Why you should care

Because khaki shorts and safari hats are so 1950s.

In a dusty booth on the farthest end of Serena Beach Resort and Spa, in coastal Kenya, Lorna Mboira stares at her phone, bored. She sells tickets for the nearby marine reserve, but hasn’t had a client in hours. The long white beach near Mombasa is empty but for a wood-carver chasing down a lonely couple of sunburned German tourists. I ask when high season is. She replies, “Now.”

Kenya’s wildlife tourism industry is in trouble. Its once-thriving safari brand hasn’t been able to recover from the aftermath of the 2007-2008 postelection violence, and the al-Shabaab attacks that followed in 2013 and 2015. And the “safari” brand itself is aging poorly. “Younger travelers no longer want to be driven around in a 4x4; they want to interact with the environment,” says Kenneth F. Backman, an associate professor of sustainable tourism who specializes in East Africa at Clemson University.

But there may still be hope for East Africa’s wildlife mecca. That’s if conservationists and tourist operators manage to pull off their plans to diversify the industry by boosting specialized tourism and appealing to a growing market of middle-class Kenyan visitors. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, domestic visitors generated nearly 60 percent of the contribution that tourism made to Kenya’s gross domestic product last year — more than foreign-tourist spending — and the local market is expected to grow from around $2.3 billion to about $4 billion in 2025.

Specialized tourism may be the only chance for birds like the Taita apalis, which could become the first bird to go extinct in Africa since the dodo.

The stakes are high. Tourism represents about 12 percent of the revenue that Kenya generates overall, but earnings have been dropping for five straight years. And the situation is getting worse: Arrivals fell by 11 percent in 2014 and then 19 percent last year. In the past few years alone, more than 20 hotels have closed down along the coast, causing a wave of unemployment. Drive by and you’ll see their rusty signs still standing by the sides of main roads with big crosses spray-painted on them. And local people aren’t the only ones suffering from the tourist shortage. Foreign visitors are the main source of income for the Kenya Wildlife Service, the public organization looking after the country’s natural patrimony. Less muzungus, as foreigners are known here, means less money for research, anti-poaching patrols and trash cleanup.

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Taita apalis could be the first bird in Africa to go extinct since the dodo.

Source Pete Steward/Flickr CC

Could specialized tourism be the answer? Conservationists hope so. They think it may be the only chance for birds like the Taita apalis, which researchers say could soon become the first bird to go extinct in Africa since the dodo. “The only way to convince local communities to preserve them is to show they have economic value,” says Vincent Otieno, field assistant for Nature Kenya, an environmental society. The bird’s natural habitat, in Taita Hills, is near the famous Tsavo National Park, and now researchers hope they will be able to convince tourists to stop looking for lions and instead trek the forest to watch one of the 150 remaining members of this small and fluffy bird species.

For now, Taita Hills has received only a handful of visitors — but the idea could work, judging by the success of Lake Baringo National Park. Located in northern Kenya, this reserve began to charge $50 to tourists to come watch its 470 bird species; it made $44,000 during migration season last year. So far this year it has already welcomed 5,000 tourists from places like China, Japan and France.

But bird-watchers are still a relatively rare species of tourist, so the Kenya Wildlife Service is now looking for more mainstream visitors inside their own borders. Take the Mombasa Marine National Park and Reserve. These 130 square miles of protected ocean are home to a spectacular coral reef, thousands of tropical fish and highly endangered sea turtles. With the drop in tourism, the park’s director, Jane Gitau, fears they may not survive for long — revenues have dipped by a quarter in the past year. That’s why they’re targeting local schools now: Last year, the number of local visitors was five times higher than that of foreigners; during school breaks, Mboira’s small hut is surrounded by dozens of eager children waiting to get on one of the glass-bottom boats going in and out of the reserve.

To be sure, even with the country’s fast-rising middle class, not all local visitors will be able to pay muzungu prices (entry to the Mombasa marine park is $20 for foreigners, $1.50 for locals). And while specialized tourism may be a nice addition to the country’s offerings, it’s unlikely to attract tourists in the same mass numbers as the battered safari brand once used to.

Still, if Kenya manages to revamp its safari model, it could be a great example for other tourism-dependent economies on the continent and beyond. According to Backman, Kenya has the infrastructure and expertise to pull it off. But more important, it has the motivation. After all, as the ultimate wildlife expert, Charles Darwin, once said: There is no choice but to evolve or die.

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