Somali attacks hurting Kenya economy

2011-10-19 20:27

Nairobi - The Kenyan government sent troops into Somalia to search for people kidnapped by Somali gunmen and to push Islamist militants away from Kenya's tourist destinations, the country's tourism minister said.

Najib Balala told The Associated Press that the army's pursuit of Islamist militants was necessary because they were creating instability in the country and affecting the economy.

As a result of a spate of kidnappings in Kenya by Somalia gunmen, Kenya had to revise its marketing strategy to attract tourists. Kenya hoped to earn $1bn in tourism income this year, Balala said.

Somali gunmen have kidnapped four Europeans in the last six weeks - two from the Lamu coastal region and two from the Dadaab refugee camp. The French government said on Wednesday that the French woman who was taken died in militant custody in Somalia.

Balala said late on Tuesday that the Kenyan government was responding to the attacks.

"Security has been upped in the country and we made sure that we don't entertain any unscrupulous characters in our country," Balala said.

Kenya on Sunday sent columns of troops into Somalia in search of al-Shabaab militants. The government has blamed al-Shabaab for the kidnappings though analysts doubt that claim.

Al-Shabaab itself has denied taking part in the abductions.

Tourism hit

Whoever carried them out, the attacks have already taken a severe toll on Kenya's tourism industry, the country's third-biggest foreign exchange earner last year.

Balala said he is optimistic that the country's tourism will continue the rebound that it's made after being brought to a near standstill during the country's postelection violence in late 2007 and early 2008.

Tourism revenues last year exceeded $900m.

Hugh Regg, a tourist from Australia, visited one of Nairobi's most popular sites on Wednesday, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where visitors can watch orphaned baby elephants being hand-fed by bottle.

Regg said he was a (little) nervous before arriving in Kenya because of the recent news, but hasn't had any negative experiences.

"I found the place to be friendly. The people have been very, very nice and sure there's issues like anywhere in the world but I have not experienced that," he said.

"What is happening up on the Somali border is obviously pretty serious and I read in today's paper that they are doing something about it which is good."

Despite the renewed security concerns, the country is expected to receive new visitors from non-traditional markets of Russia and Scandinavian countries, Balala said.

Security beefed up

A new threat to Kenya emerged on Monday, when al-Shabaab militants inside Somalia threatened to level Kenyan skyscrapers and carry out suicide bomb attacks like ones that killed 76 people in Kampala, Uganda in July 2010.

"Definitely we are not taking these threats lightly but we know they do not have the capacity to do a lot of this talk that they have talked," Balala said.

Kenyan police this week sent out a terrorist attack warning and increased security at some downtown sites, including Nairobi's Somali neighbourhood.

Balala said that despite the coastal attacks, Western vacationers are altering their vacation plans, not cancelling them.

"There is concern... but we haven't received cancellations. We have received relocations from Lamu to other areas in Kenya and that is acceptable but there haven't been major cancellations," he said.

He said travel advisories by the US, UK and French governments warning their citizens against travel to coastal areas close to the border with Somalia should be removed because they are harming the tourism industry.

He noted that tourism revenue helps Kenya to fight poverty and increase education, health care and security.

"Yes these incidents happened. The government was very swift in taking action and now security is beefed up," he said.

"I can assure everybody Lamu is safe, Kenya is safe," he added.

"It is unfortunate this has happened, it has tainted our image, too bad. But I believe people who know Kenya, trust me, Kenya is a safe destination."