Ecotourism in Kenya - Press Release for the ITB Trade Fair,
March 2002: Leading Africa's Green Revolution
When the United Nations chose Nairobi as the venue for the first
African conference on ecotourism, few players in the industry were particularly
surprised. For although Kenya has often attracted criticism for its poor infrastructure
and slow development, the bottom line has always remained the same: the original
home of the African safari is still streets ahead of its competitors.
Although ecotourism is a relatively new field in Africa, its growth
in Kenya has been little short of spectacular. In the past five years, some of
the world's most pioneering and promising community tourism projects have been
launched here, a new breed of safari camps has grown up using state-of-the-art
environmental technologies, and initiatives helping local communities to benefit
from their natural resources have launched a 'green revolution' in many of the
country's wildlife-rich tribal lands.
Kenya's ecotourism industry first drew international attention
in 1997, when the now-famous community lodge at Il' Ngwesi was a runner-up in
British Airways' prestigious Tourism for Tomorrow awards. In the four years since,
two other properties - Tortilis Camp in Amboseli and Ol Donyo Wuas in the Chyulu
Hills - have also been honoured in the awards. Il' Ngwesi has gone on to become
a model for community tourism projects across Africa.
So when the United Nations Environment Programme last year elected
Nairobi as the venue for the International Year of Ecotourism African Conference,
it all made perfect eco-sense. Staged as part of the UN's 2002 Year of Ecotourism,
the March 20-22 conference will bring together a broad variety of ecotourism experts
and practitioners for three days of presentations, discussions and field trips
that aim to improve local practices and information sharing. Together with five
other regional conferences, the findings and recommendations of the Nairobi forum
will be presented to the world's first Ecotourism Summit in Quebec on May 19th
- allowing Kenya's best ecotourism practices and ideas to be heard around the
The prominent presence of Kenya on the eco-map owes much to the
involvement of its conservation conscious communities. Although dozens of definitions
have been put forward for the term 'ecotourism', the one thing on which they all
agree is that it is not only about saving fragile areas, but about helping the
communities that live in them - the original and long-term custodians of the world's
wildernesses - to benefit from their preservation.
According to Fergus Maclaren, IYE Director at The International
Ecotourism Society, the Nairobi conference will stand out from its counterparts
for its strong community presence. "I was extremely impressed to see that the
organisers are looking at 60-80 community representatives from the region, which
is almost half the total number of participants," he said. "This is more substantial
than any other of the regional meetings, and strongly in keeping with TIES' focus
on promoting the participation of communities, practitioners and operators at
Conference organiser Anne Loehr says the strong backing for
ecotourism in the country guarantees a bright green future for Kenyan tourism.
"I have travelled all over the world visiting eco-lodges and working with the
best people in the trade, and Kenya definitely has some of the brightest minds
working together to create a sustainable future for the environment and local
culture," she says. "I think there's no better place to experience ecotourism
anywhere in the world."
Anne's own company, Eco-resorts, shows just how much today's
holidaymakers care about the impact they have on the places they visit. Started
in 1999, it has already taken more than 600 visitors on its 'cultural immersion'
tours, which combine game-viewing safaris with periods living in a local village,
studying local arts and crafts, horticulture or women's issues. Anne is currently
working with the Ecotourism Society of Kenya (ESOK) to develop a series of 'eco-rating'
criteria for ranking the records and performance of local tourism facilities and
tour operators - giving tourists the opportunity to choose their destination and
operator according to their social and environmental practices.
The growing environmental and social concerns of today's typical
tourist are borne out by the latest survey by the global watchdog, the WorldWatch
Institute, which reports the ecotourism sector growing by 20% in the year leading
up to September 11th - when the tourism industry temporarily crashed around the
world. Growth for the global tourism sector as a whole was 7.5%.
The Nairobi ecotourism conference, which is sponsored by Conservation
International, will end with a field trip to the Shompole Group Ranch, three hours
south of Nairobi, where Kenya's newest eco-lodge is providing a powerful example
of what can be achieved when a far-sighted community and a responsible safari
operator get together. What makes Shompole a particularly unique model is that
it is built on land owned by a community of traditional Maasai pastoralists, who
are famous for putting the lives of their cattle over those of wild predators.
The six-room lodge is built almost entirely from local materials,
with energy provided by solar power and water heated with cow-dung briquettes,
and the community has been involved in drawing up a wide range of safari activities,
including camel rides, historical and fossil tours, and fly-camping on neighbouring
community ranches, which will also benefit from visitors' fees. The lodge's creator,
Anthony Russell, is also helping the community raise funds for a variety of income
generating activities - bee-keeping, fish-farming, sun-dried fruits - and has
won a significant grant from the European Union to improve roads and train game
wardens for the Shompole conservation area.
Northeast of Shompole, on the vital migration routes bordering
Amboseli National Park, another pioneering partnership between a local safari
company and a Maasai community is bearing fruit for the Eselenkei Group Ranch,
where the unobtrusive four-tent Porini Camp is bringing guests to a conservation
area that the community has pledged to keep free of livestock. Last year, the
people here - and their visitors - saw migrating elephants for the first time
in nearly 20 years.
The winds of eco-conscious change are also carrying to several
communities on the edge of the world-famous Maasai Mara National Reserve. Earlier
this year, the Siana Group Ranch became the fifth community to separate its accounts
from the local county council, ensuring that conservation fees will go directly
to conservation efforts on the ranch itself. Siana is working with local hoteliers
Heritage Hotels to establish a wildlife sanctuary in which its guests will be
able to camp, walk and ride horses, as well as experiencing a close-up view of
their ancient culture.
Some of the most innovative developments in African ecotourism
are taking place in the semi-arid wilderness of the Laikipia Plateau in central
Kenya, where a growing number of far-sighted communities are helping to set aside
areas for wildlife and allow the land to regenerate after decades of over-grazing.
The new eco-consciousness owes much to the 6,000-strong community of Il' Ngwesi,
whose pioneering lodge is built entirely of earth and dead wood, fuelled completely
by solar, and last year counted Prince William among its 250 guests. The lodge's
success has led to the opening of a second eco-lodge on the neighbouring property
of Lekurruki, as well as the creation of a formidable local scout force in the
area. Elephant numbers are reported to be increasing here by up to 50% each month,
and Il' Ngwesi will soon be welcoming an orphaned black rhino from neighbouring
Lewa Downs - its first in more than a decade.
Kenya's unique wildlife has of course been key to the initial
success of its ecotourism business, whose practitioners have conjured up dozens
of different ways to view and experience the country's spectacular natural heritage
In Samburu the famous elephant expert Iain Douglas Hamilton is offering intrepid
visitors a chance to join researchers monitoring hundreds of wild elephants from
his Elephant Watch Camp. Similarly scientific safaris are available in the Taita
Hills, where the Taita Discovery Centre offers 'paying volunteers' a unique opportunity
to take part in research into medical plants and migrating wildlife, including
the Tsavo Elephant Research Project and a lion monitoring project due to be launched
by the Earthwatch Institute in May.
Several conservation organisations are also helping communities
around the country to find more reasons to preserve their natural environments.
Facilitated by organisations like the Nairobi-based African Conservation Centre
and the African Wildlife Foundation, greater donor support is now being programmed
for natural resource management and conservation projects far off the traditional
tourist track. Once such initiative is the USAID-funded Conservation of Resources
through Enterprise (CORE) project, which is promoting small-scale enterprises
to generate returns for people living with wildlife in Laikipia, Samburu, Kajiado,
Taita Taveta, the South Coast and the Mara.
A worthy example is the Kasigau Banda Project, under which CORE
has built self-catering cottages in five villages around Mount Kasigau, a beautiful
mountain 70 kilometres southeast of Voi. Each village has sold shares in its cottage,
which is used to house gap-year students from Europe who help to run small conservation
projects such as reforestation plantations and beekeeping projects. Through the
projects, the villagers expect to raise about Ksh2 million this year, giving them
a 100% return on their shares - and a profitable alternative to the charcoal and
bushmeat trades that are destroying so much of rural Africa.
Kenya's fragile forests have also become an arena for local tourism
operators to demonstrate their environmental conscience. Late last year, the trade
was among the first sectors to react to a government directive to hive off 167,000
hectares of indigenous forest for private development. Several of the country's
hoteliers, led by Serena Hotels and Heritage Hotels, reacted by taking the battle
into their guests' bedrooms - encouraging them to make direct protests to the
Minister of Tourism. By early March, the national campaign against the excisions
had attracted more than 200,000 signatures.
Growing concern among Kenya's visitors has helped to keep the
new eco-impetus going, and given rise to a growing number of local green products
and service providers. A good example is Energy Alternatives for Africa, a specialist
solar solution designer, which last month launched an initiative to subsidise
energy audits and management plans for local tourism facilities. Funded by a British
trust, the first phase of the scheme will kick off in April with the auditing
of two properties, which will commit themselves to investing in measures suggested
by the auditing team. The resulting energy systems will be monitored and promoted
by ESOK and the local environmental magazine, Ecoforum, as part of a long-term
plan to promote more efficient energy use by the tourism trade - and overcome
its long dependence on gas-guzzling generators and wood-burning stoves.
Another notable pioneer is the Nairobi company Chardust, which
has developed a unique alternative charcoal made from waste charcoal dust 'glued'
together with clay, and is experimenting with briquettes made from sawdust, rice
husks and coffee husks. The original 'Vendors' Waste Briquettes' have been snapped
up by lodges and hotels around the country, which are finding they provide a slower,
cheaper and - with fewer sparks - safer burn than regular charcoal. The company's
next project is a world-first 'CaneCoal' briquette, which will be developed from
sugarcane waste with a grant from Britain's Department for International Development.
Despite the uphill struggles faced by Kenya's environmentalists,
the tourism industry is definitely doing its bit to save the country's fragile
wilderness - with a little help from its friends in the donor, NGO and environmental
fields. The best indicators of success will ultimately be the numbers of flora
and fauna that are saved from Africa's hungry mouths and greedy axes. But if the
early signs of environmental awareness and innovation are anything to go by, Kenya
will long continue to provide new attractions for its more responsible tourists
- and to ensure that the people who manage its wild lands receive just rewards
for their stewardship.
African Conservation Centre, Conservation International, Eco-resorts,
Ecotourism Society of Kenya, European Union Biodiversity Conservation Programme,
Rainforest Alliance, The International Ecotourism Society and UNEP sponsored the
EA IYE Conference held in Nairobi on March 20-22, 2002.