Mombasa, Kenya – In July, a Russian visitor was shot dead near Fort Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Mombasa’s Old Town. Police ruled the killing a robbery. Three weeks later, assailants shot a German tourist at point-blank range, while she and her Ugandan travel companion were visiting Old Town’s open market. The woman died instantly. Her friend sustained a bullet wound in the leg and survived.
Last September, the attack on Nairobi’s upmarket Westgate Mall killed more than 70 and injured scores. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the Westgate attack via Twitter, vowing to continue wreaking destruction until Kenya withdraws its troops from Somalia.
Violence in Kenya has been escalating. Since the attack, northern Kenya, from the Somali border to Mombasa, has suffered from a string of bomb and grenade attacks, killing dozens. Most incidents have targeted public venues such as churches, nightclubs, and bus stations.
As a result of the violence and subsequent travel advisories, tourism on Kenya’s coast has dropped by four percent since January, according to the Kenya Tourism Board. Between January and May – the high season – there were 381,000 arrivals in 2014 compared to 398,000 over the same period last year.
The UK Foreign Office issued a travel advisory, warning at that time of “high threats” of terror attacks and called for the evacuation of hundreds of UK nationals holidaying on the coast. The US, Australia, and France also issued travel warnings, advising against all but essential travel to coastal areas, including within 60km of the Kenyan-Somali border.
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The US embassy in Nairobi meanwhile reduced its staff. The UK went so far as to close its consulate in Mombasa.
President Uhuru Kenyatta’s reaction has been largely political, labelling the travel warnings “unfriendly” and added that the designation would increase panic among the populace. Draconian travel restrictions, he explained, only serve to embolden the extremists.
After massacres in Lamu County, in June and July, which chiefly targeted peasants belonging to Kenya’s ruling ethnic group, the president was quick to point his finger at the political opposition party, Coalition for Reform and Democracy. Al-Shabab, however, announced on its Somali radio station that it had carried out the attack.
Al-Shabab’s motives are economic as well as political – to weaken and punish Kenya; up to 226,000 locals are directly or indirectly employed in the country’s tourist industry during the high season, providing 4.1 percent of total employment.
Interviewed by Al Jazeera in his apartment at the Tamarind Village, Mombasa’s Governor Hassan Ali Joho was relaxed in a white Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt and madras Bermuda shorts. “I won’t lie to you; Mombasa is a small town and there are several families we know whose children have gone to al-Shabab,” said the governor, who has four children of his own.
“These are kids with no jobs, no hope, and some are drug addicts. Al-Shabab gives them $1,000, tells them to fight jihad and delivers them to the gates of Somalia.”
However, the heavy-handed response by Kenya’s security forces, who have conducted widespread arrests and have been accused of abusing those detained, has a negative impact in establishing security, according to Joho.
“Tourism and security require planning. Preventing violence requires careful breakdown of intelligence collection information. The culprits would have been caught by now if intelligence had been shared between Kenya’s various armed forces. Now we have a situation where [the police] generalise everthing and arrest the whole world,” he told Al Jazeera.
‘Safety is relative’
Tour operators and hoteliers have blamed the media for magnifying what they say are isolated crimes that can happen anywhere in the world these days. “Terrorism is a global phenomenon” is the latest political-commercial mantra heard here.
Locals in Mombasa suggest that some of the violence is not political, in its aims or origins. “Suppliers like the pig and chicken farmers, the fishermen, are all affected by lapses in security,” said Sam Ikwaye, spokesman for the Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers. “If you don’t have jobs then they may engage in criminal activities.”
By and large, Mombasa is a safe and peaceful place.
Mohammed Hersi, chairman of the Mombasa and Coast Tourist Association (MCTA) and CEO of Heritage Hotels, had just returned from a trade fair in South Africa when grenades were hurled into a Mombasa church in the suburb of Likoni and at the Reef Hotel, in the Nyali suburb. The attack drove off tourists brought in by Mombasa’s main UK tour operator and air charter services.
“At the moment we have no British tour operators,” said Hersi. He spends most of his time managing Mombasa’s Voyager Beach Hotel, owned by the Kenyatta family.
Despite the lapses in security, there are “die-hard [British] tourists who have been coming here for decades and know Mombasa well”.
Instead of waiting for the UK to rescind travel advisories, the MCTA announced last week that it is offering British citizens – and tourists of any nationality – “inbound insurance”, covering them in Mombasa and up the coast to Lamu. The insurance “covers any terror-related attack”, Hersi explained.
“Safety is relative. Kenyans know the value of tourism. By and large, Mombasa is a safe and peaceful place,” Hersi said.
Governor Joho faces the daunting task of reviving the town’s tanked tourist industry. The 41-year-old newcomer to office presided over the peaceful Eid al-Fitr Baraza celebration at Treasury Square in Old Town. Like his colleagues – senators, MPs, chiefs – Joho wore a crisp white kanzu and kofia hat, and was last to address the crowd consisting of several hundred men and women seated under tents. The topic was security.
Before his election in March, Joho reportedly promised that by summer 2014, Mombasa would be a free port, where imported goods are exempt from customs duties.
When asked how he’d make Mombasa more secure, the governor, stretching out on the couch, replied: “My dream is to make it like Dubai.”
Follow Margot Kiser on Twitter: @MargotKiser