Nairobi, Kenya – For tourists, Kenya’s traffic-clogged capital, Nairobi, has traditionally been a short, overnight stop in a secure hotel compound before heading on out to some of East Africa’s most renowned safari parks and Indian Ocean beaches.
Like other major cities in sub-Saharan African, from Lagos to Accra and Johannesburg, crime, scams and other urban hassles have scared away many visitors. The nickname “Nairobbery” does little to help the image of Kenya’s unruly capital.
That could be changing. The region is witnessing rising visitor numbers and hotel building in metropolitan areas, driven heavily by the increased spending power and travel habits of Africa’s growing middle class.
On May 26, Nairobi visitors enjoyed the city’s first historical walking tours. Two-hour trips now pass by the 1950s parliament buildings, Khoja Mosque and a bronze statue of Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta.
“There is so much in Nairobi, but we haven’t bothered to shine a light on it,” said Mutheu Mbondo, an organiser. “Kenya’s colonial and post-colonial history is written into the fabric of the city. It’s a shame that the tourists just skip it.”
There are so many other hidden treasures... Our parliament's architecture; the bombed-out remains of the US embassy. Coffee plantations in the suburbs could be our version of wine-tasting tours. The lack of tourists in this city starves us of important cultural exchanges.
Sharon Kyungu, spokesperson for the National Museums of Kenya, said the tours “offer visitors something more than just beaches and wildlife” and will help it compete with Africa’s destination cities, such as Cairo and Cape Town.
Walking tours have proved a hit in more tourist-friendly cities. London visitors are escorted by guides dressed as the fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, while themed tours of New York focus on sights from television shows, such as Sex and the City and Seinfeld.
Francis Wambalaba, an economist at Nairobi’s United States International University, said walking tours should kick-start broader efforts to open up historic sites, eateries and bars in a city of more than three million people.
The city’s giraffe and elephant sanctuaries already attract small crowds. As does the former home of Karen Blixen, the colonial-era Danish author of Out Of Africa, which became a 1985 Oscar-winning movie starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.
“But there are so many other hidden treasures,” said Wambalaba. “Our parliament’s architecture; the bombed-out remains of the US embassy. Coffee plantations in the suburbs could be our version of wine-tasting tours. The lack of tourists in this city starves us of important cultural exchanges.”
John Kester, who analyses travel industry trends for the UN’s World Tourism Organization, said that plans to get holidaymakers to spend a few days in Nairobi and other African cities were more than just wishful thinking.
Sub-Saharan Africa received more than 34 million international visitors last year, a 5.2 percent increase from 2011. Almost half of these hail from within the continent, added Kester, driven by economic growth. Nigerians, for example, spent more than $6bn on international travel last year, compared to less than $1bn in 2005.
The International Monetary Fund predicts that sub-Saharan Africa’s economy will grow by 5.4 percent this year and 5.7 percent next year, outpacing the expected global averages of 3.3 per cent and four per cent respectively.
African cities are better connected nowadays, thanks to airports in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar, added Kester. Last month, an Ethiopian Airlines 787 Dreamliner flew from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, its first commercial flight since all 787s were grounded in January.
W-Hospitality Group, a Lagos-based consultancy, counts more than 21,000 new hotel rooms planned for construction across sub-Saharan Africa this year, compared with less than 14,000 in 2011. Much of the growth is business hotels in regional trade hubs such as Lagos and Nairobi.
South Africa, the region’s holiday heavyweight, saw an 18 percent rise in tourism receipts last year. Transport and other infrastructure built for the 2010 soccer World Cup continue to boost arrival figures and helped open up destination cities including Johannesburg, Durban and Bloemfontein.
“South Africa has diversified a tourism product in which wildlife-spotting, scenery, beaches and cities all play a role,” said Kester. “Other African destinations have a similar opportunity to increase their profile by marketing cities as a side attraction to the holiday.”
Tourism revenues have shown their worth by helping to regenerate cities in other parts of the developing world, he added.
“Look at the refurbishment that is taking place in crumbling Havana because tourism is such a big sector there,” said Kester. “Improvements in central Bogota are seen elsewhere in Latin America. In Seoul they opened up a river and pedestrian area that used to be under an eight-lane highway.”
Tourism is changing from wildlife to humans
Back in Nairobi, James Asudi runs a travel firm called Victoria Safaris that has already imported ideas from South Africa. He started showing tourists around Kibera, Kenya’s biggest slum, in 2005, after seeing similar trips offered in a Cape Town ghetto.
Nowadays he has 10 guides working the overcrowded slum, and other firms offer tourists warts-and-all trips that showcase open sewers, close-up poverty and charities working to raise living standards in the metal-roofed huts.
Although the ghetto trips are just add-ons to more traditional tours of the Maasai Mara and other safari parks, Asudi notes growing interest among visitors to spend a bit more time – and money – in the much-maligned capital.
“Tourism is changing from wildlife to humans,” he said. “We’ve got groups booked that won’t visit a single game park. They want to see the markets, culture, slums, villages. Instead of eating in hotels, they want to eat ugali, nyama choma and other local food that we Africans eat.”
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