As Robert Mutuku hangs “Out of Africa” T-shirts in his craft shop in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, he worries that the scarcity of tourists because of attacks by Islamist militants may doom his chances of keeping his five children in school.
Mutuku, 47, has had to fire three people who made souvenirs at his workshop for the tourists who once crowded the alleys of the city’s Old Town to savor its spice aromas and admire its Portuguese and Islamic architecture. Now Mutuku is certain he won’t be able to fulfill the dream of his eldest daughter, Catherine Ndinya, 21, to attend college.
“I have spent three days without selling anything,” Mutuku said in a July 25 interview. “I already took a bank loan to send the others back to school this term. I don’t know what I’ll do next term.”
Tourism in Kenya, which generated more than $1 billion in foreign-currency earnings for East Africa’s biggest economy last year, is on its knees. The impact has hit hardest on the coast, where as many as 1 million Kenyans depend on the industry to make a living, according to the Kenya Coast Tourism Association. Countries including the U.K., U.S. and Australia have issued travel advisories warning their citizens not to travel to large parts of the coastal region.
TUI AG, the owner of Europe’s biggest tour operator, has canceled flights to Mombasa and announced this month that they won’t resume before April next year. Tourism is Kenya’s second-largest foreign-currency earner, after tea exports.
The number of attacks has been building. Unidentified gunmen shot dead a German woman and wounded her Ugandan companion last week while they were strolling in Mombasa. That followed the murder of a female Russian tourist in a similar attack on July 6. In the worst incident, gunmen killed 60 residents of the coastal town of Mpeketoni in mid-June.
The situation along the coast is so bad that hotels are registering 40 percent occupancy rates and half the usual bookings, even though July to September is the peak tourism season, Kenya Coast Tourism Association Chief Executive Officer Millicent Odhiambo said.
“Tourism is the backbone of coastal Kenya and we can’t do without international visitors,” she said in an interview.
The World Bank last month lowered its forecast for expansion this year and next to 4.7 percent from as much as 5.2 percent, citing the impact of a drought on food production and shrinking tourist numbers.
The port of Mombasa, the largest in East Africa, is billed as the “only safari port in the world” where cruise liners can dock and passengers go on safari to game lodges before returning to sail off in one day. The instability has led cruise liners to steer clear, leaving the two berths that port managers have dedicated to handle them idle.
“From a peak of 45 cruise ships a year in 2004, only three vessels called on Mombasa last year,” said Bernard Osero, head of corporate affairs at the Kenya Ports Authority. “This year, only four vessels have docked here and we don’t expect many in the coming months.”
The government, which targets annual tourist arrivals of 10 million in a decade, compared with 1.4 million in 2013, announced a 200 million-shilling ($2.3 million) campaign in May to help attract more visitors, including domestic tourists. While that initiative has had some impact, it’s not enough, said Edward Andako, manager of the Medina Palms Resort at Watamu Beach, about 90 kilometers (56 miles) north of Mombasa.
“Innovative products, especially unique water sports, do attract locals, but we are forced to give huge discounts to make it affordable,” said Andako, referring to sports including kite-surfing and snorkeling. “This makes it unsustainable. We need international tourists to stay in the game.”
While al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-linked militia waging an insurgency in neighboring Somalia, has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government says political and land grievances motivated some of them. Police are investigating Issa Timamy, the governor of Lamu county, in connection with some of the raids, for which he denies any involvement.
Police suspect gangs recruited and trained by al-Shabaab for the attacks in and around Mombasa, Police Commandant Robert Kitur told reporters in the city on July 25. A gun recovered last week from a suspect in an attack on Likoni, on the outskirts of Mombasa, is being analyzed for leads connecting it to several other attacks, he said.
This month, Kenyan security forces were deployed in Boni Forest, which borders Somalia, to hunt for those responsible for the raids on Mpeketoni and other villages.
“With the combined efforts of all of Kenya’s security agencies, we are chasing the gangs right in the forests where they hide,” Lamu county Commissioner Njenga Miiri said in an interview on July 25. “I am confident that peace will be restored soon.”
After 28 years selling artifacts, Mutuku says he can no longer wait for security to improve and is seeking other opportunities like trading cereals to help him survive. Odhiambo says residents need the situation resolved urgently.
“How will these people survive without work?” she asked. “They have children to feed and educate. It is a really bad situation.”