Responsible tourism in Kenya

While much of the continent is only just setting off on its tourism expedition, Kenya has been juddering along the road for decades, becoming synonymous with game drives, bush camps and the quintessential African holiday. But it has now reached something of a crossroads. Historically, classic safari destinations have been all about nature. Tourists tend to swerve its towns and cities, and, and the continent's human history largely intangible. But for a truly responsible holiday here, forget the secluded lodges and tucked away waterholes; Africa’s best-kept secret is, in fact, its culture. Where once wildlife was the star attraction – and the one commanding the greatest protection – now Kenya’s people are being recognised as playing a pivotal role in the safari experience. They are the guardians of the precious wildlife, as well as being as intrinsic a part of a Kenyan holiday as the creatures themselves.

Tourism has been an important part of Kenya’s recent history, resulting in the creation of vast national parks and game reserves, the outlawing of hunting, and generating a high percentage of GDP. But Kenya’s ability to adapt to this shift – moving the emphasis from wildlife to people – will determine the impact that tourism has on its future.

People & culture in Kenya

Conservancies: the future of tourism?

An important shift is already taking place in the way that Kenya’s land is managed and protected. Traditionally, land was set aside as a national park (such as Amboseli) or as a wildlife reserve (such as the Masai Mara). Local communities were evicted from the land, which could not be used for grazing or for other resources such as fishing, or harvesting food or firewood. In wildlife terms, this was a success – and in tourism terms too, as the wildlife that high-paying tourists came to see was now protected.

However, in recent years a third way has emerged, permitting the coexistence of local people and wildlife. Conservancies have begun to spring up across the country, particularly in areas surrounding the Masai Mara Game Reserve – where an abundance of wildlife can be found. The conservancy is created when a group of landowners comes together to collectively manage their small parcels of land as a bigger area. Each landowner maintains their individual title, but decisions are made collectively. Land use agreements maintain limited grazing rights, and – crucially – the landowners can lease their land to safari companies, who can establish lodges or camps on the land with agreed visitor fees.

The advantages of the conservancies are huge:

Tourists gain an insight into local lifestyles – most commonly the Maasai who own many of the conservancies. The Maasai are able to stay on their land – and generate a sustainable income. Encroaching development is eating into the Maasai’s grazing lands – but with tracts being brought together as large conservancies, it is much harder to chip away at them. The landowners recognise the value of protecting the wildlife as they gain income from it directly. They will therefore do what they can to stop poachers – unlike other communities living on the border of protected areas, who gain no direct benefits from the presence of wildlife. In some cases there is more wildlife to be found in the conservancies than in the parks and reserves. In fact, the region’s largest pride of lions can be found on a conservancy – and smaller migrations of wildebeest and zebra pass through conservancies too. Activities such as bushwalks and nighttime game drives are permitted in the conservancies – but not in the other protected areas. There is a distinct lack of transparency regarding national park and game reserve fees, which are paid to KWS and local councils. The fees and lease money paid to the conservancies is directly reinvested in the land and the community. Conservancies have much fewer visitors – and beds – per square kilometre than the Masai Mara Game Reserve, for example. This creates a much more personalised experience for tourists, and avoids the overexploitation that is happening in other protected areas, where lodges and camps are springing up at an alarming rate.

Community tourism: the old way

Despite the rise of community-owned conservancies, there are still many cultural tourism experiences which do not benefit the communities directly, and even tours which are exploitative and degrading for the Maasai. Tour companies visit villages so that visitors can photograph the locals without interaction; money goes into the pockets of the tour companies and drivers without being shared with the Maasai themselves.

As well as being deeply unethical for the local communities, tourists also report being harassed and bullied into buying crafts and making donations; the natural conclusion of a community who sees wealthy visitors in their village each week, without seeing any of the benefits.

Conservancies remove this risk of exploitation, so we highly recommend this form of cultural tourism. However, if you do find yourself on a tour to a Maasai village – or that of any other ethnic group – there are questions you can ask of your operator to ensure it is being carried out properly.

What you can do
When in a village, you should never take photos without asking permission first, and always try to engage with the local people – not just look and take pictures. Ideally, your guide will be from the village itself (plenty of Maasai speak English!), but if not, they should be able to converse in the local language and know the community well. Any gifts should be given to a local leader to distribute as they see fit – speak to your tour company first to find out what they recommend donating. It may not always be what you expect! Again, if the tour company is unsure, this is a warning sign that they are unfamiliar with the community.

Chris Morris, from our supplier IntoAfrica, on how to ensure you are choosing an ethical Maasai tour: “It’s very, very difficult. Any question asked of a tour operator in advance is likely to be met with a very satisfactory answer. But direct straight questions, like “How much do you pay to the Maasai village when I go there?” or “Who do you pay the money to?” and “How do you support the village and where can we see the evidence?” should be met with direct and clear answers – any fudging or nebulous “whenever possibles” should switch on a warning light. Asking the tour operator for the contacts of someone who has been on, say, a homestay before, so you can call and talk to them about their experience would be useful. I keep a huge list of folk stretching back 15 years from all around the world, who’ve indicated they would be happy to do this for prospective guests. Invariably I can find someone in the enquirer’s country they can call and chat to at length about their experience.”

Culture clash: the rise of sex tourism

As in many countries where wealthy tourists exist alongside impoverished local communities, sex tourism has long been an issue in Kenya, particularly along the coast in areas such as Malindi, Mombasa and Diani. Disturbingly, children under the age of 18 are engaged in commercial sexual exploitation. Some have been forced into this through poverty and the need to support their families; others have been trafficked.

This practice is illegal in Kenya, and some progress has been made in recent years to tackle it. In 2016, Kenya's parliament passed a national policy on the elimination of child labour and the Kenyan police established a Child Protection Unit to investigate child exploitation. Sadly, child labour is still prevalent.

What you can do
Don’t assume that if you are not in Kenya to take advantage of its children, then you are not part of the problem. As the law is poorly enforced, it comes down to local businesses and travellers to look out for the children’s wellbeing, so making a stand when you can is a crucial part of the fight against it. Some hotels, bars and restaurants will have signs or information in their menus stating their commitment to stamping out child sex tourism – so try and support these if you can. If you see western tourists with local children, or a Kenyan child being brought into a hotel by a local adult, report it to the owner of the hotel or restaurant. It may be entirely innocent, but any ethical business will at least enquire. If they fail to act, take your business elsewhere. If you are very concerned that the child is in danger, report it to Kenya’s National Child Helpline on 116 (24 hour, toll free), run by Childline Kenya.

Wildlife & environment

Hunting for a solution?

Always ahead of the game in African tourism, Kenya banned trophy hunting in 1977, as it became clear that wildlife could be worth more alive than dead thanks to its growing tourism industry. Long-established national parks and newly gazetted communal conservancies across the country strive to protect the nation’s wildlife – including many threatened species such as wild dogs and black and white rhino. But shockingly, wildlife numbers have declined on average by 68 per cent between 1977 and 2016*. Drought and a wave of violence in Laikipia County, involving armed herders invading properties and killing wildlife, are having a huge impact. In addition, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), which manages Kenya’s national parks, is unable to provide the kind of 24-hour surveillance needed to deter poachers, and recent investigations even revealed that KWS staff were involved in poaching, going as far as killing other poachers to cover their tracks.** And as a huge amount of wildlife actually lives outside of these protected areas, human-wildlife conflict results in the poisoning of predators, which threaten livestock, as well as the illegal hunting of game for meat.

In several other African countries where controlled hunting is permitted (including Zimbabwe and Namibia) wildlife is on the increase and high trophy hunting fees have been reinvested in wildlife conservation. Inevitably, there has, therefore, been talk of introducing hunting permits in Kenya. This would be a highly controversial move, not only amongst animal welfare groups, but with those who feel that this would be a step backwards for conservation. There are concerns about the potential for corruption and the ability – and conflicting interests – of the KWS to manage the permits, as well as the negative image this would bring to the tourism industry.

*Source: International Livestock Research Institute
**Source: Save the Rhino
What you can do
It still comes down to that principle that got hunting banned all those decades ago – that wildlife is worth more alive than dead. By visiting Kenya, taking a game drive and paying your entry fees to national parks and reserves, you are putting this into action. Communal conservancies are also a fantastic example of how land use can affect the fortune of wildlife. Rather than fees being paid to KWS, they are paid directly to the community that owns the land, meaning that local people can see instantly the benefits of protecting the wildlife, which is what visitors come to see. The conservancies create important buffer zones around the parks and wildlife reserves, creating extended wildlife corridors and deterring poachers in a kind of Kenyan “Neighbourhood Watch”. So visiting the conservancies and creating income for those who have set aside their own land for the protection of wildlife sends an important message to those who may otherwise be poaching or poisoning. If you want to support a specific programme in Kenya take a look at Save the Rhino, which runs several field programmes protecting the endangered rhino, and the areas they live in.

Chinese investment

The discovery of oil around Lake Turkana, along with enormous investment from the Chinese, means that Kenya’s landscape is about to change. In May 2017, a new, Chinese funded high speed rail link between Mombasa and Nairobi was opened, and a huge port and dams are some of the projects being planned, mainly funded by Chinese state-owned companies.

While no one can deny the Kenya’s right to develop these industries, and create much needed income and employment for its people – especially in the impoverished and often drought-afflicted north –  some of the incentives behind these developments are troubling. Not only has China been regularly accused of siphoning off the natural assets of developing African nations for its own gain (which could be said of many Western nations, too), but its environmental record is deplorable. The new wave of poaching threatening East Africa’s elephants has been boosted by donations from the Chinese government, which has allegedly equipped the poachers with firearms and GPS devices*, and ivory carving can even be studied at Chinese universities. While China claims to oppose poaching and has led campaigns against illegal ivory, their actions do not match their words; Chinese officials are well-known in East Africa as being the largest purchasers of ivory.**

Given this record of environmental exploitation, hopes are not high that development will be carried out in a cautious way. Tiny Lamu is Kenya’s oldest town, dating back to the 14th century, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the deepwater port here, along with the oil refinery and pipeline, have enormous environmental implications for the coastline and marine life including endangered sea turtles that nest here. Local communities have not been consulted and indigenous groups have lost land to the project, without their agreement or compensation.

Longer term, the emissions from these new projects contribute further to pollution and to climate change, which has been largely responsible for the droughts which have ravaged East Africa in recent years – 2015, 2016 and 2017 were all drought years – when the resulting crop failure and famine killed thousands.

*Source: The Telegraph
**Source: Al Jazeera

What you can do
Save Lamu is a local campaign group set up to raise awareness of the threats facing Lamu County, and to advocate on behalf of its people and businesses. The website has a wealth of information, well worth reading.

Responsible tourism tips

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was set up in memory of the game warden and conservationist by his wife Daphne, who died in 2018. Its main role is as an elephant orphanage; taking in rescued, captive elephants who cannot be reintroduced into the wild, as well as babies who may have been orphaned due to poaching. The Trust’s story is heartwarming; we highly recommend a visit while in Kenya. If you can’t make it – consider fostering a baby elephant. Your money will make a difference. Slum tours are offered in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. This is an overpopulated, lawless district with hundreds of thousands of people living in squalid conditions, surrounded by hazards such as open sewers. While the benefits of these tours is questionable, tourists are putting themselves in a dangerous position, as well as exploiting local residents who understandably resent being stared at or photographed while going about their daily lives. Stuart Rees-Jones, from volunteer organisation Camps International: “People think their slum tour will have a real impact – but that place runs in a way that you and I can’t even start to imagine. You are not going to turn up as a westerner and have any meaningful impact there, in a safe way. Bill Gates is throwing millions and millions of dollars at Kibera – and it’s not doing anything. So you’re not going to turn up in a minibus and paint a kindergarten and make any difference. To make a difference the organisations have to commit and be there long term.” There are a number of boat trips along the coast offering the chance to see and swim with dolphins. While Kenya Wildlife Service has run sessions for boat drivers on codes of conduct for these tours, be aware that there are no regulations regarding dolphin tourism in Kenya, and tours are generally run by local boat drivers rather than experienced guides or marine biologists. If you do decide to book a tour, ask plenty of questions to find out how responsible it is. To find out more about responsible dolphin tourism, see our guide. Kenya may be relatively costly to travel in, but ironically it is still one of the world's poorest nations. Do your bit by tipping your guides, drivers, cooks and hotel staff, discuss an appropriate amount with your tour operator before you depart, and come prepared with cash. Many tours include a visit to a local school. However, we do not promote these as tourists entering a classroom daily to take photos with kids is disruptive to their education, and can do more harm than good. It is certainly not a practice that would be encouraged in Western schools, so why would it be acceptable in Kenya? Additionally, any gifts should be given to the head teachers rather than the children, who may start to see foreigners as a source of freebies, encouraging begging and bad perceptions. Due to the high level of poverty in Kenya, there are endless volunteer opportunities. With few exceptions, Responsible Travel does not advise unqualified volunteers to find placements working with vulnerable children, particularly in orphanages and care homes. Find out more through our orphanage campaign. Never purchase items made from endangered species, including coral, turtle shells or eggs, ivory, fur or bone.

Cultural tips

Chris Morris, from our supplier IntoAfrica, on Kenyan culture: “If there’s one overarching issue it is perhaps to realise that often the people you’ll meet in Kenya have very different attitudes, concepts, beliefs and thought patterns from yours. Don’t be too quick to judge folk as inferior; what might seem strange to your way of thinking invariably has a function you’ve not understood yet. Try to understand and enjoy this difference.”
Kenya is a conservative country, especially in rural areas and along the predominantly Muslim coast and islands. Skimpy clothing is inappropriate outside of the beach resorts, and women especially should cover their legs and upper arms. One good tip is to buy a kanga – a kind of local sarong, which can be used as a quick cover up (even wrapped over trousers for extra modesty) as well as a towel, blanket or scarf at other times. They have local sayings written on them in Swahili – find one that’s appropriate for you and it will also make a lovely souvenir! Swahili is the dominant language along the coast, and it’s surprisingly easy to learn and pronounce. Do make an effort to learn a few words, and remember that “Jambo!” is in fact the tourist greeting – “Hujambo” or “Habari” are better ways to say “Hello, how are you?” Learn the three way African handshake too – sure to be an icebreaker with the unsuspecting locals.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: MAKE IT KENYA PHOTO / STUART PRICE] [Masai: Abir Anwar] [Photographing tribe: Sarah.Ahearn] [Rhino: Kimvanderwaal] [Lake Turkana: DFID] [Culture tip: FMSC]