Kenya starts campaign to win back tourists scared off by strife

by Reuben Kyama

NAIROBI (Kyodo) With its natural beauty, wildlife safari tours and numerous golf courses, Kenya is stepping up calls for Japanese to visit the country through such entities as JTB Corp., All Nippon Airways Co. and the Japan Association of Travel Agents.

Behind the move is the fact that the number of Japanese visiting Kenya has dropped sharply over the last year, especially after the government issued warnings about traveling to the country amid the recent deadly political and ethnic violence.

Kenyan tourism officials say only 13,000 Japanese visited the east African country in 2007, compared with 15,000 the previous year, a 12 percent drop.

Despite the disappointing figure, Kenyan officials have high hopes the trend can be reversed.

“We are very, very hopeful and our intention for the coming year starting with our new fiscal year in July is actually to invest more in the Japanese market,” said Jennifer Opondo, acting marketing director at the Kenya Tourist Board, the body responsible for marketing Kenya as a tourist destination abroad.

“We’re looking at working very, very closely with our partners that we have already identified, like JATA, including JTB and ANA in Japan, to work with us to bring back not just a recovery from Japan but to generally increase the numbers out of Japan,” Opondo said.

Kenyan officials blamed the fall on the general drop in overseas travel from Japan. Since 2003, significantly fewer Japanese have been traveling abroad because of fears of terrorism and the SARS virus.

Despite the shortfall, the officials said Kenya still considers Japan an important market and is redoubling its efforts to reverse the trend.

“Japan is a market we still believe we can tap highly, because we believe Japan is a high-yield market, and due to our product, particularly the safari product and nature, because we know the Japanese really appreciate nature,” she said, adding that nature in Kenya is stunning.

Among other attractions that have proven a draw for Japanese, Opondo named coffee and tea plantations and sports facilities — especially golf courses encompassing safari areas. Kenya’s golf courses are sometimes touted as its “best-kept secret.”

“We want to tell the Japanese that it costs you less to come all the way to Kenya and golf . . . and while you come to Kenya to golf, it is a golfing safari,” Opondo said. “So you are golfing but you are also visiting the wildlife and you are seeing our scenery and also appreciating our culture.”

Kenya tourism officials say they have started implementing the strategy by trying to create value-based relationships and partnerships with Japanese travel agents and other organizations to penetrate the market.

Tourism is crucial to the Kenyan economy.

Last year, the country earned about $944 million in revenue from the sector. Much of that, officials say, came from the United States and the traditional European markets — Britain, Italy and Germany.

But the political crisis that emerged since recent elections there has spurred a wave of mass cancellations from the U.S. and European markets, denting the multibillion-dollar industry.

More than 1,000 people have died and 300,000 others have been driven from their homes in ethnic violence following a disputed election in December.