After scooping numerous accolades at this year’s “travel Oscars” – The World Tourism Awards – including number one safari destination and best African airline, the Kenyan Tourism Board, which was also voted the world’s best for the second year in a row, is now aiming to win the prize for a third consecutive year by promoting more diversity in its tourism sector. Managing Director of the Board, Robert Muriithi Ndegwa, talked to United World about its initiatives
Kenya is truly going through an exciting phase at the moment. At a time of global economic recession, Kenya has been one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, and is forecasted to boast a respectable growth of 6.2% in GDP for 2014. Considering tourism is the second largest source of foreign exchange for Kenya after agriculture, how is the tourism sector contributing significantly to this economic prosperity?
First and foremost, Kenya Tourism Board is a state corporation under the Ministry of East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism and our role is to market Kenya as a tourism destination to the domestic, regional and international market. We do this through a series of activities.
It is estimated that tourism contributes about 11% to the country’s GDP. It is one of the key sectors in the economy and it is seen as one of the six pillars for Kenya to attain Vision 2030 – a strategy for Kenya to become a middle income country by the year 2030.
Arguably the most important element to the success of any economy in trust and confidence in the underlying economic and political framework. Considering the recent tragic events that have happened in Kenya, what do you think needs to be done to regain the trust and confidence of the international community in Kenya as a safe destination for investment and tourism alike?
Some of the terrorist incidents that we have had in the recent past are not unique to Kenya. Terrorism is a global problem. We have had terrorism in the US, in New York, and major cities like London and Madrid, among others. However, the government has been doing a lot of work to ensure that Kenya is a safe destination not just for the tourists but also for the local people. From a tourism perspective, there are a number of things that we have been doing.
One of them specifically is to ensure that the source markets, whether at the international level or regional level or emerging markets, are well informed in terms of exactly what the situation is like in the country. This is done through a series of measures. Kenya Tourism Board has appointed agents all over the world in the key source markets who basically work very closely with us to ensure that the correct information is relayed and to execute marketing campaigns and programs as agreed with KTB. We also do a lot of activities together with our travel trade, meaning tour operators and hoteliers etc. We engage with them in a number of activities based on the calendar of events set for the year. For example, we have often participated jointly with hoteliers and tour operators in roadshows in specific cities covering specific markets.
We also do product training of agents in the resource markets, ensuring that the tour operators, hoteliers and travel agencies know about Kenya as a destination. There is a specific program – KATS (Kenya Approved Tour Operator Program) – that we launched both online and face to face and it has proven to be very popular. It has been done in the US, in Germany and many other source markets.
Thirdly, consumer activation. KTB does programs in the market place to ensure that consumers feel the need to buy a piece of Kenya as a holiday destination. This we do through a series of methods, whether it’s above the line or below the line or whether its activation through online.
The other key thing is partnership with the strategic players such as major tour operators in the US. You would be talking about Virtuoso, where we do co-shared advertising, or what marketing people would call cooperative marketing.
Besides, we are also very strong online in social media to ensure that Kenya as a destination remains vibrant and people know about it.
There are also the exhibitions and events that play a key role in terms of our marketing needs. These are just some of the things that we do, as well as partnering with the airlines to ensure that people know about Kenya as a tourist destination and also that they are reassured that Kenya is a good product.
Traditionally tourism has been one of the main pillars of the Kenyan economy, but how is Kenya Tourism Board working to diversify the tourism sector to include not only safari’s and beach destinations, but heritage and cultural tourism as well? For example when we interviewed the Cabinet Secretary of Culture, Wario Arero he talked about his ambitious plans to market Kenya as the cradle of mankind from the Turkana region?
Kenya has been very well known as a beach and wildlife safari destination but Kenya is a multi-product destination. We have a series of products that we have also been marketing. Our product diversification strategy is set out to showcase Kenya from a diversity perspective. One of the products that we’ve been very strong in in the recent past is MICE – Meeting, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions – and in Africa we are ranked number 2 according to ICCA as the second best destination after South Africa. When you look at our facilities, for us to rank as number 2, it is really quite a triumph because we don’t have as good facilities as they have in South Africa. In the whole world we have been trying to showcase Kenya as a good destination for incentives travel and also for exhibitions.
The second product we have been showcasing in partnership with others is what Dr. Wario mentioned to you as a destination for archeological and heritage tourism. We work very closely with the National Museum of Kenya, which is directly under the Ministry of Culture, to showcase Kenya from the perspective of the diversity that we have in terms of heritage and in terms of archaeological attractions. This is the reason why we co-sponsor the Lamu Cultural Festival and the Loyangalani Cultural Festival, which we cosponsor in partnership with National Museum of Kenya, and also from an archeological perspective to showcase Kenya as the true and authentic cradle of mankind. There are many pretenders to the throne but research has completely proven that the oldest complete human fossil was found in Kenya, at the Sibiloi National Park – The Turkana Boy. That is why we have gotten a replica of The Turkana Boy and displayed it to tell people why they need to pay pilgrimage visits to Kenya, because they really need to connect with where they came from if they are really interested in knowing the origin of mankind.
We are also showcasing cultural tourism. We work closely with institutions like Bomas of Kenya and the Ministry of Culture to showcase Kenya from this perspective. We have 42 different communities, and each community has got its own uniqueness in terms of culture, whether it’s a tradition, cuisine, their way of life and we therefore work with other players like the private sector to bring in the aspect of cultural tourism.
Another product that we have been promoting is agri-tourism. Out there, people know Kenya as the world’s leading producer of coffee, tea and flowers. We have therefore been working closely with major coffee, tea and flower farms to organize farm trips where people come to see how they are grown and they are taken through the whole process including sampling the products, so that they can see eventually what it means take a Starbuck’s coffee.
Kenya has a rich reservoir of birds’ species – some are residents and some are migratory, coming all the way from Europe, flying away from winter to enjoy the summer here. We hold the world record for the largest number of birds spotted within an urban center (200 or so). We hold about 10% of the world’s flamingos in Lake Nakuru, Lake Bogoria and the Rift Valley lakes. We work very closely with an association called Nature Kenya to showcase Kenya as a birdwatchers’ heaven and that’s the reason why we organize fun trips for people to spot the birds and talk about them, besides also participating in one of the best birding fairs in the world, which is held in UK every year.
Kenya just scooped all the top awards at the “Oscars of the travel industry”, the World Tourism Awards, including the number one safari country in the world, number one MICE venue, number one African airline, and of course, Kenya Tourism Board won best tourism board for the second year in a row. How gratifying are these prestigious award and how are you working to promote these impressive accolades?
First and foremost, let me congratulate all the winners. Besides KTB, there was someone from the hoteliers, someone from the tour operators and the country scooped the World’s Leading Safari Destination Award at the grand finale that was held in Doha, Qatar late last year.
Last year, we were privileged to also host the World Travel Awards, Africa version. A number of Kenyan companies including KTB won Africa awards, but at the global level at the World Travel Awards finale, we were also privileged to win the World’s Leading Safari Destination Award. This is important to us because we position ourselves as the leading authentic safari destination in the world. Other countries may claim the world safari title, but the origin of the word ‘safari’ is from Kenya, meaning ‘journey’. The whole aspect of safari came from one of the former presidents, Franklin Roosevelt of the US in the 1940s, when he made his great expeditions to Africa and he was so amazed. He popularized the word ‘safari’. We always say, if you want to experience the best safaris then come to Kenya. Our private sector, the hoteliers and the tour operators, have been doing a good job in terms of ensuring that when you visit our game parks and game reserves you get the true picture of what is called a safari. The whole aspect of the experience is truly unique and something to die for.
Film, theater and the arts are areas of tourism which normally don’t get at much attention, but how is your institution working to promote these as well? For example, Ms. Lupita is singlehandedly putting the Kenyan film industry on the map and Kenya could earn serious economic gains if Kenya is considered the premiere African destination for film production.
We have had a number of films shot locally in Kenya and some of the key ones we can talk about are Out of Africa, which was depicting the story of the white highlands, and The Lion King, which really positioned Kenya in a very positive way, and also our very own Lupita Nyongo won the Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars in 2013.
Our role is to market Kenya. We have sister institutions like Kenya Film Commission which deals with licensing and the aspect of getting movies to be shot in to the country, with which we work with very closely. We also work closely with the Ministry of Culture and that’s why Kenya participates in the Lyons Film Festival year in year out.
Other events that we participate in in the US are about trying to get people to come and see the uniqueness of Kenya. That’s why we have had a number of movies shot here, besides The Survivor series which is being shot here. There is a lot more that we need to do so that we can attract the mega budget films here. We will continue working with other institutions.
When marketing Kenya in to the American market, what would you say are the characteristics that attract Americans to Kenya?
The American market is basically looking for an authentic safari experience. When you talk about safari, there are so many ways you can do it. You can do a guided safari, walking safari, driving safari and so on. We go into the American market and we tell them that this is the range of safaris you can experience in Kenya and tell them about the range of game reserves and national parks we have in the country because each is unique in its own way and we have more than 59 of them. The Americans are also quite interested in culture, and therefore we also showcase our diversity as far as culture is concerned.
The Obama euphoria is another attracting factor, bearing in mind that Presidents Obama’s roots are in Kogelo in Western Kenya. We have leveraged on that so that those who want to trace his roots can make visits. We have also had a number of Americans coming for religious aspects; the missionaries coming into the country and also others doing volunteer-tourism where volunteers want to come and spend time with the local people, such as the Maasai community, and live to tell a story.
This year marks your fifth anniversary at the MD of Kenya Tourism Board, with years of senior management positions is East African institutions such as Magadi Soda and East African Cables, what motivated you to take this position at Kenya Tourism Board?
From the companies you have mentioned that I used to work in before, there is quite a lot of diversity. My roles in these companies were quite different from the role that I am handling now, bearing in mind that this is public service and the others were private sectors and manufacturing. My profession is marketing. Marketing, whether it is products, goods or services, is the same kind of profession. The key thing is, when I applied to take up this role, I knew that this was something that would have a huge bearing on the country. This is because tourism is one of the key pillars identified to position Kenya as a middle income country by the year 2030, hence its contribution is very critical to the economic growth of this country. I knew this would be a job where I would have to be selfless and I would be required to give much more in terms of my time, input and capabilities. I thank God that through the years I have seen some major developments and improvements working together with our team and both the private and public sectors.
We believe that we still have some work to do to get tourism to the level it should be. We want to be the number 1 foreign exchange earner and we would want to achieve the goals as set out in the Vision 2030 and also in the Jubilee manifesto.
As you reflect on your first 5 years here at Kenya Tourism Board, what would you say are your greatest achievements and what objectives are still eluding you?
We have seen tremendous growth in tourism both in numbers and in revenue over the years. Especially when I look at when I took over in 2009, we had come through a very tough time, the post-election violence in 2007-2008, and tourism was down almost on its knees; the numbers had gone down, the revenue had gone down by more than 30%. It was really a challenging task to get tourism on a growth trajectory again, and I thank God that we have seen that growth happen. It might not be at the level that we wanted it, but it’s still a bit of growth.
We have also had a number of achievements. The awards that we’ve won number more than 20. Just to mention some that have not been mentioned so far, we won the Best Tourist Destination in the UK, we also won the Safari Destination Future from China – which was quite a phenomenon – and many others. We have seen a lot of transformational things happening including embracing improvements from our processes, embracing new technology like launching a Magical Kenya mobile app, and also looking at how we position Kenya out there, because out there people know Kenya as a destination for tourism. And for us to have raised that high level of brand equity, we believe that this is quite an achievement.
In terms of going forward, we are looking at raising the level of performance so that we can truly reach the potential of the country which is quite great as far as tourism is concerned – both in terms of the numbers and revenue – and then also achieving the goals as set out in Vision 2030 and the Jubilee manifesto.