The Kenya Tourist Board sent Kenya’s Minister of Tourism and Wildlife Najib Balala to the U.S. Tour Operators Association’s annual conference in Phoenix. There, he made his case for why Kenya is, more than ever, the best destination in Africa — and not just for safaris, but also for cultural and adventure travel, as well as just basic exploration and vacationing.
With Minister Balala, the medium is certainly the message. His natural charisma is based on his energy and exuberance, which seem to create a field of confidence around him, and the sense that he is doing great things, and stirring things up. It’s hard to avoid being swept up in the breeze that he seems to have been borne upon on his journey from East Africa.
Anita Mendiratta introduced Balala at the opening session of the conference, as a man who gets his message across not by what he says, but by what he does.
“When he wants to promote adventure travel in Kenya, he’s not going to talk to you about Mount Kenya, he’s going to climb it,” said Mendiratta. “When he wants to show you how peaceful and how beautiful the beaches of Mombasa are … he won’t go and show it to you, he’ll parachute down on it.”
Those boasts are actually based on historical events. The discreet entrance is not part of Balala’s performance repertoire.
Mendiratta, a consultant in tourism and economic development and a perennial presenter and moderator for USTOA, asked Balala what was different about Kenya’s offerings. “The word ‘safari’ is from the Swahili language,” he said. “Safari comes from Kenya. We create an experience out of Africa, the authentic safari. We were there before everybody else.”
The safari experience goes far beyond mere wildlife viewing. “It’s not just watching animals,” said Balala. “It’s the experience of connectivity with the people, connecting with the country, and getting connected with something that is going to be memorable throughout your life.”
Balala’s tenure as Minister of Tourism and Wildlife is actually his second time in the post. He was first appointed in 2003. His successes in boosting tourism were so impressive that he was asked to do the same for the Ministry of Mining.
“The industry pushed back,” said Mendiratta. “They literally created an uproar and demanded that he come back. President Kenyatta brought him back a second time. But he was not satisfied doing the same job. He wanted to do it differently.”
A natural rule-breaker, Balala rejected the assumption observed by conventional wisdom that Americans would not go to the beach in Africa.
Americans who take beach vacations in Mexico and the Caribbean may not duplicate that behavior in a long-haul destination such as Africa. That does not mean, however, that when they travel to Africa, that they would not enjoy a visit to the beach as a cultural experience, a relaxing break from hectic travel, and an exploration of Africa’s natural environment.
“The combination of the beach and safari is unique in Kenya,” said Balala. “We have the Great Migration from Serengeti across the Mara River into the Masai Mara. But to that, we have added another great drama, the migration of the whales in the Indian ocean. It’s the combination of two that we bring together.”
Balala is determined to change the image of travel to Kenya, to broaden it from the one-dimensional view of Africa as only a place for a safari. “Everybody loves a safari to Africa,” he said, “and they think it’s about the Big Five, but it’s not just the animals. It’s the people. It’s the vibrancy of the city and the people. Nairobi is in the middle of a national park.”
Tourists do not just venture into the bush to see the animals. They are escorted and hosted by Africans who guide them, protect them, educate them, feed them and pamper them at the game lodges in the wilderness. It is a richly layered cultural exchange.
Shaking things up
Balala’s natural tendency to shake things up is seen as a great resource in a country where tourism provides 10 percent of the GDP. That’s why he was brought back to the tourism ministry for a second go-round.
“Unfortunately, whenever I come in, tourism is on its knees,” he said at a press briefing. “I came in 2008, when we had challenges. Then, we had fully recovered in 2012 and, in 2013, I was appointed minister for mining. Then after two years, when I was stabilizing and understanding the mining sector, I was asked to move to the tourism sector because, again, we had all the challenges of insecurity.”
In his second tenure during the last three years, Balala said, “We decided to think differently. We developed a national strategy blueprint and we are now focusing on four pillars: product, marketing, investment and infrastructure.”
The four pillars
The first pillar is a tight focus on how to improve the product itself. The ministry is expanding its view of tourism beyond the core business of safari.
“There are other niche products that we are introducing,” said Balala, “culture, the arts and museums, adventurous sports such as skydiving and mountain climbing, different national parks. You can do cycling in the national parks now. We introduced horseback riding in the national park, which is very popular.”
Balala is also working on upgrading the beach experience. “The beach product was a bit tired,” he said. “Now, we have encouraged people to put in new hotels. And we have worked with county and local government on how we can clean the beaches and make sure they are well secured. We also saw that the beach destinations don’t have enough activities to excite the consumer, so we are developing products that will make the consumer go to the beach and unwind, but also do other activities and visit other places.”
The government is rebuilding waterfronts along a 600-kilometer stretch and working hard to improve security throughout the tourist areas. “The government has invested heavily in security,” he said. “Touch wood, since 2015, there haven’t been any incidents in Kenya, except 1000 kilometers away from the capital near the border of Somalia, where there were a few incidents, but not in cities or towns or places where tourists go.”
Special attention has been paid to security in the capital city of Nairobi. “Nairobi now has CCTVs everywhere,” said Balala. “Police attend promptly. We have enough vehicles. The police stations have been refurbished. We have enough policemen in the force. So, we are reforming the police itself. We are committed.”
Sweeping changes in infrastructure
The government has introduced sweeping changes in the infrastructure. A new speed train between Nairobi and Mombasa has reduced traveling time from the old train (which took 13 hours to make the trip), to a four-and-a-half-hour journey with stops along the way in national parks.
A train is being constructed to provide transportation to Lake Victoria and the western part of the country. Airports are being expanded with new terminals and runways.
In addition to its other assets, with its British colonial history, Kenya is a cultural environment that is comfortable for Americans.
“Politically, we are stable,” said Balala. “We are democratic. We have freedom of the press, of expression. Of all that, we are the champions in Sub-Saharan Africa. And our currency is stable. We have a very stable economy.”
The country has also streamlined its visa processing. “We have visas on arrival or e-visas,” said Balala. “It takes three minutes online. For children below 16, there is no charge. For adults, its $50.”
Now with three years into his second term as minister over tourism, the sector has recovered again and is on the rise. “We’ve seen a major increase in arrivals numbers in the last year in the American market,” said Balala. “We’ve seen 45 percent growth, from 114,000 last year, to this year when we’ve seen 189,000 from January to October, and we expect to reach over 200,000 by end of year 2018.”
And yes, that is a record.