Kenya tourism ravaged by kidnappings

2011-10-05 20:44

Lamu - During high season in this Kenyan luxury resort area, foreign tourists snorkel by day and sleep in rustic dwellings with woven coconut leaves for doors.

Now they're leaving town early and cancelling reservations after gunmen kidnapped two European (tourists) and killed another in only a month.

Already, droves of workers who depend on tourism in this gorgeous but poor corner of East Africa are losing their jobs.

Hours after a French woman was abducted last weekend, eight guests checked out of Stefano Moccia's nearby hotel and hurriedly boarded a plane. Usually busy taxi boats now lay idle along the coasts.

Some tourists have come despite the violence and travel warnings, but the outlook is grim.

"This season is over. That is for sure," said Stefano Moccia, who already has fired nearly half his 100 staff members in just two days. Unless business at The Majlis rebounds quickly, he says he'll have to let go most of the rest.

Nervous hotel owners like Moccia are urging Kenya's government to step up security in this area long popular with tourists and rich Kenyans.

High tourist season traditionally begins here in November, but the $1 800-a-night rooms could sit empty, the white sand beaches bare of sunbathers.

Livelihoods are at stake

"Tens of thousands of people depend on the tourism - their livelihoods are at stake," said Dario Urbani, the marketing director of Romantic Hotels, which owns Lamu Palace Hotel, where an American tourist also checked out right after the Saturday attack.

"Without thinking too much, tourists will say 'I don't want to risk my life by going there. The Kenyan government has to flex its muscle and chase away criminals," he added.

Tourism is a $1bn industry and employs tens of thousands of Kenyans in a country where many people live on less than a $1 a day.

The sector has just picked up after Kenya's deadly 2007-2008 postelection violence, when photos of angry men roaming the streets with machetes forced waves of vacation cancellations.

Now, the US, British and French governments have issued travel warnings to their citizens after the recent abductions.

Kenyan Tourism Minister Najib Balala urged the businesses to stay open. "When you close hotels, you create unnecessary panic," he told them at a crisis meeting held on Monday in Lamu, a world heritage town with centuries-old cultures and ruins.

The people here wear sarongs, Islamic hats and robes; the modes of transport on the archipelago, which is on the Indian Ocean, are donkeys and taxi boats.

Balala said ambassadors of the three governments told him that they will review the travel warnings after a month.

130km from Somalia

"It will be very hard to convince tourists that nothing will happen to them, and that Lamu is safe when they know what happened two days ago," said Joseph Koi, a tour co-ordinator from Lamu Holiday Solutions.

Somali gunmen have been penetrating Kenya's borders since Somalia's central government collapsed in 1991. Two decades later, al-Qaeda-linked militants wage war in the capital, and pirates hijack ships off the coast for millions of dollars in ransom.

Somali attackers have abducted Kenyans and foreigners several times in the past, but never before have they travelled around 130km from their country on speedboats to grab foreigners in their guesthouses in Lamu.

Situated on Kenya's northern coast line, the Lamu archipelago consists of several islands.

On Tuesday, the normally bustling hotels were sparely populated, as were the beautiful beaches. No navy vessels were visible this weekend to protect the luxury hotels and guesthouse along the beach.

Abdalla Fadhil, the owner of the house where the French woman was kidnapped, said tourists like houses made of mangrove poles with thatched roofs and coconut leaves.

"Tourists ran away from concrete houses, ceramic tiles and steel beams to experience this natural life," he said.

Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere said hotels and villas on the coast will be patrolled by security officers whose cell phone numbers will be made public.


He said police and soldiers also will intensify border patrols to stop any infiltration. He also said surveillance planes will be also deployed.

"We require a lot of co-operation from the locals," he said, blaming some locals for sympathising with the criminals.

Fadhil said locals may have helped Somali gunmen for money, "because many people live in poverty here." He said while residents on Manda island may earn about $3 a day from tourism, others in Lamu town scrape by on $1 a day.

On Monday, about a dozen men marched along Lamu's beachfront and called for government action against Somali pirates and al-Qaeda-linked militants known as al-Shabaab. They carried banners reading "Attack al-Shabaab in Somalia," "Down with al-Shabaab and Pirates."

"We want peace and to get peace we need a strong security force that can stop abductions in our islands," said 60-year-old Ziwa Abdalla, who said he worked as a guide for 35 years.

"If tourists don't come here we will suffer, and worse our jobless people can turn to piracy."

Some are going ahead with their vacation plans, venturing out on boat excursions and safaris on the mainland.

"We're shocked by the incident, but it didn't make us leave earlier," said Peter Kelly, a 62-year-old Canadian travelling with more than 10 other tourists.

One prominent hotel was bustling with tourists on Sunday night. Its owner asked an Associated Press reporter not to interview his customers. He did not want to be named, fearing it would attract negative attention to his business at a delicate time.

"We're lucky to be open," he said curtly.

  • Eastafrican - 2011-10-05 21:59

    Except for sending mediators to try to get the women released nothing else is happening. No wonder the hotels is empty. Not only do you get kidnapped but you also do not get rescued. The Kenya government forces was in contact with the French woman's kidnappers why did they allow them to get away? Shame on you Kenya. Why could they not land forces where the kidnappers landed. There was helicopters that could have landed special forces, several gunboats for support. It is pathetic. There was more than enough time. Now it is to late. But even now why is this pirate havens allowed to exist? Why does the Kenya armed forces not take action and teach these Somali scum that they will pay dearly for cross border raids. How are we East Africans supposed to feel safe if our armed forces will not protect us?

      jen - 2011-10-06 07:48

      You'd thinks they would look after their one of their biggest assets - tourism. They have known forever that their evil neighbour poses a threat of all sorts and has taken no preventative measures. According to reports the Navy could not be reached and police had to borrow a ski-boat from a nearby hotel. What a joke.

      jen - 2011-10-06 07:48

      You'd thinks they would look after their one of their biggest assets - tourism. They have known forever that their evil neighbour poses a threat of all sorts and has taken no preventative measures. According to reports the Navy could not be reached and police had to borrow a ski-boat from a nearby hotel. What a joke.

  • jen - 2011-10-06 07:49

    thinks - think

  • Anton - 2011-10-06 10:24

    Not saying Kenya, could not have done more, but to fight terrorism is extremely difficult. Just look at the hijacking of ships of the Somali coast. Despite the warships of many nations protecting these waters, six of these guys can hijack a massive oil tanker and take a crew of 30 hostage. These scumbags are very good at what they are doing. They will come with their rubber dingy out of nowhere, take a hostage and dissapear in the mist. All within 10 minutes!!!!

  • Andries - 2011-10-11 18:44

    All tourists!!! Come to the beautiful, safe United States of America and enjoy nthe splendid variety this big country has to offer! And the best news is that the value of the Dollar is such that it is affordable! Leave Africa to the pirates and muggers and corrupt governments unable to act against these thugs!

  • MyWereld - 2011-10-12 05:07

    Kenia does not have the means or capability to safeguard tourists. The pirates know it and highjackings/abductions will continue. Cleaning up the source in Somalia will be the only effective way to stop this booming "business". And who can or would do it? Your guess is as good as mine.

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