Kenya expands pool of high-quality travel experiences

Thursday, November 2nd, 2023 09:10 | By
‘Meet the last Northern White Rhinos’ has been listed as one of Kenya’s signature experiences. PHOTO/Harriet James
‘Meet the last Northern White Rhinos’ has been listed as one of Kenya’s signature experiences. PHOTO/Harriet James

According to the 2023 Booking.com Sustainable Travel Research Report, 75 per cent of their survey respondents indicate they seek authentic experiences that are representative of the local culture.

Travellers are increasingly inclined to seek out “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences and create memories. To market Kenya as a destination that is not just about beach and wildlife, the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) launched the Magical Kenya Signature Experience (MKSE) Collection to give travellers a unique travelling experience.

“The current traveller has changed and wants to be immersed in the cultural experience. For instance, they desire to learn the culture of a tribe, or prepare a local meal, such as ugali. The experience market that we are in, calls for every experience provider to understand their target audience very well and know what they prefer to do.

Are they the ones who are pretty active and desire to participate in the experience or do they just want to be educated and watch? Do they want to be passive and enjoy the serenity from the far end? Once all that is determined, then the service will have an outstanding ovation. We should be performing not to give our guests great service level, but to make them have a memorable experience,” explains KTB chairman Francis Gichaba.

Launched in 2019, the collection seeks to market Kenya as a competitive destination with rich and diverse experiences across the country available through out the year and fit for every travel segment. The newly recognised facilities will have their products and experiences marketed to the local and international traveller through farm trips, exhibitions, collaborative initiatives, events, and trainings to provide extra visibility.

The unveiling ceremony marked the beginning of a journey to deliver diverse tourism experiences in Kenya. “I am glad to unveil the 17 new experiences to add to the signature collection. Our goal was to grow and diversify our products to ensure that we are a cut above other destinations and to also have products that offer an outstanding experience to suit todays demanding traveller,” said Tourism Principal Secretary John Ololtuaa.

Increased competition

He added that tourism products and experiences were in the hands of the private players and called on collaborative efforts towards increasing value and volume of tourism by spreading experiences and products across the country.

“In 2015 a Tourism Taskforce was formed to identify and address challenges ailing the tourism industry, such as increased competition, seasonality, getting stuck in the middle of the safari business and perceptions around insecurity and affordability of the destination. The MKSE programme bridges this gap and addresses the seasonality issues and ensures that Kenya remains a competitive tourism destination,” said PS Ololtuaa

In 2019, 15 inaugural MKSE facilities that met the required criteria of a Kenya signature experience were recognised. The second phase— unveiled in 2021 recognised 29 experiences. To be part of the programme, facilities are required to fill out a pre-qualification questionnaire, which has a set of 10 questions. The next stage involves filling out of an application form followed by desk and on-site audits.

Those that meet the requirements are then enlisted into the MKSE Collection.

Gichaba says while traditional products remain popular, in a fast-paced world, the demand for new and more products has been rife, which had prompted the Kenyan government to channel its focus towards improving tourism-generated income in respect to seasonality.

“Kenya has curved her niche as a competitive destination with rich and diverse experiences across the country, available throughout the year and fit for different travel segments. Through this collection, we are able to show the world that Kenya has a lot more to offer beyond the iconic wildlife safari and the pristine sandy beaches for both the repeat and first-time visitors,” he said.

KTB acting CEO John Chirchir noted that sector players need to be aware of the emerging trends and incorporate them in their business strategies.

“The traveller is seeking for authentic and immersive local travel experiences, slow travel, outdoor experiences to connect with nature, and the need to leave a positive impact in the destinations where they visit. I encourage businesses and individuals who are in the tourism space to participate in the subsequent MKSE recruitment drive,” he says.

Showcase unique experiences

Some of the experiences that were unveiled are Olpejeta’s conservancy’s ‘Meet the last Northern White Rhinos’, swimming with dolphins in Watamu, Mugie Conservancy experience, horse riding in the Masai Mara National Reserve, Oserengoni Wildlife Sanctuary experience, the Nairobi Street Kitchen experience and many others.

Gilbert Ombeva, the GM of Chui Lodge, says the signature experience is significant in showcasing the unique experience that the lodge has not just locally, but internationally.

“If someone Googles for a destination and then uses the KTB site to check whether we exist or not, that is a sign of endorsement that we are a genuine product,” he explains.

For Mwanase Ahmed, MD Distant Relatives, ecotourism is part of the experience that the new traveller seeks. “Travellers are looking into how the tourism sector is innovative and how we are addressing their needs.

"Ecotourism starts with the business, the ethos and individual and how much you actually care for the environment. At Distant Relatives, we are looking at how our designs offer unforgettable experiences, such as showering under the stars with monkeys jumping around. We want to connect them with nature,” she explains.

Founder and Chief Visionary Officer at Wanderlust Diaries, Dr Amakove Wala, has observed that the pandemic has driven travellers to adapt to modern ways of travel. However, she believes that more needs to be done on the products and services offered to the domestic market.

“Once you convince the local traveller that tourism is beneficial not just to self, but to the community, they will seek it, experience it and talk about it. We must have a deliberate focus on the domestic traveller. We have done well for the international market,” she notes.

Karunguru Coffee Farm also made it on the list. PHOTO/Harriet James
Karunguru Coffee Farm also made it on the list. PHOTO/Harriet James

Tourism circuits

Amakove has further observed that the country has opened up and the adventurous Kenyans have discovered gems right at their doorsteps. Places that previously had a negative connotation with regards to security, poor infrastructure, primitive culture and aggression have had their chance to tell their stories.

“We see Kenyans travelling to Turkana, West Pokot, Mfangano Island, Tana River, Taveta, Kwale, among other little known destinations. These are some of the many forgotten tourism circuits that Kenyans have discovered. We have seen simple activities, such as bouncing castles for adults, cycling circuits, chama events and so on, that have brought rest and relaxation for many Kenyans,” she continues.

Despite the fact that the signature experiences are great with all new gems being unveiled, Amakove believes that more needs to be done to include other regions.

“I would have loved to see more representation from certain areas of the country, such as the north Rift Valley, Western, Nyanza and Arid and Semi Arid areas. Kenya still has a lot to be explored. I understand some players were unable to put in their entries due to the cost involved for certification,” she says.

One of the challenges that destinations face is accessibility. For instance, in Mombasa, the “Open Sky Policy,” advocated by the coastal tourism sector, has been instrumental in bringing in new airlines and making the coastal tourism thrive.

“If you are not able to fly to a destination, in an affordable, available, convenient way, then it becomes very difficult to explore it. I want to thank the government for finally opening up the skies because it’s not just about opening up Mombasa, but also Nairobi for Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE). We urge the government to approve the Turkish Airlines and Qatar airways licences,” says Mohammed Hersi, Group Director of Operations Pollmans Tours & Safaris.

The night life experience is one of the products and experiences where KTB is seeking and encouraging investors to fill in the gap.

“We are looking at that and encouraging investors in that space to come up and take the challenge as there is a big opportunity that it offers and as KTB we can support it. Until we have good packaging, we can’t go out and market unless we know who we are talking about. We need to see what kind of gems we can unveil within the night life scenery of Mombasa, Nakuru and Nairobi, so that they don’t just come as flashes, but consistent products,” observes Gichaba.

Another challenge that KTB faces with the signature experience is sustainability.

“We would like to ensure that whoever is on board sustains their experiences. It would be a big shame if we put in a signature experience and then the next year, some have dropped out because they were unable to sustain the service standard. To address that, we have the mystery shoppers to know whether the promise that we are giving as KTB is being met by the experience on the ground,” he says in conclusion.

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