The government of Kenya has recognised the role of Blue Economy (BE) in poverty alleviation, food and nutrition security, employment creation, and environmental sustainability putting in place robust policies and strategies to grow it.
However, one component that requires greater emphasis is the coastal and marine biodiversity conservation to fight climate change, boost tourism and improve livelihoods of communities.
The country has four marine parks namely Malindi, Watamu, Mombasa and Kisite and six marine reserves, Kiunga, Malindi-Watamu, Mombasa, Diani-Chale and Mpunguti marine reserves according to the Kenya Wildlife services (KWS) some being of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services. The Marine protected areas and other nature-based attractions are rare gems that the country can exploit to expand and diversify its tourism products.
Coastal tourism is land-based tourism that encompasses activities such as swimming, surfing and sunbathing. Maritime tourism constitutes sea-based activities such as boating, yachting and cruising.
Prof. Richard Mulwa, Faculty of Law and Department of Economics, the University of Nairobi who has done extensive research on the contribution of maritime sectors to Kenya’s blue economy revealed that Coastal and Marine tourism is yet to be fully exploited despite existing potential and stifled by many encumbrances.
In an interview in which he spoke at length about opportunities and challenges in Coastal and Marine tourism Mulwa observes that just a small component of the total tourists in Kenya patronize coastal and marine attractions noting that conservation of the sites is crucial.
He says from the outset, the country has largely been targeting mass tourism where a large number of visiting tourists are picked from airports and other entry points then taken to all inclusive ‘enclave’ hotels.
He adds that the problem with such arrangement is that it largely excludes participation of local people in the tourism value chain.
According to Prof. Mulwa, the Sustainable Blue Economy Conference held in Nairobi in November 2018, has awakened Blue Economy and Coastal and Marine tourisms are features its main features alongside fisheries, maritime transport, oil and gas and renewable energy.
The conference, which was the first global meeting on sustainable blue economy spawned an awakening on protection and dealing with marine environment. “It is during the outbreak of Covid-19 that Kenya launched the Ocean action agenda, whose aim is to realize the economic dividends of the exclusive economic zone, some 200 miles into the sea,” says Prof. Mulwa.
Kenya, notes the don, has large coastline and exclusive zone. The country has 640Km2 and a 230,000Km2 excusive zone (if disputed area with Somali is removed). “We have all that area of the sea, at our disposal, what do we do with it?” He poses.
Indeed, the country has huge opportunities for growth in terms of coastal and marine tourism.
In terms of Marine wildlife tourism, the country boasts of rich marine ecosystems with huge biodiversity. It has five turtle species and some of the remaining populations of dugong.
Some of the least exploited areas that Prof. Mulwa opines can be harnessed include cruise ship tourism. “Already, there is a terminal at Mombasa port for Cruise ships. It is an area with huge potential but currently it is under exploited,” he reveals.
A recent Marine Science workshop for journalists from countries along the Indian Ocean including Kenya held in the Maldives co-organised by Earth Journalism Network and Bertarelli gave insights of the huge potential of coastal and marine tourism and initiatives that are require sustaining the sector.
Kenya can thus learn lessons from countries with the Indian Ocean coastline like Maldives, which has put emphasis on marine and coastal biodiversity conservation. It has also aggressively marketed itself as aggressively as ‘The Sunny Side of Life.’ with huge dividends.
The archipelagic Indian Ocean of Maldives is a small nation in size with a total area of only 300 km² (116 mi²) and a total coastline of 644 km (400.2 mi), with 1199 islands that make up the Maldives are grouped into 26 atolls and three isolated islands and a population of 543,620 according to the World Bank.
But data from the World Tourism Organisation indicate that the Maldives recorded a total of 555,000 tourists in 2020, a year when Covid-19 impacted negatively on the sector. Although, ranking 122 in the world in absolute terms, considering its small population, the figure translates to 1.0 tourist per resident. This ranks it 44th in the world while taking the first position in South Asia.
Again, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the country generated around 1.41 billion US Dollar from tourism sector translating to 28.82 percent of its the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2020 according to the World Bank figures.
Kenya on the other and with a 640Km2coastline and several inland attractions other than marine ones earned a mere USD 774 million U.S from tourism during the same period.
With an average elevation of only 2m above sea level, the Maldives are one of the lowest-lying countries in the world as a result it is heavily involved in coastal and marine conservation. The move aids in reversing global warming that could lead to it submergence.
Coastal and marine tourism in the Asian nation enjoys strong policy legislative protection. The Maldives Tourism Act (Law No. 2/99, 1(a) provides for the determination of zones and islands for the development of tourism. These entail regulations on land development.
On environmental conservation, Section 15 (a) of the act even prohibits felling of coconut palms and trees on islands or land leased for development as tourists resorts. Also not allowed is dredging of lagoons, reclamation of land, and activities likely to cause a permanent change to the natural environment without permission from that Ministry of tourism.
In terms of standards of services in the hospitality industry, Section 44 of the Maldives Tourism Act (Law No. 2/99 grants the Ministry of Tourism authority to classify tourist establishments such as hotels and vessels into various classes and to determine the services and standards they offer.
Prof. Mulwa says that benchmarking with advanced markets is crucial for marine and coastal tourism players in Kenya in order to catch up or out others in given stiff global competition.
He notes that water sports especially in Kenya’s South Coast ideal for activities such as sky diving, wind surfing, tide surfing and snorkeling is another area that is underexploited.
“ Countries such as Maldives attracts many tourists due to water sports and we can equally excel in the same, despite smarting from effects of Covid-19,” he advises.
Additionally, he says adds there is also deep-sea sport fishing away from the coast and related to it are deep- sea safariswhich can attract both local and international tourists.
Less exploited attractions
Prof. Mulwa lists a number of marine tourism activities that the country has comparable advantages to leverage on and wade off competition. They include deep Sea Safaris, Cultural and Heritage Tourism like Swahili Culture, historical sites like Gede Ruins, Fort Jesus and Vasco Da Gama Pillar in Malindi, Kaya (Indigenous forests) used as shrines by Coastal communities, which falls under coastal tourism need promotion. He says that another area that requires exploiting is under water hotels which can be another attraction to tourists.
He further observes that growth in coastal and marine tourism is hindered by poor marketing of destinations and investment in tourism products that can boost tourists numbers. “Investment in tourism infrastructure is one area that requires huge attention given the current challenges, he says.
At the same time, he elaborates that there is opportunity for tapping in marine eco-tourism, which include visits to coral reefs in marine parks.
“There is quite a number of marine parks and reserves both in the North and South Coast ran by the Kenya Wildlife Services on the same model like national Wildlife parks on land, “he explains.
He says conservation efforts if enhanced can boost eco-tourism. “In marine reserves fishing is permitted but in marine parks it’s restricted to protect and conserve biodiversity given that they are spawning areas for fish.
However, the regulation has made local fishers to complain about restriction of access to fishing areas.
“The number of fishermen mainly artisanal is big and if permitted to freely fish in such area, it will put pressure on the ecosystem,” says Prof. Mulwa.
As to why the sector is problematic and not growing fast Prof. Mulwa emphasizes that Kenya is dealing with outdated models, namely wildlife tourism and ‘enclave’ tourism yet competing with destinations offering stylish tourism like in the Maldives and the Caribbean.
“It is important for the stakeholders in that sector to do bench making with other destinations in case they have not done so, although I am sure they are aware about what is happening in this areas. They need to use current models to market modern day’s tourism, not the outdated ones,” he observes.
He says there is need for a blend of alternatives such that besides having the destinations the country has some extra attraction to offer.
For instance, he says there are multi-trip tourists who come to Kenya with the intention of visiting different destinations other than just one destination thus the existing marketing strategy should change to take care of such clientele. “For example Wildebeest in Kenya is a good experience but visitors can be offered something extra beyond it,” he says.
Prof. Mulwa also rues the overregulation of the sector. He says there is need to streamline the regulation of the sector.
“Whenever there is money everybody wants to be from county to the national government and the revenue authority, but there is need to understand what we want in the sector and do away with red tapping,” he advises.
Yet another hindrance reveals Prof. Mulwa is the dearth in information and data on marine and coastal tourism. “The number of tourists is calculated by looking at the data of bed capacity and occupancy in hotels.
But unlike sectors such as agriculture where if you need data you can get it, there is no specific data collecting body on tourism although the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) collect data, it is not sector specific,” he says.
He adds that the KNBS data component on coastal and marine tourism is rich compared to other sectors, thus there is need for data that can inform the public on what is happening in the coastal and marine tourism,” he laments. KNBS should link up with stakeholders to get accurate data on Coastal and marine tourism.
Another obstacle, notes Prof. Mulwa, are financial constraints. The sector he says is complicated and unique unlike for example agriculture or manufacturing where financial institutions readily provide loans on a basis of a business plan. “There aren’t many banks that are specialized on largely on tourism and specifically on offering financial services to develop coastal and marine tourism infrastructure.
Also quite constraining is the aspect of off shoring. Prof. Mulwa states that commodities that are consumed in the sector are largely imported. “There is no local content in what is consumed by tourists hence a lot of imported stuff, including cuisines, experiences and local people appear nowhere in the value chain,” he says.
In that respect, he explains that it is difficult to integrate local and marine tourism with the local communities. This calls for ensuring that the local people are integrated in the coastal and marine tourism value chain.
Many local people are mere spectators and do not have a lot of opportunities with most being artisanal fishers, or employed in low paying jobs, merchandise hawkers. “Young boys and girls thus easily get lured into vices associated with tourism to eke out a living,” states Prof. Mulwa.
Pollution, says Prof. Mulwa is also a growing challenge. He explains that tackling pollution requires implementing the concept of ‘sea to source’ which says whatever that goes into the sea, its origin be tracked.
The government banned plastics in 2017 but nothing was done on plastic bottles litter and many hotels are using them, posing questions on where they are disposed.
Prof. Mulwa explains that the sea is also connected to the rivers and all of them drain water and waste into it.
“Whatever that is going into the sea is coming from somewhere, so we need to know the origin to deal with pollution and not just plastic pollution because pollution impacts on what we try to sale as a tourist destination. For instance, its impact on marine parks and coral reefs contributing to visitors failing to get the experience they yearn for hence dwindling numbers,’ he rues.
On security, Prof. Mulwa says terrorism is no longer a menace and save for common incidents of crime the country is now largely politically stable.
Besides, there is the obstacle of weak marketing that he points out is undermining tourism. “Those marketing Kenyan tourists’ attractions are scoring below par. You can talk of how magical Kenya is but you must identify where to market it and who are you marketing to and what are you marketing in particular?” he asks.
He says that the institution undertaking marketing should carry out studies in targeted markets to determine potential tourist tastes and preferences and translate it into products on offer with the government putting resources into such areas.
“The tourist of the 21Century is a complicated and unique individual unlike those of the yore, we are doing well on marketing,” he adds.
Moreover, he notes that there are a lot of environmental and ecosystem pressures being created mainly due to population increase.
“The population of the coastal communities has increased and many people are extracting resources from the sea. This has given way to the government mooting marine spatial planning purposely to designate coastal areas for different activities for instance oil and gas exploration, ports or fishing,” says Prof. Mulwa.
Under the plan, all Blue Economy related activities will have designated areas with implementation involving local communities. Prof. Mulwa states that involvement of local communities is key because they are degrading the environment as they seek to eke out a living hence interfering with tourist attraction sites.
There should also be continuous buffer zones between the coastline and the sea as a public space instead of being zoned by hotels or private residences as is the case in a country like South Africa.
“Oceans are public spaces and should not be privatized but unfortunately in Kenya is a norm rather than exception contributing into people crowding in the few public beaches available such as Jomo Kenyatta public beach. Thus locals are denied the opportunity to enjoy the utility of the sea front,” states Prof. Mulwa.
He adds that it also undermines local tourism with Kenyans creating a perception that the hotels and related facilities are reserved for international tourists.At the same time there is the issue of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing perpetuated by artisanal fishers and I a big threat to marine ecosystems Prof. Mulwa says there are too many artisanal fishermen leading to demands that they be allowed to fish Marine Protected areas!
In terms of hospitality establishments, there are just few hotels in the category of four to five star more so in the South Coast. This, he says calls for upping the hospitality infrastructures to eliminate distortion of tourist expectations. “When you visit a country you need an array of options but in the north coast there are not many quality hotels,” he says.
Water and sanitation is yet another limitation. Prof. Mulwa points out that the coastal areas have challenges of fresh water and sewer management. “There is a study we did on desalination as and option but is an area that is yet to exploited,” he says adding that such scenarios undermine tourism.
The involvement of communities running conservancies is critical because they have a relationship with the environment being the ecosystem where they thrive.
Community conservancies are an idea of the future for they put to local innovations and act as police; they should be aggregated into marine conservation and empowered.
Research for conservation initiatives
Apart from aggressive marketing, Maldives is also involved in conservation of threatened marine species and others that are a big attraction for visitors to the archipelagic state.
The journalists visited Hanifaru Bay, dubbed the world’s largest manta ray feeding station Hanifaru Bay, one of the World’s top feeding Hotspots for Mantas. The country can literally be dubbed as a ‘Manta nation’ owing to the special position the sea creatures are given in tourism promotion.
Swimming with manta rays in Hanifaru Bay, a magical experience for visitors. The Bay is populated with Mantas, Whale Sharks and Dolphins.
In terms of research for marine conservation, at Baa Atoll, a conservation group called Marine Savers is involved in rehabilitating turtles and has for the last 12 years rehabilitated over 450 turtles of different species with varying injuries including loss of flippers caused by abandoned floating fish nets in ocean.
According to Katrina Himpson, the veterinary surgeon of the turtle rescue and rehabilitation centre at the Four Seasons resort at the Landaa Giraavaru where the centre is based efforts are made to mimic natural environment in the small ponds where the turtles are kept. They are released to the ocean after making full recovery.
“We experiment with devices’ like floating pipes filled with food to stimulate foraging behaviour in the wild reduce monotony which could lead boredom and stress keeping in mind that this are migratory sea creatures that traverse the world’s oceans says Katrina.
Reefscapers, a marine consultancy company, working to restore coral reefs in the Maldives also uses a pioneering coral frame technique to increase coral cover and enhance the biodiversity of coral reefs.
The coral propagation method includes coral fragments puton biodegradable frames and taken to areas that need restoration in the ocean.
Indeed, Kenyan stakeholders in the coastal and marine conservation and tourism among them researchers can reap from benchmarking in a bid to develop the sector.
Justus Wanzala is a Translator (English-Swahili) at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, a Journalist and post graduate student of Development Studies and Environmental Law.