if he would make his African-styled mansion overlooking Nairobi National Park available to President Bush. Donovan said he jumped at the offer because a trip by a U.S. president would have sent the right message: that Kenya was safe to visit. But Bush canceled the trip to focus on the war against Iraq. Donovan has been negotiating to sell his four remaining Nairobi outlets to a local fashion designer. His mansion is also up for sale.

Grieves-Cook, the tourism trade group's leader, said he had no problem with the flight ban, but the group desperately wanted the travel warnings lifted. This week, he said, farmers who supplied produce to hotels and restaurants were beginning to see large cuts in orders.

"It's ridiculous for the British to say that Kenya is less safe than Burma, Israel or Morocco, where there are no such travel warnings," said Grieves-Cook, a Kenyan of British ancestry. "What happened to that British bulldog spirit? Why are they giving in to terrorists?"

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