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Women Hit Hardest by Kenya’s Tourism Slump

Kenya’s tourism industry has been crippled by terrorism and political violence and let down by lack of development. For the women who rely on the sector for their income, the question is whether they will ever again earn enough to support their families.

Written by Sophie Mbugua Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Overall, Kenya's tourism sector is growing. But in parts of the country tourist numbers have plummeted, leaving those in the industry – many of them women – struggling to earn a living.Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

MALINDI, Kenya Alice Tobias once made a good living supplying fruit and vegetables to various hotels in Malindi, a town on the Indian Ocean coast. But after Kenya’s disputed general elections in 2007, and two months of unrest that left more than 1,200 Kenyans dead, hotel bookings in Malindi dried up despite the town having seen little violence. Even when calm returned to the area, the tourists stayed away.

“I earned about $350 daily from supplying bananas, tomatoes, onions and potatoes to various hotels, but this stopped after the unrest and insecurity,” Tobias says.

By 2013, tourist levels had started to bounce back. “But before anything could stabilize, the al-Shabaab Westgate mall attack in Nairobi took us back to square one,” she says.

The 48-year-old mother of six says she no longer sells in bulk to hotels as a number have closed and been converted into private apartments. Today, the market trader relies on walk-in clients for daily sales and barely makes enough to support her family.

“Market stability relies wholeheartedly on the hotels, its employees and civil servants living here as they have the power to spend,” she says. “Bulk orders helped a lot, particularly with my children’s school fees. But with the two last children, I have had to rely on loans from banking institutions. I have found myself defaulting several times.”

Malindi sits in a string of tropical beaches dotted with hotels and resorts in Kilifi County. As with much of Kenya’s tourism industry in general, tourism activities in Malindi are largely driven by women. The sector is growing in Kenya as a whole, but women who work in tourism say political insecurity combined with weak infrastructure support and a lack of clear policy guiding development have left the once-thriving industry gasping for air in some parts of the country.

“Since 1997, when I opened this curio shop, I have never seen business this low,” says Consolata Ogutu, who sells bags, jewelry and clothing on the beach in Malindi. “Getting even $2 a day is next to impossible.”

“We have no idea what’s happening because big hotels have closed down. The political [turmoil] is over, but why are the tourists not coming as they did before?”

A Slow, Difficult Recovery

Only 15 percent of Kilifi County’s almost 125 miles (200km) of beach is developed with hotels and villas. Kenya’s national long-term development blueprint, Vision 2030, aims to turn Kilifi into a modern resort destination by upgrading its transport infrastructure and beach-management programs.

“Since 1997, when I opened this curio shop, I have never seen business this low. Getting even $2 a day is next to impossible … The political [turmoil] is over, but why are the tourists not coming as they did before?”

In 2017, travel and tourism contributed $7.4 billion to Kenya’s GDP. If the Vision 2030 plans are carried out, that figure is projected to almost double to $12.9 billion by 2028. A decade ago, the industry directly supported 429,500 jobs, and that is expected to grow to 574,000 by 2028, according to a World Travel & Tourism Council 2018 report.

The question for the women who rely on tourism for their livelihoods is whether they can believe those projections. Will tourism ever again be a reliable – maybe even lucrative – source of income?

Many experts say getting there will not be easy. The 2013-2018 National Tourism Strategy says that despite recent growth, tourism in Kenya is struggling unguided through stiff global competition as well as internal and external shocks.

Part of the reason, Sam Ikwaye, executive officer at the Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers, says, is that there was no professional tourism body in Kenya for decades, so the government was running the sector guided mainly by investors with no input from the people working in the industry.

Alice Tobias used to earn $350 a day selling fruit and vegetables in bulk to hotels in Malindi, but political violence and terrorism have kept tourists away and now she can’t pay her children’s school fees. (Sophie Mbugua)

But he’s optimistic. He believes the Tourism Act 2011, which established the Tourism Professional Association, a body responsible for the development, management, marketing and regulation of sustainable tourism, as well as a tourism regulatory authority, will help the industry sell Kenya as a destination to international markets.

“Tourism is very sustainable as a business – for every one tourist there are 11 people employed. With better planning and marketing, and improved infrastructure, once investor confidence is reinstated, businesses will be restored,” he says.

But Francis Kagema, the coastal coordinator manager for Nature Kenya, says tourism is not currently a sustainable economic venture for women due to its unpredictability. He believes the government needs to focus on security to help revive tourism and the livelihoods of the women reliant on it.

“Terrorism was a new issue and not as predictable as the political cycle; it killed tourism in Malindi. We had over 50 tourists hotels in [the area] and only about 10 of them are operating now,” he says. “I don’t think tourism will go back to where it was before.”

Security and Sustainability

In 2014, the Kenyan government set up the Tourism Recovery Task Force to work on policies to help revive the industry, including addressing security issues.

“The hotel industry is the only employer for both the educated and uneducated youths here in Malindi. Without a source of income they are vulnerable to exploitation.”

One of the task force’s recommendations was the formation and training of a special security force to boost security within tourist areas. Ali Kaka, the task force chairman, says the special unit will be mostly made up of women. Their main role will be to show the friendly face of Kenyan tourism, engaging with visitors and offering advice. But they will also be trained and armed, so they can work alongside the security units already in place at tourist hotspots.

The unit hasn’t been set up yet, but Kaka is confident that once it is, it will help Kenya regain the trust of tourists, which will in turn bring back business for women along the coast.

“Half of the force will be women, as women are more in tune with what we are proposing,” Kaka says. “We need people who are well-trained in security on the task force, but with a soft touch who can communicate effectively. Women are key to the unit.”

In Malindi, which sits in a string of tropical beaches in Kilifi County, hotels are closing down and being turned into apartments, killing a major source of income for many women. (Sophie Mbugua)

But these long-term goals are not much help to the women currently struggling to make a living in the tourist industry. If those women want to make a reliable wage from tourism, they will need to fully exploit the opportunities that the industry offers, says Serah Munguti, advocacy manager at Nature Kenya.

“The women who engage in tourism are engaging in peripheral, add-on roles [and are] not seen as major players unless they are private entrepreneurs,” she says. “Women need to be encouraged to take up higher roles and be major contributors in tourism.”

Ogutu, the curio shop owner, says business has picked up a little recently, but she wants the government to do more to ensure that tourists return in the numbers they used to before. She is worried that as more hotels fold up, the number of unemployed youths in the town will increase.

“Where will the gardeners, loaders, receptionists and the rest go?” she asks. She says she has heard that in nearby towns, young unemployed men and women have been lured into terrorism themselves, with the promise of a regular salary.

“The hotel industry is the only employer for both the educated and uneducated youths here in Malindi. Without a source of income they are vulnerable to exploitation,” she says.

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