My recent trip to Kenya confirmed three things that I thought to be true but wanted to see firsthand:
1) Kenya is safe for tourists to visit.
2) The game viewing, hospitality and overall safari experience is as good as ever (I would argue that it is better).
3) The tourism industry in Kenya is at a critical point. Arrivals and forward bookings are down significantly as we enter peak season and our friends and colleagues in Kenya need our support now more than ever.
Arrival: This was my first visit to Kenya since the August 2013 fire at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. I was fully prepared for a long and disorganized immigration experience so I was pleasantly surprised when we were through immigration and into baggage claim in about 5 minutes (note: my flight arrived just ahead of a KLM & SAA flight; had we been after them the lines would have been longer). There were many counters open to process the inbound passengers and the lines moved very quickly. The international arrivals terminal (a converted parking garage) is fully equipped and as functional as other terminals throughout Africa. There is a bus ride from the plane to this makeshift terminal, but the operation was smooth and this is no different than the procedure at some of the most modern airports in the world.
The new terminal is under construction and will be open before the end of 2016. This will further improve the process.
Visas were a popular topic of conversation during my meetings in Kenya. As most travel professionals are aware Kenya has announced that they are planning on requiring advance visas through an online application process. This has caused quite a stir and is a major concern for people in the trade. This new visa requirement is still being discussed so please stay in contact with your partners in Kenya for the most up to date information (as of 17AUG guests will be able to get a visa on arrival through 31AUG, but as of 01SEPT all arriving pax will need a visa in advance).
Security: I find it almost laughable that I have to dedicate a section of this report to the security of the tourism areas in Kenya. As anyone moderately familiar with the geography of Kenya knows there have been zero incidents of terrorism anywhere near a national park or game reserve. There have been isolated instances of violence in Nairobi, but again these targeted areas that are not commonly frequented by tourists. All major hotels and tourism attractions have security measures in place and at no time during our travels did we feel unsafe. In all honesty there are many parts of the USA that are far more dangerous than Kenya!
Experience: The hospitality in Kenya is second to none – this is something that I’ve always believed and was pleased (but not surprised) to see that this has not changed. Throughout our travels we were welcomed with huge smiles and extended hands; the people of Kenya have always appreciated anyone that chooses to visit their home nation but that sentiment is even greater now as the tourism industry is going through its most challenging time in many years.
• Getting around: Nairobi is well-known for having some of the worst traffic in the world. That has not changed, the city has a very large population and traffic in and around NBO remains quite hectic. We departed our hotel for the Mara rather early so as to avoid major delays.
The obligatory stop at the Great Rift Valley for a restroom and a photo of the breathtaking view was far less crowded than my previous visits. Of the tourists that were there, NONE of them appeared to be American except for us.
• Game Viewing: The game viewing was spectacular – one of the best safaris I’ve ever been on (and this was my 37th visit to Africa). We saw the Big Five (in ONE DRIVE), the beginning of the migration (including a river crossing), and lots of cats.
One of the few ‘complaints’ or negatives that you occasionally hear about safaris in Kenya is that there are too many vehicles around sightings, specifically in the Mara. The fact of the matter is that there is an abundance of game so there will be many visitors to see the animals.
• Tourism: This trip was different – the animals were there, but the vehicles were not! Selfishly it was incredible, there were multiple big five sightings that we had all to ourselves (an oddity in the Mara), but really this was a sad fact. As we sat on the banks of the Mara River and watched approximately 10,000 wildebeest cross from one side to the other I counted only 19 vehicles in sight. I asked our guide how many vehicles there would have been at this sighting two seasons ago. He didn’t even dignify my question with a real response, rather shook his head indicating that under normal circumstances it would have been far busier.
The irresponsible media reporting and overall ignorance and apathy of the American public when it comes to geography have severely crippled the once thriving tourism industry in Kenya. It does not take a tourism, nor economy, major to understand the impact that this drop in tourism can have on unemployment and the economic well-being of an entire population; so selfishly it was a treat to see the incredible sightings that the Mara regularly offers with so few others around to ‘spoil’ the experience but it was depressing and frightening to realize how dire the situation truly is.
Given my profession I naturally take note of which safari companies’ vehicles I see, what camps appear to be full, and also the nationalities of the guests that are occupying those vehicles/camps. It was very sad, albeit not terribly shocking, that only a handful of the tourists that we encountered were North Americans. The USA is one of the largest and most important source markets for Kenya and it has shrunk significantly.
Conclusion: I think (and hope) my message is obvious and clear, so there is no need to bore you by belaboring the point with a long report. Kenya needs our help – she has given so much to the safari industry over the past several decades, it is now the industry’s turn to repay her.
If you would like to hear more about my trip, or want to brainstorm about ways that we might be able to work together to support the people and the tourism industry in Kenya please reach out to me anytime – you’re call or email will be met with a smile, a jambo, and a karibu.
My Itinerary – where I stayed
A HUGE Asante Sana to the amazing properties that put me up (and put up with me) during my travels!
Sarova Stanley: The Sarova Stanley remains an iconic hotel in the bustling capital city of Nairobi. Located in the heart of the central business district, the Stanley is the oldest luxury hotel in Nairobi – its doors opened in 1902! The heritage feel of the hotel, along with excellent food & beverage options and the overwhelming Kenyan warmth and hospitality make the Stanley my preferred hotel in Nairobi. Critics and other industry professionals agree, as the Stanley is regularly recognized at the major awards shows as the premier property in Nairobi. The guest rooms & suites offer all of the comfort and amenities that one would expect in a luxury city hotel and the swimming pool on the roof of the 5th floor offers a peaceful escape from the busy city streets below. A visit to the Stanley would not be complete without enjoying a cocktail at the Exchange Bar, once the site of Nairobi’s first Stock Exchange.
(2) Sarova Mara Game Camp: This camp is a real hidden gem – it can be used for groups and overland safari guests (utilizing the 50 standard tents), or your more up-market fly in clientele (in the 20 club tents); there are also 2 family units which are incredibly popular. The location of the camp – the far eastern side of the Masai Mara Game Reserve makes the drive to Nairobi a bearable 4 ½ hours, but it is also situated near Keekorok Airstrip for easy access by plane. The accommodation in the standard tents is comfortable and very affordable and I believe the club tents offer possibly the best value in the Mara. They are incredibly spacious and very well appointed. The game viewing experience in this part of the reserve is stunning and the cuisine at the camp is well presented, very fresh and delicious. Sarova offers the finest culinary experience in Kenya across all eight of their properties; the quality of the dishes rivals that of the finest boutique lodges in Kenya.
Sarova Mara Game Camp is also the ideal choice for those seeking a richer experience of the Maasai Mara that goes much beyond just game drives. The Camp offers an unparalleled range of activities and experiences from luxury tented living to bird-watching, mini golf, sport fishing and a unique insight into the Maasai culture at the adjoining Maasai village.
(3) Naibor Camp: New to the KAI portfolio, Naibor Camp offers an outstanding traditional east African tented safari experience with a splash of luxury. The location of the camp is second to none, hidden in a grove of riverine woodland on the banks of the Talek River. Its 7 rooms are each on the river; they are extremely spacious, offering both outdoor and indoor living. The tents are well spaced affording guests ultimate privacy and they are beautifully furnished with king sized beds and couches. All tents also feature a private firepit right on the banks of the Talek River. The bathrooms are also large and have a flush toilet and safari showers. The camp runs solely on solar power; the rooms have 24 hour lighting but no plug points. There is a charging station in the main lounge/mess tent, where there is also wi-fi.
Right next door is Little Naibor – 2 two bedroom units each with en suite bathrooms. One bedroom has a king bed and the other with two twin beds. This is the ideal accommodation for families.
Naibor and Little Naibor share a massive main lounge area, ideal for curling up with a book on a bean bag chair, chatting with other guests while relaxing on the day beds and couches, or enjoying a glass of wine while being entertained by the hippo pool just in front of camp. Lunch is served privately in the garden and dinner is a communal affair (private dinners can be arranged on request), the food at all meals was delicious and offered a great variety.
Located within the immediate vicinity of Main Naibor & Little Naibor is Naibor Wilderness, made up of three luxurious double tents. This camp is slightly more rustic but still offers very large and comfortable accommodation. This would be ideal for a family or three couples to book it as exclusive use.
When completely full Naibor only has 28 guests across the three camps but employs a staff of 30 (including 4 full time guides) and 5 vehicles. The game viewing around camp was great and it is located just a very short drive from a popular river crossing spot for the Great Migration. Our guide, David, is a Masai elder and he was terrific!
(4)Angama Mara: Angama, Swahili for ‘suspended in mid-air’, is located on the Oloololo Escarpment overlooking the Masai Mara National Reserve. Angama is not part of the KAI Collection but the owners, Steve & Nicky Fitzgerald, are friends so I wanted to see their new property and I am ever so glad that I did. Anybody looking for an ultimate luxury safari experience should look no further than Angama. Due to its location the camp offers unrivaled views of the reserve; each of the 30 tents (two separate camps of 15), the main lodge, the swimming pool, and even the gym offer unobstructed 180 degree views of the game viewing area. Every tent is identical – roomy, beautifully decorated, superior amenities, and did I mention the view… The main lodge is an architectural accomplishment on its own; the bar and dining room are beautiful, there is a stunning library and the deck and firepit are spectacular.
Angama offers a very refined 5* service with even the smallest of details receiving the utmost thought and care. The a la carte meal service is available for you at your leisure, there are no set meal times, this is a luxury rarely afforded in the bush. It is evident that service, comfort and quality across the board are paramount at this new property.
From camp it is a 25 minute drive down the escarpment to get into the Mara Triangle, a prime game viewing area. The ride is bumpy but you are seeing animals along the way and the guides are terrific – their guiding abilities are obviously great and they are also very personable and charming. Once in the Mara Triangle there are animals abound and multiple river crossing points can be reached from camp.
Categorized in: Trip Reports