Jacinta Nzioka-Mbithi, few weeks ago, was appointed acting Managing Director of Kenya Tourism Board (KTB). In this interview, she shares with RENN OFFOR of atqnews.comthe bold initiatives her government has taken which has bolstered security within the country and around its borders once tainted by terrorist attacks; and coupled with positive economic development indicators which now drive new investments, tourism in Kenya is poised to resurge on to the front burner again to contribute immensely to the country’s economy.
Kenya ranked on the top 5 destinations in Africa on the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitive Index (TTCI) for 2015, and with growing effective counter-terror operations in combating terrorism, even as the country continues to record growing increase in attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) which expected to hit Sh20bn this year, would you say that Kenya’s tourism is on the path of resurgence from its past challenges?
For us to have achieved that clearly indicates that the tourism business in Kenya is resilient, and it is growing. There’s a new investment in the tourism sector. Recently Radisson Blu opened their first ever hotel in Kenya. We have Hilton Hotel confirm that they will build an airport hotel. We have other new hotels. So there are a lot of investments around the country.
The beauty is that since 2010, we have a new constitution that changed our government format. We are now in devolved government. We have counties. Before, we just had central governments, but now we have county governments led by a governor, full with ministries responsible for tourism, education, health and everything. These people are funded by the government. And now development of infrastructure and development of all the sectors are happening in the entire country.
So, the opportunities are there to invest in various places. You’re going to see in the next two to three years, places where we never imagined there could be tourism developing, because they have the manpower and the resources. So, it’s an opportunity for us as Kenya, we are sending to the world a fresh new product; something new. There is a lot of interest in investment. All these counties are going around the world, looking for investors in their particular counties. So, that is why you’re seeing these ranks going up for Kenya, despite the fact that we had challenges in the last two years.
So, these challenges are global challenges. Terror attacks are global phenomenon. They can happen anywhere. They happened in Kenya, and that made our tourism go down. But the potential, nothing has changed. Tourism is still thriving. We are therefore looking at a very positive future.
Kenya has instituted a tourism police. What are their functions?
We have about 300 tourism police officers, and these tourism police officers are spread only the tourism areas. The rest of the police is for security. Because we have concentrated areas for tourism, so they’re spread in these particular places to ensure the safety and security of tourists, as the principal mandate for them.
During the World Travel Market (WTM) London you said that the Kenya Tourism Board is focusing its marketing efforts towards West Africa and you mentioned Nigeria and Ghana in particular. What is your attraction to Nigeria?
We here in Nigeria with the contingent from the Kenya Tourism Board, we are bringing our cultural troop here to come and showcase our cultural attractions to the Nigerian people. Nigeria is of key importance for us. Number one, even before tourism, our government is looking at Nigeria as an investment partner. Recently our president came to Nigeria. We also had visit from the former president of Nigeria with big business delegation coming into Kenya. So, for in terms of investment, that is key. Kenya has focused on emerging markets for all the sectors.
But for tourism, we are looking at intra-Africa tourism as very key. As you can see, since the last two years we had the terror attack, Africa is the only market that has not died, that has not completely gone to its knees. It’s because the African market is resilient. Africans are thronging even when the Europeans have set up advisories against visiting parts of Africa. The other thing is that middleclass in Africa is growing. And Africans are tremendously now looking out for places to go. They have gone to Europe, they have gone to America, and to Dubai, wherever! It is time now time for Africa! They are travelling within the African region.
The other thing now is that Kenya has changed its visa regulations for all Nigerians. Before that, Nigerians could not get visa on arrival in Kenya. Now, you can get it instantly right on arrival in the country! Before now, you had to apply, wait for few days, and send your passport… So, now it is easy: get on to the flight, get on to Nairobi, and you get your visa on arrival, as long as you have a return ticket, you have done bookings so that it is clear where you’re going. The other thing is that we have direct flights from Abuja and from Lagos. These open up business opportunities for us.
So, we’re looking at this market being relative. This is a big economy in the world, and we want the Nigerian money! We want a portion of that! Nigerians go around the world. We saw in our study that in London, the highest spenders in terms of jewelle ries are Nigerians! You go there, you’re spending in in the restaurants, you’re shopping, you’re going out… You’re tourists who go with money, and that is what we want! A portion of this is what we want, so that the Kenyan people can benefit from tourism.
During the Ebola virus scare in West Africa with confirmed cases in Nigeria, Kenya defied it and registered to attend the annual Akwaaba African Travel Market (AfTM) in Lagos…
Like I told you, it was a deliberate decision for Kenya to look at Africa. If you listen to our president, in the sectors, he’ll always say, ‘Look at Africa. This is where the future is! So, why are we running around the world and we’re having these potentials here’? Last year, we decided we will proceed to Akwaaba even if there were Ebola issue. The whole world left Africa because of Ebola. We had to stand with Africa. And for us, it was an opportunity for us to show solidarity with the Nigerians. It is time for Africa to look at one another and to support one another!
So, we market our country to you: come and enjoy yourselves. Tell us where we need to improve or to change, and we will do so to fit in and meet the needs of Nigerians!
Despite the good effort of improvement Kenya is making, some European countries still retained their travel advisories against your country. Are they fair? What is your reaction to this?
My personal opinion is that it is not fair! Let me tell why. Travel advisories were issued against Kenya because of terror attacks. Not because of Kenyans fighting Kenyans. It was an attack, and we were the victim of terrorism. So, it’s not that when you come to Kenya, we the Kenyans will attack you. No! You can be attacked anywhere. This thing is global. Right now, who has issued travel advisories against Paris? No one! Instead, they’re saying we support Paris. So, why not do the same to Kenya.
After suffering all that, losing our people, going through such traumatising event and calling on the international community to support us, we now been able to secure our borders. We have now improved security in various places. You’re going into a mall, a hotel, Churches and mosques… wherever you live, you need to know your ten neighbours. What I’m saying was started by the president. With all these improvements, there still countries who don’t believe that we are a peaceful nation.
Since Obama Visited Kenya, and the Pope… who are the most people in this world? If they travelled all the way, come, it is an endorsement. Still some countries have not lifted those warnings… I don’t think it’s fair! Immediately Obama left Kenya, the US lifted their advisory, UK lifted their advisory. I’m sure the rest of the European countries will follow on that path, because they look at the same issues. It’s just a matter of time because they have to report to their head office, and to their capitals and get everything processed. But we are very confident because we know as a government the measures that have been taken, and the preparedness and alertness of the Kenyan people.
What is your take as regards intra-African tourism?
I think there’s a future for intra-African tourism in Africa. I say this because I see the growth. Right now as we speak, Uganda is our leading market in Africa, followed by South Africa, and then Tanzania, all the way to Nigeria and Ghana …. Now, the growth in these markets is higher than the growth in all our traditional markets. If you look at a product lifestyle, after a product is launched, there is a lot of demand because people are excited to travel within Africa. I believe it is a good thing because it is supported by the governments… You know governments in Africa are supporting intra-Africa trade and travels. So, they facilitate intra-Africa travels. They will ease visas… like now you can go to Tanzania, Uganda or Rwanda without a passport. You just go with you Kenyan ID and you cross the borders!
So, if we keep opening borders like that because we want to do it that Africa is one. The other thing is flight. Before now, you cannot fly through many African capitals. Now, we have our own carriers in Africa, flying from capital to capital, and even to smaller cities. Flights from our country; for example, Kenya Airways: 80% of flights from Kenya Airways are from African region. This is their biggest business: Africa! Besides the fact that they also go to Asia and Europe, Africa is key.
So, I believe it is something that can really work. It’s easy to do business with an African country. You feel at home doing business in an African country because you can get along with the people easily.
You have been working with KTB for years. You’re a tourism person. So, what actually inspires you most in this job?
I’m very passionate about my job, and I love tourism. Tourism is everything to me. I am not going anywhere else. I studied Tourism Management from Moi University for my Bachelor’s degree and a post graduate Diploma in Marketing of Services from Maastricht School of Management in the Netherland and hold an MBA in Strategic Management with Marketing. So, I’m in the right field, and that is why I’m not leaving to go to manufacturing or to agriculture or anywhere else. I am in the right place. I understand that tourism is the biggest business in the world. It is the highest employer of people. In rural areas where nothing works, tourism can work. It touches the lives of people. I am an advocate for rural development and sustainable tourism. So, I believe this is a sector that can change people’s lives. The other thing is that it benefits many other sectors. Agriculture, transport and so many others all benefit from tourism. It is a business that is ripe for development. So, I aspire to continue advocating that it is transforming peoples’ lives.
What are some of the unique tourism attractions in Kenya?
Kenya is a very unique country. Where it is located, the rift valley traverses the whole country, dotted along the rift valley base are many lakes. So we have many lakes. We have salty water lakes and fresh water lakes which have a lot of wildlife. These give very good diversity, and there’s also very beautiful scenery because of those volcanic eruptions and history… it’s fantastic. Even on the road through Kenya, you wouldn’t get boredon the road because it is very scenic. The other thing is that the diversity of the country and the combination of the best safari and the fantastic beaches. Tell me how many countries in the world have fantastic wildlife safari; proper natural experience on a safari. You’re seeing wildlife in their natural setting, not in a zoo, not in a fenced place, an open national park! And in the afternoon, you’re swimming in a warm sandy beach! That for us is the biggest tourism pull; that’s the combination of two very strong tourism products. And then the Kenyan people! Diverse, very warm people; Kenyans are very hospitable. Even in the villages, a little child can even engage with you easily…
Ah! Madam, please, on a lighter note: I heard and even read on the internet that Kenyan women beat their husband. I saw women holding their husbands by the ties or trousers and dragging them along…
Laughs! I have never beaten my husband! Laughs! Let me tell you what happened in those incidents; and for sure the incidents happened in an area where the men go to drink so much booze, the local bear. They drink so much that they forget that they are fathers and husbands. And the woman is the one bearing the responsibilities of the home. That is why the woman is bringing the man back home to their responsibilities! That is the only issue, and they are isolated incidences. You can’t say Kenyan women beat their husbands, just blankly free like that.
Ilearnt it is mostly Nyeri women…
That is because the local booze is majorly in that region! The government had to come in and make it illegal, because when young people leave from school, they go there and just forget about the future…
That local booze must be very unique and pleasant that a man will drink and forget his wife, home and children… That may be very inviting for tourism with appetites for local wines and drinks. And I think I would like to explore that region when I come to Kenya!
Laughs! I hope you won’t get addicted to it.You know these local drinks are made from natural plants, fruits, honey… So, it’s very easy if a person is not very focused to get very much involved with it. But that aside, the Kenyan government has given women a lot of support. Today as we speak, in every institution of society as it relates to appointment and jobs, the government is given women equal opportunity with men. Even in the private sector, the same is encouraged. Women make up the larger population of Kenya is women. But the working class, the larger population is men. It’s because traditionally the women are the kitchen, but the men can go to school. Now, that is changing. There’s a lot going on to empower women; and that is entrenched in our constitution.
Kenya is going to be in Akwaaba African Travel Market this year, I guess. What areyou going to be offering to the rest of Africa and what are your expectations?
We know that Akwaaba is going to be very successful for us this year because we have done our preparations well. We’ve had online training programs with travel agents and tour operators, taught them about the destination online, so that they now know what there is in Kenya for tourism. We’ve brought several travel agents into Kenya for a familiarization trip. The level of education and awareness about Kenya in the trade is really big. We’re also with EbonyLife TV to do programs on Mombasa and Nairobi. They are two big cities. So, all these are calculated to be able to continue to drag demand for Kenya. We’re also in partnership with Wakanow, an online travel booking agency. So, the product is already there in the market. What we are doing now is just creating awareness in the Nigerian population, so that they can consider Kenya as a tourism destination. Our cultural troupe will be performing in Akwaaba. We want to engage the population, showcase what Kenya has to offer, so that we can attract more Africans to Kenya.
What are some of the unique foods a tourist to Kenya should look forward to tasting?
We have over forty-two communities and they all have their own foods and delicacies! Though I’m in Nairobi, I still prefer the delicacies from my local tribe. And it is various, it is everywhere. The most important thing is that it has to have a starch, a pudding and spices. Now, the people of the coasts, they do what we callthe ‘Pilau’. In the urban centers, they do what is called the ‘nyama-choma’. It is grilled meat with vegetables. In the western area, where we have theMediterranean, because it’s the second largest fresh water lake in the world, it is ‘kish’ and ‘Ugalia’. ‘Ugalia’ is our own ‘foofoo’. It is a maize meal, and that is the staple food for most Kenyan communities; and several other foods. We have a special drink in Kenya which we call ‘dawa’. It is a swahili word meaning medicine. It’s a mixture of honey, lime and vodka. It’s a treatment for fatigue. Once you take it, you’re immediately energized! But each of these communities has their own delicacies.
Please, madam, tell us about you. You work with increased responsibility, are you married, do you have children, and how do you cope with work and family…?
About myself! It’s a long story. I’m married, and I have three children. A teenager who is 14 and twins who are 10! So I have two boys and one girl. I’m also a twin. I have a twin sister! I did exactly what my mother did. She had twins and I also had a twins. I was born and grew up in the area of Kenya between Mombasa and Nairobi; near Thabo National Park. Every morning we wake up, we just look up and see the Kilimanjaro. It’s a Savannah area. I’ve travelled a lot in the course of my job. I’m married to a medical practitioner. And we do a lot of travels together. Our first son was in the US when he was two months old. The twins were born in the US. We are globe trotters. And what I love about do has changed everybody in the big family to love tourism. We are a travelling family. Another thing is that I love cooking; and my best sport is basketball. I played basketball…
But you’re not very tall, how come you play basketball?
I know. I’m a guard. I can run very fast! I love singing, and I sing in my Church choir. And dancing, I can get on to the dancing floor and won’t leave!