Hundreds of UK visitors were Thursday flying out of Mombasa following Wednesday’s advisory from London, urging cancellation of all non-essential travel to Kenya.
More than 1,000 tourists were expected to have left Mombasa and surrounding towns two days after the warning, said to be strongest ever issued by a foreign government on Kenya.
On Thursday, international travel agents were said to have sent planes to evacuate their clients.
About 700 UK tourists were expected to have left the country last night having heeded the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) advice against “all but essential travel to Mombasa Island and the surrounding area,” citing continuous terrorist threats.
Industry operators kept a brave face even as they prepared for the worst in a season that is usually their busiest.
“These are only preliminary cancellations but the real impact will be felt in the next couple of days, especially as forward bookings are cancelled,” said the chief executive of Kenya Hotel and Caterers Association (KAHC) Mike Macharia.
FCO said there were 5,500 UK tourists in Mombasa and surrounding areas it expected to leave the country. It was not clear whether the warning was informed by fresh information of impeding terrorist attacks or in response to recent trends.
Two UK-based travel companies Thomson and First Choice confirmed the evacuation in a statement sent to the Business Daily.
“We have taken the decision to repatriate all customers currently on holiday in Kenya back to the UK tonight (yesterday) and tomorrow (Friday) morning,” said the statement.
“As a result of the change in FCO advice, the decision has been taken to cancel all our outbound flights to Mombasa, Kenya, up to and including 31st October. We understand many customers will be very disappointed about the cancellation of their holidays, but in these types of situations we have to follow the FCO advice.”
Kenya’s other key tourist markets such as the United States, Australia and France have also issued travel advisories, casting a dark cloud over the tourism industry that has reported a steady decline in arrival numbers in the past 14 months.
The travel warning is seen as most damaging to beach tourism as it advises against travel to Mombasa and areas within five kilometres of the coast from Mtwapa Creek and Lamu in the north to Tiwi in the south.
The FCO’s no-go zones include a 60-kilometre stretch along the Kenya-Somali border, Garissa, Eastleigh in Nairobi and the city’s slums.
An FCO spokesman said that the warning had been “intelligence-led,” but would not indicate whether there were specific terrorism threats.
The Kenyan government responded to the UK move with a hard-hitting statement, terming it an “unfriendly act coming from partners who have equally borne the brunt of global terrorism and no doubt understand the repercussions of terror menace.”
Karanja Kibicho, the principal secretary in the Foreign Affairs and International Trade ministry, said Kenya had assured its visitors of “utmost security and safety,” adding that countries that have issued advisories were involved in the fight against terrorism.
“The challenges arising from acts of terrorism require concerted effort and not behaving in a manner that accelerates it by causing fear and panic,” Dr Kibicho said in a statement.
The British government, however, argued that it had no choice but to recommend immediate exit of its citizens living in or are on holiday around the Kenyan coast because of the heightened terrorism threat.
“We are aware of the concerns this will cause in Kenya,” the FCO said. “But the safety of British nationals is our priority and this decision was very carefully thought through.”
The advisories come at a time when the tourism sector is already hard-hit by the continuous terrorist attacks in Nairobi and Mombasa, bad pricing and negative policy measures such as VAT charges.
The challenges saw the sector record a decline of 15.8 per cent in 2013 compared to the previous year. Arrivals in 2013 stood at 1.5 million compared to 1.8 million the previous year.
Revenues decreased by 2.13 per cent with the sector earning Sh93.97 billion compared to Sh96.02 billion the previous year.
The UK is Kenya’s key tourist source market that controls 13.7 per cent of total arrivals despite the 19.5 per cent decline to 149,699 in 2013.
Arrivals from the US, the second largest source market, also declined by 6.7 per cent to 115,636 last year.
The recent decline in the sector saw the Treasury allocate Sh200 million towards tourism recovery programmes that were to begin in May.
The effort was accompanied by the appointment of a Tourism Recovery Committee to reverse the sector’s fortunes.
On Thursday, the Kenya Tourism Federation, a private sector lobby group, issued a statement calling on the foreign governments to reverse the advisories in the interest of the players and the national economy.
It said the expected cancellations could see Kenya lose millions during the high season, which starts in July, with serious consequences.
“The tourism sector is not only a source of much needed foreign exchange and tax revenues, but also a large employer and a consumer of products and services from other sectors of the economy. Its’ trickle-down effect cannot be ignored,” said KTF in a statement.
Mr Macharia said of the 157 UK tourists Diani Sea Resort had booked only 20 were expected to remain in the hotel by the weekend.
Baobab Hotel Resort has seen 170 tourists pull out while Southern Palms Beach Resort was set to lose 150 guests, as of Thursday afternoon.
Tourists were also said to have been evacuated from Shaba National Park, which lies in Northern Kenya.
“We shall have a clearer picture by next week but we do not expect it to be rosy,” he said.