Kenyan tourist island braces for attack fallout

2014-06-20 09:57
Kenya police observe the remains of burnt-out cars at a police station in Mpeketoni, Lamu County. (Simon Maina, AFP)

Kenya police observe the remains of burnt-out cars at a police station in Mpeketoni, Lamu County. (Simon Maina, AFP)

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Lamu - Kenya's resort island of Lamu has almost everything a tourist could want: white sand beaches, ancient Unesco-listed architecture and year-round sunshine.

Cruelly missing, however, is a sense of security, and this week's massacres in a nearby town and village could be the death knell for the tourism sector and a key source of income for thousands of people.

"It's totally dead," said Ziwa Abdallah Mohamed, who has worked as a tour guide on Lamu island since the early 1970s, a time when it was a hippy destination.

Back then, hundreds would arrive each day on the docks of the ancient town of Lamu, where only donkeys and motorbikes can fit down the narrow winding streets.

Visitors would sleep on the rooftops of tower houses little changed for centuries, overlooking the blue sea of the Indian Ocean, where traditional sailing boats cruised the waters.

The massacres in and around Mpeketoni - about 30km from the island - were not the first disaster to hit the area. Three years ago, the kidnapping by Somali gunmen of a French woman from close to the island, and the seizure of two British tourists from closer to Somalia, kept visitors away.

But the numbers were slowly creeping back up, with the island gearing up for its busiest period beginning in July until March.

Then gunmen late on Sunday launched an attack on the mainland town of Mpeketoni, followed by a second assault on Monday, leaving at least 60 dead. Many fear it is the final straw.

"I don't think we're going to have any tourists here anymore," Mohamed said mournfully.

'Our economy is tourism'

The attacks were claimed by Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab, although President Uhuru Kenyatta has instead blamed the carnage on "local political networks" along with an "opportunist network of other criminal gangs".

Whoever is to blame, those on the island say their livelihoods are on the line.

"We had a great summer season last year and we were looking forward to this new season," said boat captain Aswif Omar, who ferries tourists along the mangrove-lined channels for fishing trips and sunset cruises.

"I was to be busy all next month," he said, noting that two weddings, each with large numbers of guests set to fly in, had been cancelled after the attacks made international headlines.

"Tourism is the main source of income in Lamu," he added.

The large hotels and high-end villas in the island's Shela village, famed for its vast beach that stretches as far as the eye can see, are almost all empty until at least August.

In one major hotel, of nearly 30 reservations for July, only two have not cancelled, and employees in some places have been asked to stay home "until further notice."

Workers at the famous Peponi Hotel in Shela, open since 1967, are defiant, assuring that the legendary seafront establishment would open on 1 July, like every year.

But many of the rich European and American owners - including many celebrities - of luxury beachfront villas have not been seen for a while, Mohamed said.

In the old town of Lamu, described by Unesco as the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, the situation is no better.

Jeff Yaa, manager of the Hotel Bahari, a modest property with 16 rooms, said that a group of Germans - regular visitors to the island - had just cancelled their annual visit.

Between 70 to 80% of Lamu's 20 000 residents live directly from the tourist economy, Mohamed said, but added that almost everyone depends on the industry in some form.

"Our economy is tourism, everything here depends on it," he said.

"The two activities in Lamu are fishing and tourism, but if there's no tourism, fishing for who? If there's no tourists, there's no restaurant to buy fish."
Read more on:    kenya  |  east africa
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