By Sarah Gerber
In the small tourist town of Watamu, only a fraction of the roadside businesses are open. * Unemployed young men and mothers drift around on the beach looking for tourists, hoping to sell something so that they can pay for their cost of living. During the low season there are no tourists to be found in Watamu. Children cannot continue their schooling because their families can no longer afford their school fees or painkillers, and many residents go to bed hungry. The annual low season is a perennial reversal of development. However, Al Shabaab’s persistent attacks threaten to turn Watamu’s low season an all-year-long affair.
Ever since Kenya sent troops to Somalia in 2011, the growing security threat has deterred more and more tourists from coming to Kenya. Ironically, Kenyan initially became involved in Somalia in order to create a buffer zone to stop Al Shabaab from abducting tourists in Kenya. However, only a year after Kenya’s involvement in Somalia, security concerns brought down earnings from tourism by 2%. In retaliation for the actions of Kenya’s troops, Al Shabaab performed its most advanced terrorist attack in 2013 at Nairobi’s Westgate mall, where they killed 67 people. Consequently, income from tourism decreased by 21% in 2014, a decrease that has continued into 2015, with the first five months of the year seeing a decline of 25% of visitors. Considering Al Shabaab’s bloody attack in April on Garissa University that left 148 people dead, Kenyan tourism is unlikely to drastically pick up during the second part of 2015.
A day before the attack on Garissa University, President Kenyatta claimed that Kenya was safe and complained about the travel restrictions established by the UK and Australia. President Kenyatta, who hoped to boost Kenya’s tourism industry and thereby economic growth to fight poverty, has a lot to gain from saying that his country is safe. Believing President Kenyatta’s recent assurances that Kenya is safe for tourists, the UK lifted its travel warnings in June. Moreover, the UN World Tourism Organization declared Kenya a safe tourist destination in early September and elected Kenya into its executive council. With the attack in Garissa in mind it might seem as if the opinion on Kenya’s security is shifting a little too soon. However, even if Garissa was Al Shabaab’s most bloody attack in Kenya, it never threatened any tourist. Garissa University is located in one of the most troubled regions of Kenya and tourists have been advised against travel there for several years. With the exception of Westgate all major attacks by Al Shabaab during recent years have targeted Kenyans, not tourists. Also the majority of the small-scale attacks occur in places with low security, where tourists normally do not travel (Places such as Garissa, Eastleigh, and Wadera).
Regardless of the extent of Al Shabaab’s security threat to tourists, the decline of visitors particularly affects the coast of Kenya. What I found in my research during the summer is that between 2004-2014, the small coastal town of Watamu has seen an explosion of private schools and health clinics that cater to locals, often with generous support from tourist sponsors. In one school that I visited, a single tourist sponsors an entire school of 78 students who otherwise would be left without education. I also found that the hotels, that are now half empty, work as middlemen who channel tourists’ donations to construct schools, clinics or orphanages. At a clinic that I visited I was told that in 2012 the clinic had 400 families who got their expenses covered by tourist sponsors, today at least a hundred of these families are left without care as tourists have discontinued their travels to Watamu and new sponsors are hard to find. Watamu does not suffer alone. Across the country 15 000 people have lost their jobs as a result of the declining number of visitors.
Considering that tourism comprises 21% of Kenya’s national income, it is essential that the perceived security thereat is lessened. Or else Kenya seems to run the risk of ending up in a negative feed back loop. When the perceived threat from Al Shabaab scares of tourists, national income decreases, and more people are left unemployed and without education. Consequently the state has less money to deal with security issues, and Al Shabaab can find recruits in this large group of the many young, unemployed men. This could increase the security threat, which could decrease tourism, which could, once again, decrease resources for maintaining security, which would scare of more tourists…. As a result, the way regular westerners and their governments perceive the terrorist threat has the potential to destroy the livelihood for many more Kenyans than those who are directly affected by terrorist attacks. Hopefully, western holidaymakers will feel safe to visit Kenya again, before the problem grows even worse.
*Note, the author conducted her own research in this town on the coast of Kenya.