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Hurrah for direct US flights to Kenya — but don’t pop the champagne yet

American cruise ship docks in Mombasa with tourists

The Cabinet secretaries for Transport and Tourism may be forgiven for itching to celebrate Jomo Kenyatta International Airport’s new Category 1 status.

This follows the US Federal Aviation Authority’s approval of Kenya’s application for direct flights to the US. But we need to reflect on the length of time the country has taken to arrive at this point, and the much tougher work ahead to retain the status.

It might help, for example, to understand why a supposedly friendly US government of former President Barack Obama sought to blacklist Kenya’s airspace nine months ago.

In a move that stunned analysts, the US wanted the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in Canada to place Kenyan airspace in the same category as Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine and South Sudan — countries engaged in active civil wars.

Dire consequences

Equally inexplicably, the US had made the request to ICAO without alerting Kenya of any intelligence that indicated the country could become an active war zone, or at least providing a reason for its action.

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Kenya was forced to send a strong delegation to Canada to refute the move from the US, as its success would have had dire consequences for the country’s tourism industry in particular, and business in general.

It would also have dealt a severe blow to the country’s efforts to cement its position as a regional hub.

The challenges facing the country’s tourism industry are beyond the ability of any single line ministry to tackle effectively. Yet, until they are addressed, the industry will remain a cyclical one, depending more on events taking place in the tourists’ home countries than events in Kenya.

State House and the Treasury may need to consider re-kindling the post-independence dream of Kenyans owning the commanding heights of the industry. This would require paying more than lip-service to ordinary Kenyans owning hotels and tour-operating companies as individuals or groups.

Since it is obvious Kenyans are now used to saving through Saccos to buy land for sub-division into plots, the Treasury may need to consider ways of getting these savings and pooling them for investment into tourism projects.

This need not be difficult as Kenyans — particularly those in the middle-income band — have demonstrated a healthy appetite for safe investments.

One of the best ways would be for the Treasury to launch the much-delayed mobile bonds that were to be bought in low denominations. There is little doubt they would attract the billions of shillings hidden under mattresses or lying idle in banks.

Obviously, critics are bound to come up with historical evidence of the huge losses the Kenyan public suffered when the Government invested in tourism soon after independence.

Home-grown ownership

But these arguments can be countered with evidence of just how far the country has come in getting local people with the requisite skills and integrity to run public companies at a profit rivaling the private sector.

The case for home-grown ownership of tourism facilities and service delivery companies can be strengthened with the observation that it would encourage further growth of domestic tourism.

This growth would stabilise the industry and protect it from fair-weather friends who issue travel advisories even when terrorism perpetrators are from their own countries.

Local ownership would also net the country billions of shillings that are today held back by questionable practices among some industry players. These include remitting to the country only a small portion of the money paid by tourists. This leads to a discrepancy between the number of tourists visiting the country and the money earned.

The result is the current scenario where the country is expected to believe that tourists pay more to visit our neighbours, even when their hotel rooms are of lower quality than Kenya’s, and cost much less.

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