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Political Unrest Drags on Kenya’s Tourism Industry

March 21, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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The violence that exploded in Kenya earlier this year over allegations of vote-rigging has caused the country's tourism industry to slump. Margaret Warner reports from Kenya on the anemic state of one of the country's biggest economic engines.

JIM LEHRER: And onto Margaret Warner’s final report on Kenya, from where she has been reporting all week. Her closer looks at what the recent political crisis and violence has done to tourism.

MARGARET WARNER: This is the Kenya most foreigners think of: stunning vistas, glistening lakes, and, above all, abundant wildlife. A million overseas tourists come to Kenya each year for its natural beauty, from its beaches to the safari paradise of its many protected reserves.

An early evening in Lake Nakuru National Park brings out some of Africa’s most exotic animals. Zebras trot through the woods; hippos soak in the lake, waiting for the sun to set before they come out the feed; and at any time of day, more than one million pink flamingos.

Safari excursions are a big business in Kenya, part of a $1 billion tourist industry that fuels the country’s economic growth and promotes a perception of Kenya as a hospitable African country.

But when tribal violence erupted after Kenya’s late December election, all that came to a standstill. No tourists have been among the more than 1,000 Kenyans killed in the violence, but the U.S. and European governments issued advisories against travel to Kenya, and they remain in effect.

CHARLES MUTHUI, Lake Nakuru National Park: These are flamingos, you can see. And the people…

MARGARET WARNER: The pink out there.

CHARLES MUTHUI: The pink, yes, these are all flamingos.

Tourism plummeted after violence

MARGARET WARNER: Lifelong naturalist Charles Muthui is senior warden of Lake Nakuru National Park. He says its peak season daily visitor average of 600 plummeted to 100 in January, and February saw many days with no visitors whatsoever.

CHARLES MUTHUI: People stopped coming because the countries out there advised their people not to come to Kenya because of what happened after the election, and they stopped coming. We were only left with our own locals.

GRAHAM COVINGTON, Tourist: Kenya's a gorgeous country.

MARGARET WARNER: Typical of the high-end tourist who was scared away from Kenya this year is Graham Covington of Portland, Oregon. He stopped only overnight in Nairobi between safaris in nearby countries, including a climb up Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro.

GRAHAM COVINGTON: It's a little unsettling to see civilians wielding machetes in front of their so-called police who are there to protect them.

MARGARET WARNER: No-shows like Covington are making life difficult for all the establishments that cater to tourists and for the nearly 5 million Kenyans whose livelihoods depend on them.

Ordinarily, this national park lodge would be filled to capacity, with 150 guests enjoying an early morning breakfast before heading out on their sunrise safari. But on this beautiful morning at high season, this lodge is absolutely empty, reflecting the disaster that Kenya's post-election violence has wreaked on an important sector of Kenya's economy.

Manager Jane Nguata of the Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge says within days of the onset of violence the lodge lost 90 percent of its bookings, wiping out its peak season and its profits for the year.

JANE NGUATA, Lodge Manager: At this time of the year, we are fully, fully booked. We could not take any bookings, and we're very proud to say, "Sorry, we are fully booked."

But right now what we're experiencing is very sad. We've never seen this before, because the hotel is empty, most of our staff are away on vacation and off days, we had to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: Affected, too, are people who indirectly profit from the tourist influx. Overlooking the beautiful Rift Valley along the Nairobi to Nakuru road are vista points where local residents sell Kenyan handicrafts.

JOSEPH KEMEU, Craft Seller: I'm selling these things, like this elephant.

MARGARET WARNER: Tourists usually snatch up the Kisi soap stone bowls and hand-carved wooden animals. But until we arrived, they hadn't sold anything for three weeks.

How do you live?

JOSEPH KEMEU: We reside with our families, our mothers and fathers, so they give us something to eat for about one month.

MARGARET WARNER: Their manager says the local villages are feeling the pinch, too.

JAMES JOSPHAT, Craft Seller: We used to go to the shops and buy something from the shopkeeper. Since we are not getting money, we cannot go there, so the shopkeepers are staying there without customers. We are staying here without customers.

MARGARET WARNER: Back at the clientless Lion Hill Game Lodge, the staff is waiting for the day when political peace in Nairobi will actually bring the tourists back. And even when they do come back, the lodge manager worries about the deeper impact of the crisis.

JANE NGUATA: Most of our children right now don't even speak their own tribal languages, but now they do know that I come from a specific tribe. And even as they play innocently, they'll say, "You, you're a Kikuyu, and you're a Luo." You know, it's coming out, and this is not good for our society. So we really have to work on that as a society, as a country, so that we can come back as one Kenya that we were.

MARGARET WARNER: That's the Kenya that foreign tourists will come to see.

Kenyans disillusioned with system

JIM LEHRER: And after Margaret filed that report, Jeffrey Brown had one last conversation with her.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Margaret, at week's end, where do things stand with the political negotiations? Is it any clearer how the power-sharing will work?

MARGARET WARNER: On the surface, Jeff, everything looks fine. Parliament approved the new constitutional amendment and the new law. And things are all set for the new government to be sworn in next Tuesday.

However, behind the scenes there is still a lot of mistrust between the two sides over the issue you mentioned: one, how the power-sharing will work, that is what kind of powers the prime minister will actually have; and, two, which ministries each man will control.

JEFFREY BROWN: I recall in your first piece this week where you had the opposition leader, perhaps the new prime minister, Raila Odinga, not really ruling out the possibility of more violence. That kind of tension still is really there?

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, it definitely is there. Now, Odinga would never say he calls for violence, but all he'd have to do is give the word for protest demonstrations. The police would respond in a certain way, and violence would break out.

And that is the trump card, of course, the ultimate trump card that he still has. And Kibaki knows it.

One thing the two sides do understand together is that they have a real problem with the international community now and that it would be very, very bad for Kenya if now you had any kind of rolling back, any kind of regression.

JEFFREY BROWN: And before you leave there, I want to ask you something about an issue that might interest a lot of Americans. You had a chance to visit the village of Barack Obama's father. Tell us what it was like. And how were people there looking at what's going on over here?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that's in a tiny village. It actually appeared in one of our pieces, Nyangoma Kogelo, which is south of Kisumu, tiny, little village, 650 people. We only saw one real motorized vehicle the whole time we were there.

People there are, of course, very, very proud of him. They all remember when he came to visit. But it's a very, very poor village.

And as we showed in a piece, it's place where now some Luos have been repatriated. The man who runs the local clinic tells us that their client base is up 30 percent. So it's facing some of the problems the rest of Kenya is.

There are two schools named for Obama there. Also, I thought the most interesting little tidbit was that apparently in Kenya it's a tradition to name your most prized farm animals after a political figure you admire, so we went out and watched a farmer plow. And of his six big bulls, one was named Raila and one was named Obama.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about attitudes that you've found elsewhere in Kenya about the race -- about Obama and the race here?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, again, Jeff, Kenyans are very, very proud of Obama and what he's done. They all watch the primary nights. One man said to us, "You know, we don't have national football team, so when Obama speaks or when he wins, we cheer him as we would the football team."

There is, however, a kind of wistfulness, a sense that, "We could have other Barack Obamas here in Kenya, but we have a political system, an old-boy network of the sort, that makes it almost impossible for young talent like that to really emerge."

And, finally, I found very interesting that women sort of 40 and over, they like Hillary. And a couple of them said to me, "I'm very, very proud as a Kenyan of Barack Obama, but as a woman I'm even prouder of Hillary."

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, Margaret Warner has been in Kenya for us all week. Thanks so much for all the reports and have a safe trip home. We'll see you back here.