An armed attack on two Swiss tourists in Kenya has been described by tour operators as an isolated incident but violence against visitors has become a serious problem.
The two largest Swiss travel firms played down the significance of the attack last Friday near one of the country’s national parks in which the tourists’ driver was killed.
Kenyan safaris feature prominently in the Kuoni and Hotelplan winter destination catalogues. Last year according to the Kenyan tourism ministry, 13,440 Swiss came to experience the antelopes, zebras and lions in the country’s national parks.
“Since 2007, we have observed an increase in the number of bookings and a growing interest in Kenya,” Kuoni spokesman Peter Brun told swissinfo.ch.
Hotelplan’s spokeswoman Prisca Huguenin-dit-Lenoir also confirmed that the demand for Kenyan safaris had been rising constantly over the past few years.
Series of attacks
The African paradise could however quickly lose its appeal. And the goal of two million visitors in 2012 set by the Kenyan government appears quite optimistic.
The problem is the worsening security situation. The Lamu Archipelago in the north of Kenya - located near Somalia and its Islamist al-Shabaab militants - has been the target of several deadly attacks and kidnappings in recent weeks.
Kenya has reacted by launching a military offensive in the south of Somalia. But last Friday’s attack on the Swiss tourists’ vehicle took place in the centre of the country, near the national Shaba reserve.
According to the Swiss foreign ministry, a Swiss woman was seriously injured and taken to hospital, the driver was killed and the second Swiss tourist unharmed.
The attack was an ordinary crime, according to local sources cited by several press agencies, with no connection with Somalian militants.
“According to our informants, it was not an attack specifically aimed at tourists but a conflict between local populations that had degenerated,” Brun said.
Jean-Philippe Ceppi, a renowned Swiss investigative journalist and television producer who lived in Kenya for several years, was himself the victim of a violent robbery in Kenya last year.
He believes in this case that the Swiss tourists may have acted negligently. “The road they were attacked on has been a target by bandits for a long time. It was not prudent do go there without protection.”
Armed … against animals
Even if any link with Somali terrorists is ruled out, this new attack against foreigners on Kenyan soil worries foreign governments.
The United States has warned against any travel to Kenya, while Britain recommends avoiding the zone up to 150km south of the Somali border. France “formally advises against” staying in the Lamu Archipelago and surrounding region as well as all travel by boat along the Kenyan coast because of the risk of piracy.
Switzerland is not advising its citizens to avoid Kenya. However the foreign ministry warns against “the risk of terrorist attacks throughout the territory” and “an increased risk of kidnapping” in the Somali border area.
Swiss authorities also fear that tensions could arise around the presidential elections in 2012. In 2007, unrest related to the contested reelection of President Mwai Kibaki caused more than 1,500 deaths.
As for the tour operators, they prefer to avoid the alarmist approach. “What happened to the two Swiss tourists was tragic but it remains an isolated incident,” Brun said.
“It is not the beginning of a series of attacks against tourism.” Kuoni does not intend to increase its security measures, which it considers adequate. “One armed person accompanies every Safari team,” Brun said, primarily to protect against animal attacks.
Ceppi, however, views the security situation in Kenya as “dramatic”. Along with his Kenyan wife and children, he was the victim of a violent attack at his holiday home in August 2010.
According to the journalist who has worked and travelled extensively in Africa, Kenya has been subject to an explosive cocktail of classic crime and politically motivated crime since the 2007 elections.
“Because of the worsening economic situation, more and more Kenyans have nothing but violence as a last resort. Added to that, political violence works in favour of the gangs who profit from the profusion of arms coming from Somalia. Kenya is a country in the process of breaking down,” he said.
The main problem, Ceppi said, is endemic police corruption. “Previously confined to Nairobi, the violence has reached the edge of the national parks. As a white person, you are a potential target and you cannot count on the protection of the police, who sometimes turn into gangsters by night.”
Hotelplan says it is observing the situation closely: “The security of our clients in our priority. We strictly follow the indications the foreign ministry and we do not offer tours in the north of the country and in the Somali border regions,” Huguenin-dit-Lenoir said.
Crime played down
Kuoni have not been faced with last minute cancellations following the attack against the Swiss tourists. And both companies are optimistic as high season gets underway and there is no noticeable drop in bookings.
“The tour operators play down crime because they are very preoccupied with guaranteeing their Christmas bookings,” Ceppi said. “But they know very well that as soon as their clients leave the hotel they are in danger.”
With the same motivation, Kenyan newspapers deal discreetly with attacks against tourists, according to Ceppi. “But it doesn't change the fact that the reality is bad: tourism that was recovering well from the violence of 2007 is today headed for a fall.”
Attacks in Kenya
There have been a series of attacks on tourists in Kenya in recent months.
On September 11 a British man was killed and his wife abducted from a beach resort near the Somali border. The woman is still being held hostage.
Three weeks later a French woman was abducted from the northern resort town of Lamu and taken to Somalia where she died in captivity. President Nicolas Sarkozy called the abductors “barbarians”.
The October kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers for Doctors without Borders in the Dadaab refugee camp on the Somali border has been linked to Somali al-Shabaab rebels. The aid organisation withdrew its foreign staff from the camp as a result.
On November 4 a Kenyan driver was shot dead and a Swiss tourist seriously injured in an attack on their vehicle near a game reserve in eastern Kenya. It is in an area with a number of well-known game reserves and known for banditry.
Numbers of cruise ships to the area fell sharply in 2010 because of the threat of attacks by Somali pirates operating as far away as the Maldives and Madagascar.
All the attacks have resulted in western governments issuing strict travel advice for citizens travelling to the country.
Tourism is one of the leading foreign exchange earners for Kenya, which has the biggest economy in the region.
Source: AFPend of infobox
(Translated from French by Clare O'Dea), swissinfo.ch