A Long Dry Season for Safari Tourism

By Vivienne Walt

When I meet Letuya Nkumum, he is standing outside his house in the Masai Mara game reserve under a storm cloud that's about to burst. The Masai farmer tells me he has concerns other than the weather. He wants to acquire enough cows to buy four or five wives from their fathers, and at 25, he's not getting any younger, and his financial prospects aren't getting any better.

Hours before, Soju Isshiki told me that he, too, has worries. Isshiki, 56, an executive from Tokyo, wants to lure more tourists to his safari lodge near Nkumum's village. Although the two might be stumped for conversation if they met, their fates are intertwined.

"When tourism is good, each family here gets about 20,000 shillings [$237] every six months," says Nkumum. But Kenya's tourist industry has not been good for five years, and Nkumum can't remember his last payment from the officials who are charged with distributing game-park revenues to the locals.

Meanwhile, Isshiki's Japanese investors have sunk millions into his Mpata Safari Club. Yet at dinner, only a few visitors sit in the large dining room, entertained by dancers from Nkumum's village. "We think we made a big mistake building in Kenya," says Isshiki.

The problem isn't the surroundings. Kenya has been satisfying tourists' fantasies for nearly a century, since Theodore Roosevelt ventured there and brought into vogue the Swahili word for "tour"--safari. With help from everyone from Ernest Hemingway and his short stories to Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, tourism became Kenya's top contributor of badly needed foreign exchange, edging out coffee and tea. By 1996, more than 300,000 tourists were coming annually.

But in the past five years, annual tourism revenues have sunk from $448 million in 1996 to little more than $240 million. What happened? Reality caught up with Kenya's image. With the country bordered by conflicts in Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, and Somalia, guns flooded into and out of Kenya during the 1990s as arms dealers set up business. About a quarter-million refugees also poured in, straining resources and pushing up an already high crime rate that is increasingly becoming publicized.

Kenya's other big draw, its Indian Ocean resorts, have never recovered from the 1997 election campaign, when scores of people along the coast were killed in clashes between security forces and opponents of President Daniel Arap Moi. The next presidential election is more than a year away, but a scramble for succession has begun among Moi's foes to try to end the two-decade grip on power by the 76-year-old leader. "Every time it gets close to elections, it gets very bad for tourism," says Jan Kamenju, who directs an arms-control advocacy group in Nairobi.

Last year, the government hired Beatrice Buyu, a seasoned marketing executive, to overhaul the Kenyan Tourism Board. Buyu claims Kenya's crime rates are far lower than South Africa's, whose safari industry is thriving. Yet even she concedes that South Africa is better at marketing and that its good roads, privatized resorts, and lower corruption make it a tough rival.

TV BOOST. But Buyu is banking on one thing above all. Earlier this year, the producers of Survivor picked Kenya as the setting for the TV megahit's third season, which premieres on CBS in September. Has she ever seen the show, I ask? No, she says, though she has heard it is not exactly a sequel to Out of Africa. No matter. "People will be watching and saying Kenya, Kenya, Kenya," she says. "That's what we need. It'll put us on the map."

Once Survivor has ended and the producers fly home to New York, however, that map will still include troubled borders and crime spots at home. But if things go well, the fresh exposure might also result in busier roads to the serene and splendid Masai country, with its game herds under giant blue skies. Maybe then, Nkumum will be able to afford at least one or two wives.

Based in Paris, Walt writes about Africa and the Middle East.

Edited by Tim Belknap

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