Tourism is a big cash cow for almost all East African countries. A lot of foreign exchange is earned through tourism but more importantly the sector employs a lot people both directly and indirectly.
This region is blessed with some of the best attractions from the big five to mountain gorillas to birds and even marine parks with dolphins or whales.
This being a huge source of income we have over time mastered how to attract the tourists from outside but we are never so ready when they stop coming. Kenya found itself in this situation and has been compelled to learn and pick itself up. Kenya’s tourism sector was shaken to the core when a series of terrorist attacks made its coastal region a place to avoid.
I have been to different travel trips around this region but my trip to Mombasa and later to Diani was quite different from the other trips I have been too. Unlike other places that we went to and simply enjoyed ourselves, in Mombasa and Diani it felt like we were in class most of the time to learn about how things are really done.
Unique experiences is what clients want
We got into Mombasa after a drive from Malindi Airport because we were coming from Lamu (a story for another day). The road from Malindi to Mombasa was a smooth one highlighting the importance of fixing road infrastructure if tourism is to thrive. Let the bad roads be those inside the game parks not the ones connecting towns since not all tourists can afford to avoid the roads by flying straight to their destinations.
In Mombasa our first stop was at the Voyager Beach Resort, a fine hotel with a ship theme. Here the rooms are referred to as cabins and those working here dress like folk that work on ships. The doors even have a small anchor for knocking! Cool, right? Over lunch we had a chat with Mohammed Hersi, the Chief Executive Officer at
Heritage Hotels Kenya, a chain of over seven properties including Voyager Beach Resort. He is arguably the most experienced hotel manager in Kenya.
After our lunch meal, we had a tour of the facility and then set off with our host Monica Solanki, a seasoned tour operator running a tour company that has been in business since the 70s. Monica knows the ABC of the tourism industry and so much more. She fluently speaks English, German, Gujarati and Swahili.
While at her place, we enjoyed some nicely made chapati, bhagia and tea as we chatted with her husband Mahendra ‘Lofty’ Solanki who started Lofty Tours in the early 70s. Lofty had interesting tales about doing safaris in the early 70s and the challenges they faced back then. From this couple you would learn that tourism is strictly about experiences and the more unique the better.
For example, their company offers a package it calls the Rustic Safaris where you go on safari the same way it was done in the mid 70s with Land Cruisers that were custom built for hunting safaris. They have one that has a wooden body made from teakwood. They have another Toyota Land Cruiser that was built in 1987 and has done more than 1 million kilometres on safari in East Africa and is still going strong.
The Solankis are car enthusiasts and any of them (including their son who also works as a driver and tour guide) can tell you what is wrong with a car and then go ahead to fix it if it breaks down. Monica also told us that for an area to benefit from tourism, tourists must be encouraged to step out of their hotels and spend some money. She argues that this is why it is good to have a vibrant night life for example.
Mombasa is now safe
To prove to us that Mombasa was now a safe place for tourism we went out with the Solankis to enjoy a meal by a roadside restaurant called Mombasa Dishes and we watched as they prepared for us what they called the Swahili pizza that is almost like what the Ugandans call the ‘rolex’ (an omelette and chapati) but this one has minced meat added to the mix.
We then drove around the town and even saw some youngsters playing football under floodlights. Other people could be seen just chilling by the coastline enjoying roasted cassava, fish and some drinks as they sat by their cars. This laissez faire mood is what defines Mombasa as a place where one goes to relax. The locals call it Mombasa raha to refer to the good life that Kenya’s second biggest town has to offer.
Later in the night we drove to the Likoni ferry and crossed over to head to Diani a place best known for its clean white sand beaches. In Diani, you are lost for choice when it comes to hotels by the beach front. They are so many and the standard is impressive. We spent the night at Diani Reef Resort and Spa. Although it was late at night, the hotel manager, Titus Kangangi was around to welcome us.
From Kangangi, we learnt that several coastal facilities were doing a lot of marketing within East Africa because they have noticed a growing number of clients from Uganda and Rwanda. This has also been made easy by the fact that Rwandair operates direct flights from Kigali to Mombasa’s Moi International Airport. Diani is also served by another smaller airport at Ukunda which makes life quite easy for travellers to these places.
The following day we visited different hotels starting with Jacaranda Indian Ocean Beach where we were welcomed with fresh coconut juice and the manager, Ann Safari was proud to show off her kitchen arguing that it was so clean to be kept a secret. Our next stop was Swahili Beach, a place that will blow you away with its cascading swimming pools and the amazing Swahili architecture.
Diani and its stunning beaches
We also dropped by Leopard Beach Resort and Spa that was recently voted as Kenya’s best spa resort. Leopard Beach has what it calls the residences, where clients can book into a full house complete with a private swimming pool. Baobab Beach Resort was another place we visited. It has some affordable all inclusive packages that are quite attractive.
We gathered at The Sands at Nomads for lunch with the managers of Diani Reef, Leopard Beach, Swahili Beach, Jacaranda and our host the manager of Sands. Over the meal the different managers shared experiences and lessons about their hotels. The manager at Sands told us that he had noticed that clients were now more interested in reliable free WiFi than satellite TV.
The five managers also agreed that domestic or regional tourists are different from the tourists coming from Europe or the Americas and so hotels must be ready to serve them well because they are a growing reliable market segment. We talked about the fact that some clients don’t like the typical hotel food and just want some good Ugali with sukumawiki.
Although it was hard to tell which hotel had the best ocean view it was impossible to notice that they all had spas and different swimming pools. Rwandan hotels built by the lake can learn from this to know that being close to water is not an excuse for you not to have a swimming pool. Your clients should have as many options as possible.
Another thing that I loved about the hoteliers we met is that they were keen on working together to promote not just their hotels but Diani as a destination. They said competition is only on the few unique attributes each facility had to offer. I was also impressed by how prepared they were with business cards, magazines, DVDs and flash drives with a lot of information about their facilities. This attention to small details is what others need to learn.
Many hoteliers in Kenya have gone through institutions like Kenya Utalii College, a leading hospitality and tourism training institute. This has given them the edge when it comes to the hospitality industry that often suffers from unskilled people who end up spoiling clients’ experiences. The lesson here is that investment is in this industry should include serious training of staff.
I believe it would be good for our hoteliers and other tourism players to regularly interact with their counterparts across the region to learn from their experiences and to grow their networks. This is the only way that the region as a whole can grow as a single destination able to compete with North Africa or South Africa.