Last updated: 01:19 PM ET, Thu April 02 2015

Attack in Garissa, Kenya, Stuns Travel Industry

Impacting Travel | David Cogswell | April 02, 2015

Attack in Garissa, Kenya, Stuns Travel Industry

PHOTO: Safari areas are remote from any political problems. (Photo by David Cogswell)

The top story on Google News this morning was about a horrific attack on students by Islamic militants on a university in Kenya. The stories from the New York Times and USA Today displayed the dateline “Nairobi” because that’s where their reports were coming from, not the actual scene of the incident.

The Times was doing the right thing making clear that it did not have reporters on the scene. It couched its allegations by telling us that gunmen “were said” to have mounted an attack, indicating that it was getting its reports from Nairobi, 228 miles away.

According to the Times story, Shabab gunmen forced their way into dormitories and took hostages. Local news media reported that as many as 70 people were killed in the attack. The Kenyan National Disaster Operation Center reported that 65 people were hospitalized.

Unfortunately using “Nairobi” as the dateline of the story spread confusion and misrepresented the security situation in Kenya.

The attack actually took place in Garissa near the Somalia border, hundreds of miles from Nairobi and from any of the tourism safari areas.

Now once again the Kenya travel industry has to pick up the pieces and try to sort through the confusion.

“It’s unfortunate that the New York Times used ‘Nairobi’ instead of ‘Garissa,’” said Jim Holden, president of African Travel. “These cross-border raids have been going on for some time as we all know. The security forces have contained the skirmishes to the border with the help of the U.S. and the U.K. And, of course, no tourists go anywhere near Garissa and the border with Somalia. As Richard Leakey was quoted in preparation for the WTTC meeting on April 14 in Madrid, there is nil chance of terrorism taking place in a Kenya National Park.”

Tour operators watched as the event unfolded in the news reports. Unfortunately for them, the tragedy hits on two separate levels: the incident itself and the possibility of it suddenly making the bottom drop out of the travel industry in Kenya.

“Since it’s still unfolding, it’s difficult to assess exactly the impact,” said Bob Drumm, president of Alexander + Roberts. “But it’s not good. While not close to the Maasai Mara (the university is 100 miles from the Somalia border in the Northeast of Kenya), the affront to humanity of targeting ‘non-believers’ is despicable. The rise of intolerance at home and abroad at this moment is very disturbing.”

Tour operators were forced to turn their attention to stemming the tide of misinformation and counteracting the misunderstanding engendered by the incident and subsequent reporting.

“It is important to note that the attack was not in Nairobi – it was in Garissa which is in very close proximity to the Somali border and far removed from Nairobi and the game parks where most tourists spend their time. For travel agents the important value they can add for their clients is an understanding of both the geography and options,” said Kathleen Doheny, vice president of marketing for Kensington Tours.

“The attack at Garissa University College is a despicable act, but Garissa is nowhere near Nairobi,” said Richard Trillo, Kenya program manager for Expert Africa. “It's in the remote northeast of the country, 370 kilometers from Nairobi near the Somalian border. Tourists would not be visiting this area and the FCO advises against all but essential travel to that part of the country.

“Kenya’s safari areas and its most popular beaches on the south coast are not affected by the Garissa attack. We expect to continue arranging safaris and beach holidays to what is sub-Saharan Africa’s second most popular tourist destination after South Africa. Thousands of Kenyans working in the tourist industry rely on visitors for their livelihoods and many extended families depend on a sole breadwinner.”

Without appearing to be insensitive to the tragedy, tour operators must now turn their attention to explaining that the incident will have no bearing on the safety of their guests in Kenya.

“We are deeply saddened by what happened in Kenya, and send our condolences to everyone affected by this senseless and outrageous tragedy,” said Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours. “These attacks were far away from the main tourist destinations, but that makes it no less painful. Kenya offers a wildlife experience like no other place, but that can readily disappear if people stop coming.”

A collapse of the tourism industry in Kenya would be another, separate tragedy.

“As we know, without healthy tourism, then we have written the death sentence for every elephant and rhino as well as many other species in Kenya as poaching rates will only increase,” said Sanghrajka. “That, in turn, will be a disaster for traditional communities that have come to depend on sustainable tourism. The evidence of this is already here with cases, witnessed, though as yet undocumented, of poaching now appearing in isolated cases in certain conservancies.”

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