Meet Hon. Najib Balala

HR-Untitled-3With the tourism sector in Kenya facing challenging times, msafiri met the Hon. Najib Balala, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, to find out the latest plans
Q Tourism has suffered in recent times. There have been closures of hotels at the coast and significant job losses. How does the future look?
The industry amounts to 9% of GDP and so is very important. We’re now implementing a recovery plan and our projection is a 24% growth in the first three months of the year. We estimated a 20-30% growth by the end of the year so, yes, there is optimism. We have a good product – we have won 25 awards from the World Travel Awards and this confirms that tourism is well known and people appreciate it. Kenya was voted the best destination in Africa.

Q What has to be done to reposition the country in terms of tourism?
Visitors have a soft spot for our safari and the wildlife. But tourism is only one component of brand Kenya. We have the people of Kenya and the transformation we have made as a country, for example the invention of M-PESA through ICT. Nairobi is becoming the city of innovation. So these are the things that make Kenya. It’s not just about a lion or an elephant or a safari or tourists. No, it’s all inclusive and now the government is venturing into transforming and modernising the country by building infrastructure, putting modern security systems in place and making the country a modern society; elevating it to a second level or middle level economy.

Q Is there a need to reinvent ourselves as a country to attract more tourists?
I think we need to start modernising the way we do business in tourism – from the service to the hotels themselves. We need to refresh our hotels. I’m glad for Nairobi as we have new hotels such as Radisson Blu, Sankara, Kempinski, Crowne Plaza, Best Western and others. These are new products into Nairobi. But I think we need to expand these international brands across the country and start having hotels that meet international standards. That’s why we are now working on the classification of hotels in terms of grading them. At the same time we are encouraging people to reinvest in hotels. We are also developing a refurbishment fund for old hotels that have suffered all these years.

Q Can your ministry reassure our foreign clients that they can visit us during the election year in 2017?
Well, our new constitution of 2010 guarantees that the democratic space is expanded and also the institutions that govern the democratic space are well established. We have held a 2010 referendum that was very successful, then we held a 2013 election that was very peaceful and we followed the process with integrity and acceptability. We are now going to the second election under the new constitution and I am optimistic. The beauty of democracy is noise-making in the political field. And that noise-making should not scare you. We all have to be sensitive. The so-called insecurity has never targeted any visitor or any foreigner in our land.

Q Is there a long term solution to terrorism that your ministry is aware of, given that it has a direct impact on tourism?
I think the investment the government has made in security over the last year or more is commendable. I think we need to encourage the government to do much more by modernising the techniques of handling terrorism. We also need to build stability and peace in our neighbours so that we can also have peace and stability in our own country.

Q How can we work with other African countries, especially our neighbours, to capitalise on tourism?
People want to come to Africa to more than one country and if they can have one free flow in terms of travel without any bureaucracy, it’s encouraging. So yes, I think we need to work together as a region. I think we should remove the fears of competition. Competition is healthy when it allows innovation. Competition is destructive when we start undermining each other. And I think this is slowly being understood. We want Tanzania also to feel that we are not their competitors. Our competitors are the Caribbean islands, Thailand, all the long haul destinations that are not closer to us. Those are our competitors, and we need to come together united and be able to sell Africa as a continent with individual countries later.

Q What are your favourite spots in Kenya?
If you want to relax and enjoy the beach it’s either Diani, Watamu or Lamu. Those are my best destinations. But if you want to be alone and appreciate what nature is, go to Lake Turkana. If you want wildlife, then go to the wilderness and emptiness of Tsavo and see how beautiful that park is and also go to see the dense population of animals in the Masai Mara and see the ‘Big Five’. We have a diverse country and can get everything we need at very close proximity from the capital.

Q How can the ministry support Kenya Airways to come back strongly?
Kenya Airways is a major partner for tourism. Without Kenya Airways, without a national carrier, there’s no tourism. Without an airline hub in a country, there is no tourism. And also, Kenya Airways brings almost 4.5 million visitors into the country. We can’t ignore partners as powerful as Kenya Airways. I want to encourage Kenya Airways to sell the destination Kenya so that we use Kenya as a springboard for the rest of Africa.