During a recent familiarisation tour of Kenya, I was fascinated by the Kenya Tourism Board’s initiatives that have brought on board communities surrounding tourism sites as key players in the sector’s development. The tour that involved several regional writers provided insights into sustainable tourism development, with initiatives that involve community participation in the sector, among others.
These initiatives have gone a long way in strengthening the Kenyan tourism industry, which Rwanda could look into as it tries to diversify its tourism activities. One of the fascinating areas we visited is the village of Watamu (meaning home of the sweet people” in Swahili), which got my palm as an inspirational eco-tourist’s dream.
Watamu is a small village located on the Kenyan coast, approximately 120km north of Mombasa, and 25km south of Malindi. It is known for its pristine white-sand beaches and reef-protected lagoons, which line the Watamu National Marine Park and Reserves, the oldest in East Africa.
What makes Watamu unique is the fact that its marine is protected and recognised internationally as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. This implies that the area is a site of natural excellence and demonstrates how local people and the environment can and should co–exist through careful stewardship of their natural marine resources and human assets.
Tourism in Watamu is the key economic activity with many other economic activities directly or indirectly linked to the sector. The community gains directly from the industry through employment and provision of some services.
However, it has been noted that because many of the local people do not have basic formal education, they are employed as unskilled support staff.
My first appreciation of Watamu as an eco-tourism destination is how the area’s development is organised, with a large number of community groups working together under an umbrella organisation called Watamu Marine Association (WMA).
Promoting the area through tourism while protecting the environment and working towards sustainable development for the future is the main reason I fell in love with Watamu.
I was impressed to hear that the association consists of over 40 member groups and organisations from the community, tourism and environmental sectors that are all committed to resolving many of the multifaceted problems and conflicts that threaten a seemingly trouble-free paradise.
The common objective of this eco-tourism organisation is to ensure that Watamu in all its pristine beauty can be enjoyed by everyone, both tourists and local people but most especially by the unique wildlife of the marine.
The Watamu eco-tourism programmes include a snake farm, a crab farm and a mangrove boardwalk, with platforms where meals are prepared and served by the local people.
Guests who usually visit the boardwalk also have the option of guided tours on canoe bird trips in the mangroves around Mida Creek. They usually also enjoy fresh seafood at the Crab Shack, a unique community restaurant on stilts, and watch the sunset.
Another exciting programme available was a dolphin watching trip – Watamu has residential pods of dolphins.
If you have never experienced snorkeling, then the coral garden of Watamu should be the next item on your bucket list because even for people who do not swim, the boat attendants have the necessary security skills to guide visitors to the colourful corail.
Another eco-tourism activity that has a huge impact on local communities activity that inspired me was the Community Recycling Centre, which includes other green energy enterprises, like perma-culture, biogas production, green briquette production, and making art installations and curios from marine debris for sale to tourists.
Eco-tourism is an essential component of development as community-led activities are a great asset in providing employment and preserving the environment. Eco-tourism is also an excellent way of creating partnerships and ownership among local communities and the tourism sector for joint prosperity. And that in indeed what makes the difference.
As Rwanda continues to develop new tourism products, and initiatives aimed at involving local communities in tourism activities, Watamu approach could provide key learning points. It is no secret that involvement of communities in tourism development helps in creating ownership and thus protection for tourism sites. This way, more people are also able to get jobs through entrepreneurial projects, like making handicrafts, as well as provide basic services, which help boost their income and livelihoods.
The author is a customer service consultant and the publisher of www.theservicemag.com