Lately, my mind has been pre-occupied with tourism in Kenya and its very worrying trends. Much of my childhood was spent in Malindi at the coast of Kenya. My family’s primary occupation was tourism but everyone in Malindi depends on tourism – from the hotel worker to the shop keeper and the mechanic. A simple example I often use is that when tourism flourishes, small scale shopkeepers would stock juice and butter in their shops and when it flounders all except the basic goods disappear from view.
In the past couple of years, tourism numbers have taken a significant downward turn and in some parts of the country – they have all but died. In Malindi, most of the hotels stayed closed this past December – many of them for at least six months. Even the ones that were operational in December only opened for the season and by now, they are set to close.
The impact on the residents of the town is unimaginable. Most businesses are on the verge of shutting down as now one can afford very much. The level of poverty in the town has risen significantly has has drug use. In Shela, Malindi’s small swahili old town, you will be hard pressed to find a young man aged between 17 and 35 in those 100 year old houses. They either have perished from drug use, gone to Arabic countries in such of whatever jobs they can find, or most scaringly, have disappeared into Somalia to join the Al-Shabaab. The ones who go to Somalia via Lamu, simply disappear and after a while, their helpless family just knows.
The girls, many of them as young as 14, have turned to prostitution as a means to etching out a living – even though the night clubs and discotheque have nary a customer to be found. These girls are often sent out by their families – despite the strong religious background with which they grew up. One girl that I know – I knew her when she was a baby in the late nineties – dropped out of school at standard six.
“I left as soon as I had breasts and hips so that I can shake them to ease the desperation in the family. I was lucky because my mum was there to show me the way – other girls are not so lucky.”
As a town that wholly depends on tourism, its ecosystem has been progressively decimated over the years and now it is a ghost town. Many businesses have shut down and if you speak to many businesspeople who are still open, it is only a matter of time before everyone leaves.
This Italian word, meaning for Sale adorns many gates of villas and homes, as home-owners – mostly Italians – are selling their homes to either go back home, or move to other countries. A few of the homes have been bought by some well-heeled politicians and tenderpreneurs, but for the most part, there are no buyers.
One of the last nails in Malindi’s almost fully shut coffin, was the death of Marco Vancini in February 2015. The hospitality mogul, who owned the Coral Key Beach Resort had over the past decade aggressively bought homes and land in Malindi. On most of the land, he developed new large-scale properties which he then sold to Italians for a healthy profit. At the time of his death, he had bought a few of the other hotels in Malindi and they all are closed now, and with them hundreds of jobs.
This past week, I have reached out to the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, Fatuma Hirsi Mohamed and appealed to her ministry to pay special attention to Malindi. I reached out because I know Fatuma from her days at the Nation, as an ernest, sincere person. I have a lot of confidence in her and Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala who in his days as Mayor of Mombasa, truly turned that city around. I think Najib, knows tourism well and can revive it. As a citizen who is now forced to regularly bail out family and friends in my hometown, I want to be part of that revival.
I know that the government is working on the new Malindi International Airport – new runways and so on. I am saying that if we don’t turn a special focus on Malindi, now, the town will die.
And no, for the record, I am not running for office. We, as citizens have to get involved and help bring prosperity back. God knows politics won’t.