NAIROBI (Reuters) - A record number tourists visited Kenya in the first six months of 2011, continuing a solid recovery after the country was hit by post-election violence in 2008 and the lingering effects of the global financial crisis.
Tourism Minister Najib Balala said he aimed to aggressively market Kenya as a prime tourist destination to high-spending BRIC countries - Brazil, Russia, India and China, to wean the East African country away from traditional source markets.
Arrivals to east Africa's biggest economy rose to 549,083, up 13.6 percent from the same period last year. Tourism earned a record 74 billion shillings ($802 million) in the whole of 2010, making it one of the country's leading sources of foreign exchange.
Balala told a news conference on Wednesday that estimated revenues for the first six months stood at 40.5 billion shillings, up 32 percent from 30.7 billion in the same period last year.
He said the ministry was expecting 20 percent growth in arrivals for the year as a whole, given that arrivals peak in July through to October.
In 2010, a record 1.1 million tourists visited the country, which is famed for its game parks and white Indian Ocean beaches, beating the previous high hit in 2007.
The Ministry of Tourism said visitors from Britain led the way accounting for 14.3 percent of arrivals, followed by the United States on 9.3 percent and then Italy, Germany and India, with the Asian country knocking France out of the top five.
Kenya has been trying to diversify from its traditional American and European source markets, expand its airports and increase bed capacity to boost hard currency earnings from the sector.
Balala said building started on a new unit at the international airport in Nairobi and construction of a new airport was expected to start in early 2012, which will be able to handle 20 million arrivals per year.
"Egypt alone received 1.8 million Russians last year before the crisis. If we get a small percentage to come to Kenya, particularly Russians who want beach destinations, it will uplift our beach destinations in Kenya," Balala said.
"It's a high-spending market, those are the people we want in our country," he said, adding he was optimistic targeting those markets would "salvage our dream of 3 million (arrivals) by 2015 and 2 million by 2013."
Uganda led arrivals from the African region, growing nearly 51 percent compared to the same period last year, putting Africa's share in terms of source markets for Kenya at 26 percent - and that's without investing in marketing campaigns.
"I passionately feel that we cannot ignore Africa. Africa is where the future of tourism is and arrivals, because the middle class is growing, the wealth of the world is going to be in Africa. We need to prepare to market these areas."
Balala said he was encouraging airlines to start direct routes to the port city of Mombasa, where he hopes a convention center will be ready by the end of 2012 after Bamburi Cement,, a unit of France's Lafarge donated a 15-acre plot of land by the coast.
Business arrivals amounted to 14 percent of arrivals through Kenya's airport in the first half of 2011 and is seen as growing with more business conferences choosing Mombasa as their venues.
Balala said Delta Airlines were serious about starting a direct U.S.-Nairobi flight and was in talks with government officials to try over security concerns with Washington's Department of Homeland Security.
Editing by Duncan Miriri and Toby Chopra