“Will ‘Magical Kenya’ spend money specifically to position [itself as a] destination for this particular segment of people?,” Mohamed Hersi, Kenya Tourism Federation chairman, asks rhetorically, as he speaks about the possible impact of a court ruling that could decriminalise gay sex in Kenya.
“We’ll not go out and advertise this as a tourism segment in Kenya,” he tells Al Jazeera, adding that if LGBT people are “given the freedom, let them enjoy it but let them enjoy it quietly.”
That quiet enjoyment could boost the East African country’s gross domestic product. Discrimination against gays and lesbians costs Kenya’s economy 130bn Kenyan shillings ($1.3bn) per year, or 1.7 percent of Kenya’s annual gross domestic product, according to a report released this year by Open For Business, a coalition of global companies promoting lesbian gay bisexual & transgender (LGBT) inclusive societies.
In Kenya, gay sex is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. This month Kenya’s High Court will decide whether to abolish sections 162 and 165 of the Kenyan penal code, which criminalizes homosexual behavior. The possible ruling has drawn so much attention, it has come to be known simply as the ‘Repeal162’ case. On February 22, 2019, the high court postponed its decision on the matter until May 24.
Business leaders are watching
“The guests from this segment to our hotels isn’t that significant to speak of,” Hasnain Noorani, the Group managing director of Pride Group, tells Al Jazeera. His company owns eight hotels and resorts in Kenya and is considering further investment in the travel industry, including in prime national parks, within the next five years.
“Maybe if it (homosexuality) was legalized it will open up the destination to the LGBT community abroad,” says Noorani at the PrideInn Paradise Beach Hotel & Spa, one of the latest additions to the array of hotels beckoning foreign tourists. The hotel has 300 rooms and a convention centre that can accommodate 2,500 people.
When his company acquired the resort, in 2013, tourism in Mombasa was on its knees and many hoteliers were looking to leave the coastal city. The Kenyan tourism industry had been hit hard by advisories warning travelers about attacks by armed groups, crime and kidnappings. Those warnings were issued by the US and Europe, which are not only generally friendly to LGBTQ people but also account for large portions of Kenya’s foreign tourists.
As interest by foreign tourists recovers, the hospitality sector is picking up, which is a win for business owners like Noorani. More than two million tourists visited Kenya in 2018, a 37 percent increase over 2017 figures.
The number of tourists and their impact on the broader Kenyan economy could be even higher if gay sex was decriminalised, according to Yvonne Muthoni, program director at Open for Business-Kenya.
“We know from experience in Kenya how big of a multiplier effect – through supporting local businesses, providing employment, especially in the agriculture and service industries – a single tourist has on the sector,” Muthoni told Al Jazeera.
On its website, OUT Adventures, a company which organizes holidays for LGBT tourists, cautions its clients, “Due to Kenya’s deeply ingrained homophobia, we recommend gay travelers practice complete discretion. It should be noted even heterosexual (public displays of affection) are frowned upon in this conservative nation.”
But it goes on to say: “Although homosexual acts are technically illegal, there is currently no major push by local authorities or governments to enforce these laws.“
For his part, Kenya’s Tourism Federation chairman admits LGBT tourists have likely visited his country and contributed to its growth.
“People of the same sex may come in quietly all the time and they look to you like any other ordinary group holidaying together… but the moment they start doing things openly in our faces is when we might need to draw a line. We do not want to upset others who do not subscribe to the same behaviour,” said Hersi.
He says what couples do behind the closed doors of Kenya’s hotels hasn’t ever been, and shouldn’t be, the business of the industry. But, he adds, if Kenya’s High Court decides to decriminalize gay sex, LGBT tourists should not expect a sudden change in cultural attitude toward homosexuality.
“What we would say is … ‘fine, the law has accepted you,’ but don’t force it on us to recognize this as normal because we also need our own personal space.”