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Western Countries Issue Warnings; Kenyan Tourism Gets Pummeled

Jun 10, 2014
Originally published on September 23, 2014 6:01 am

The Baobab Resort sits on the south coast of Kenya's Mombasa Island, but it has some of the homey feel of an old Catskills resort.

On a recent day, sounds from outside trickled into the resort's largest conference hall: children enjoying their last hour of daylight on the beach, staff members singing tunes from The Lion King, warming up for their evening show.

But the mood inside was somber: The 150 British tourists gathered heard only the apologetic voice of the local representative from their travel company, Tui, informing them that their vacations were being cut short and that they would be evacuated back to Britain the following day.

The reason: The British government had just issued a warning against "nonessential travel" to Mombasa because of terrorism threats.

"You could see their faces," says Sylvester Mbandi, the resort's manager. "Some of the honeymooners just started crying immediately and left the room. Others kept hoping it was a dream. But it was reality. They had to go back to their country."

Hundreds of Britons were evacuated from Mombasa and Kenya's north coast. The next day, on May 16, a pair of bombs went off at a market in the capital Nairobi, killing 10 people.

Nairobi was not and still is not on the travel ban list. However, Nairobi was the site of the deadliest single terrorist attack in Kenya in more than a decade: a four-day siege of an upscale shopping mall that killed 67 people. That attack was claimed by Somali militants Al-Shabaab

Tui, meanwhile, has also canceled all holidays to Mombasa until November. Other tour companies, less dramatically, followed suit.

Since the travel warnings issued in May by the governments of Britain and the United States — and later by Australia and France — parts of Mombasa feel like a ghost town.

Twenty-five hotels in Mombasa have closed. More than 5,000 hotel workers have been laid off or suspended. In a region dependent on tourist dollars, these layoffs can be felt in every sector of the economy, from the guy selling dhow tours on the beach to the farmer growing peanuts hundreds of miles away.

Protection Or Punishment?

Kenyan officials reacted furiously to the travel warnings, declaring them akin to economic sabotage. Kwale County minister of tourism Adam Sheikh says Kenyans feel abandoned by the West after standing with them in the war against Islamist militants in Somalia.

"Now terrorists are fighting back, we need our friends to stand by us. Not to leave us and make the situation worse than it already is," Sheikh says.

Hoteliers in Mombasa point out that the tourism industry is an important bulwark against terrorism — giving young men a legitimate opportunity for economic betterment.

The Kenyan response raises an almost existential question about travel warnings: Do they merely call attention to a bad situation, or can they actually do more damage to a country, hurting its ability to fight terrorism in the long term?

Western governments say they must issue the warnings to help protect their citizens. And the U.S. and British governments insist that the travel warnings for Mombasa and Kenya's north coast are based solely on security assessments, not politics.

U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec published an op-ed Tuesday in Kenya's largest-circulation newspaper, The Nation, saying, "The United States has not 'evacuated' any citizens. We have not advised Americans against visiting Kenya." He insisted that travel warnings "are not designed to create economic problems for Kenya."

But Sheikh, the tourism official, says many Kenyans see the warnings as exactly that: an economic sanction against the Kenyan government.

The Americans "believe that there is too much corruption, making any effort to reign in these terrorists useless," Sheikh says. "All these small arms are getting through our borders right under the noses of some of our security agencies."

If that's the real message, is the Kenyan government listening?

He pauses for a moment before responding.

"I think we are listening," he says. "But we are overwhelmed," he adds, citing economic problems that have been made worse by the travel warnings.

Scary Places Or Scary Language?

Critics of travel warnings say they're arbitrary. Germany, for instance, has not issued a travel warning for Mombasa. I met several German tourists enjoying the grilled prawns at The Baobab. But in February, Germany did slap a travel warning on a country that Britain has not: Egypt.

Lynn Hoffman, a tour guide from Dusseldorf, Germany, says she felt the warning like a chokehold: "We can't make an offer to a family [to travel] to Egypt when the German government says people are not safe there. You can't do it as a travel agent."

If a client insisted on going to Egypt, she could book him a trip, but only after warning him that his travel insurance probably would be invalid. That alone would often scare people off. Before the ban, Germany had been one of Egypt's largest tourism markets. She blames the German government for helping to destroy the Egyptian economy.

Of course, tourists who traveled based on government advisories might never leave their house. Consider this advice issued recently by the Foreign Office of the United Kingdom: "There is a general threat from terrorism. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by foreigners. You should monitor media reports and remain vigilant at all times."

Which country is that? The U.S.

Thankfully for the U.S. tourism industry, such advisories are probably not likely to keep Europeans away. But the impact on a country like Kenya can be much greater.

Kenyan tour guide Andrew Mungatana and his wife recently started a safari company, TourMan Africa. On May 16, two days after the British travel warnings, they posted a sad face emoticon on their Facebook page. All their bookings for July and August — a high season for safari trips — had been canceled.

Not to be dissuaded, Mungatana and his wife booked flights to Germany and Austria to drum up new business. Even though neither of those countries has a travel warning in place, almost 50 tour companies that they visited were unwilling to take the risk. "Kenya?" many said to the pair. "Isn't that a war zone?"

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A wave of terrorism has hobbled the tourist industry in Kenya. That's one of the country's biggest sources of foreign revenue. NPR's Gregory Warner says Kenyans feel they're being punished - not just by terrorists, but also by Western governments.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Baobab Resort, on the south coast of Kenya's Mombasa Island, has the homey feel of a hotel in the Catskills. Each evening, in the on-site amphitheater, you might find the staff singing and dancing their way through a medley of tunes borrowed from American musicals like "The Lion King" and "Mamma Mia." Sylvester Mbandi, the 45-year-old manager, says his resort is all about fun and fellowship.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SYLVESTER MBANDI: I sometimes also stand and do a bit of dance, or my managers are able to do that.

WARNER: But last month, Mbandi had to gather some guests for a more somber task. The British government had just issued a warning against nonessential travel to Mombasa because of terror threats. Mbandi had the unenviable job of informing 150 British tourists that their travel company, TUI, had decided to cut short their vacations and fly them home the next day.

MBANDI: You could see their faces. Some of the honeymooners just started crying immediately and left the room. Others kept hoping it's a dream. By morning it'll have changed. But it was reality. They had to go back to their country.

WARNER: Two days later, on May 16th, 10 people were killed by twin blasts in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. Nairobi was not on the travel ban list, but Mombasa and Kenya's north coast were. And since the travel warnings came out last month from Britain, and the United States, and then Australia and France, 25 hotels in Mombasa have closed. More than 5,000 hotel workers have been laid off or suspended, and these layoffs have rippled out to nearly every local industry. Kwale County minister of tourism, Adam Sheikh, says that Kenyans feel like they're being punished by Western governments after standing with them in the war on terror. He points out that the recent wave of terrorism here only started after Kenya sent troops into Somalia. They're fighting Islamist militants in a war funded largely by American dollars.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM SHEIKH: We find ourselves in this situation because we have stood with the international community to fight terrorism. Now these terrorists are fighting back. We need our friends to stand by us, not to leave us and make the situation worse than it is already.

WARNER: He says the British travel warnings, in particular, did more damage to the economy than the last six months of terrorist attacks.

SHEIKH: To just slap a ban on us merely because there are a few grenades thrown around - we find this unfair.

WARNER: In Mombasa, I met a German travel agent from Dusseldorf named Lynn Hoffman. Germany is one country that has not put a travel warning on Kenya. But this February, it put one on Egypt. And Hoffman felt it like a chokehold.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNN HOFFMAN: So we can't say to a family - or we can't make an offer to a family traveling to Egypt. When the German government says people are not safe there, you can't do it as a travel agent.

WARNER: The American and British governments say their intention in Kenya is only to protect their citizens. It's not to punish the industry. And they've since clarified that their warnings were only for specific regions and not Kenya as a whole. But county minister Adam Sheikh says that if the warnings feel like a covert economic sanction, it's one that he can see the reason for.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEIKH: They believe that there is too much corruption. Making any effort to rein in these terrorists - useless. All these small arms are getting through our borders right under the noses of some of the security agencies.

WARNER: If that's the real message, then do you think the Kenyan government is listening?

SHEIKH: I think we are listening, but we're overwhelmed.

WARNER: Overwhelmed by economic problems, he says, that in turn fuel more corruption and more terrorism. He argues that it's those economic problems that terror warnings are making worse. Gregory Warner. NPR News, Nairobi.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.