In 2019, before Covid-19 rocked global tourism, twelve European countries were among the most visited countries in the world. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, 89.4 million tourists visited France in 2019.
Spain came second with 82.7 million visitors. The US took third place with 79.6 million visitors. Meanwhile, 2.05 million tourists visited Kenya in 2019.
Although Kenya is consistently one of Africa’s tourism powerhouses, it falls far behind global tourism superpowers like France, Spain and the US. Blessed with world-class beaches, unique wildlife and fantastic weather, we definitely have what it takes to quadruple our tourist arrivals.
To do this, however, we must first improve our airports, because they give tourists their first impression of a country.
Luckily we are on the right track. Last month, Airports Council International (ACI) recognized Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) and Mombasa‘s Moi International Airport (MIA) for their superior customer service. Our two largest airports were named Best Airport by size and region in 2021 in their respective Africa categories of 5 to 15 million passengers per year and under 2 million passengers per year respectively. Both airports received this award for the second time in a row.
However, there is a lot of room for improvement, especially with the JKIA. Anecdotal evidence shared on social media and travel sites like TripAdvisor suggests travelers fall prey to unscrupulous airport staff who extort money from them.
Likewise, passengers continue to suffer losses at the hands of a well-known cartel of rogue carriers who are said to offer underhanded services in order to exist at the airport. Isn’t it possible to manage and formalize the existence of porters at the airport?
Kenya recently hosted the 67th International Airports Council Conference for Africa. At the Mombasa event, Transport CS James Macharia observed: “Airports need to know that airlines are their biggest customers and through airlines they have sectors like tourism.”
I might add that tourists are the biggest contributors to this equation. They are the ones who get on planes and visit countries. Therefore, airports must provide safe and comfortable treatment for tourists upon their arrival and departure.
One such comfortable experience extends to taxis that carry tourists from our airports. Gone are the days when taxi companies used to jostle chaotically around tourists. Regrettably, Kenyan airport authorities continue to admit a syndicate of unlicensed taxi companies at whose hands passengers continue to suffer excruciatingly. If we sincerely love our country, is it too difficult to organize and license traditional and non-traditional taxi companies?
All air passengers arriving in Kenya pay a departure tax which is payable for using an airport.
In the last nine months of 2021, Kenya’s Tourism Promotion Fund (TPF) earned 2.9 billion shillings from departure tax for local and international passengers. As TPF serves the sole purpose of tourism development, promotion and branding, it should work with the Kenya Airports Authority to fund measures to ensure a hassle-free experience for all tourists landing at our airports.
Even as we improve tourism experiences at JKIA, we must invest heavily in expanding air transportation infrastructure across the country. Indeed, Kenya needs to take the lead in modernizing domestic airport infrastructure to encourage international and domestic tourism.
One such airport ripe for urgent and major expansion is Malindi Airport. I recently met up with Italian billionaire Flavio Briatore, who has business interests in this coastal city. He reiterated that direct flights from Italy to Malindi will go a long way in boosting tourism here.
Indeed our two largest airports and the smaller ones like Malindi together with runways and airfields are the gateway into and within our country. We must ensure that all travelers entering through this gate have every reason to return. In doing so, we are following in the footsteps of tourism superpowers such as France, Spain and the USA. Think green, act green!