The government of United Kindgdom has now partially lifted its advise against non-essential travel to the Kenyan coast. Tourist destinations including Lamu and Malindi are still under the advise (Watamu resort just south of Malindi was left out), as are any areas close to the Somalian border, and Garissa, the town subject to a recent university attack. They also advise against visiting Eastleigh area in Nairobi, but no tourist is likely to go there anyway.
Prior to the latest ruling, Mombasa town and the coast strip north of it were included in the advise against non-essential travelling. The United States has similarly issued a travel warning on Kenya. This warnings have prompted much criticism by the Kenyan government blaming them for the downfall in tourism, not only to coastal Kenya but to the country as a whole.
There have been several terrorist attacks in recent years in Kenya, mostly by the Al-Shabaab group. Even if these happen in remote areas far from tourist destinations (e.g. Garissa University attack), they give Kenya a reputation as an unsafe destination. To make things worse, some of the attacks have occurred in major cities of Nairobi and Mombasa. The only attack directly targeting tourists was the 2002 Mombasa attacks on an Israeli plane and and a Jewish-owned hotel. Al-Shabaab specifically targets those of Christian religion, and to Al-Shabaab all westerners are Christians, meaning tourists could be a potential target, although so far they’ve been mostly interested in attacking locals.
All these events have been in international news, so even without advises and warnings tourist numbers to Kenya would have decreased dramatically, therefore these advises may not have any significant further negative effect to tourism – they are just repeating what everyone already know. On the other hand lifting the advise can be seen as a recognition of Kenyan government’s efforts to fight against terrorism and could help in restoring the confidence that Kenya is a safe destination.
The risk of a terrorist attack still remains in the Kenyan coast and Nairobi as well, but any tourist would be extremely unlucky to be affected by one. Despite the UK advise, I would not hesitate to visit Malindi, and probably not Lamu either. The biggest security concern for normal visitors is not terrorism but issues like muggings and hotel theft. Then there are other usual annoyances like traffic, transport and beach boys/hawkers/prostitutes making Mombasa less a prime destination.
Kenya is by no means the only country subject to negative advises. Needless to say countries like Somalia, Libya and the DRC are entirely under such advise (or even stricter advise against all travel). But there are also advises against non essential travel to certain tourist destinations in other countries. The advise on Thailand includes popular tourist destinations in southern part of the country, while for Malaysia there is an advise on some coastal parts of Malaysian Borneo, again in or near tourist beach destinations. Yet the tourism industry in both countries is still flourishing, so one can’t blame advises alone.
Thailand and Malaysia are among Southeastern Asian countries that attract mostly young independent travellers, who probably won’t care too much what’s said on the news or travel advice sites, but rather rely on what others travellers have to say. Most visitors to Kenya, on the other hand, are families and senior travellers who are more susceptible to security concerns. Moreover, they travel mostly on organised tours and since international tour companies have ceased or limited the number of tours to Kenya, these tourists will inevitably end up in another destination. My observations on recent trip to Kenyan coast show high end hotels, who rely mostly on tourists taking organised tours, were almost empty. At the same time cheaper guest houses and hostels were actually doing reasonably well by the number of western as well as local visitors. Kenyan tourism industry is still obsessed by the view that only “rich white people” are are good tourists, neglecting the importance of other types of tourists, who might, actually be the ones who will keep the industry running.