East Africa loses allure for the long-haul tourist

Tue Apr 21, 2009 9:48pm EDT
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By Alison Bevege

MAASAI MARA, Kenya (Reuters) - The white sandy beaches, wildlife and tropical climate of East Africa are losing their attraction for long-distance visitors facing recession and unemployment as a result of the global financial crisis.

To Europeans and North Americans, it is a remote and expensive destination, and one of the first to be dropped from holiday itineraries when money is tight.

Tourism is Kenya's third-biggest earner of foreign exchange, behind horticulture and tea, and economists fear falling visitor numbers as a result of the downturn will hit earnings and damage local firms that provide jobs and keep people out of poverty.

Scottish student Roddy Davidson, 38, and partner Shireen McKeown, 31, agonized for months before deciding to take their dream holiday in Kenya -- a luxury safari tour in the Maasai Mara wildlife reserve.

"Who is to say we'd do it at all if we waited three or four years?" Davidson said as he sunbathed beside a pool overlooking the Rift Valley at the Mara Serena Safari Lodge.

"A lot of people I know are staying home or taking holidays at camp sites in the UK. I've got friends who, in the past few years, would have gone overseas but a tent holiday is far cheaper than booking four seats on a plane."

Kenya's Tourism Ministry says the industry accounts for at least 400,000 jobs in the formal sector and more than 600,000 in the informal sector of East Africa's biggest economy.

However, operators worry about the prospect of having to cut jobs.   Continued...

<p>Two grey-crowned cranes stand in a pond in the Masai Mara game reserve, 340km from the capital Nairobi, March 4, 2009. REUTERS/Antony Njuguna</p>