Stephen Kalonzo-Musyoka

Bad for business

Travel warnings are bad for business The Kenyan foreign minister, Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, says that thousands are being laid off as a result of Britain's ban on flights to Nairobi

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Travel warnings are bad for business The Kenyan foreign minister, Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, says that thousands are being laid off as a result of Britain's ban on flights to Nairobi


About four months ago I was invited as Kenya's new foreign minister to give a talk on the aims and goals of the new Kenyan government at Chatham House. My speech was an upbeat assessment of our future following one of the most peaceful and democratic elections in our continent's history.

It was also an implicit appeal to our British, European and American friends to acknowledge that achievement and to recognise that Kenya has always been an unswerving friend of the West, first in the Cold War and today in the war against terrorism. It was now time, I implied, for our friends in the West to reciprocate by giving us their help to get our country back on the path to rapid development.

My one reservation about my prepared text was a friendly swipe I planned to take against the New Zealand cricket team who had just refused to play a World Cup match in Nairobi, supposedly on security grounds. 'It seems a bit strange to me that thousands of visitors, from scientists to schoolchildren, can visit our country and enjoy our stunning game parks and beaches, yet it is all a bit too daunting for eleven strapping cricketers,' I had written. My hesitation in making the remark was only because on that very day the British army had sent tanks and armed troops around the perimeter of Heathrow in response to a 'specific' terrorist threat. Would my hosts think that I was being too frivolous at a moment of national peril? I wondered.

In the event, I stuck with the text, earned a brief guffaw from my audience, and stepped out into a sun-drenched St James's Square confident that the famous British upper lip remained as stiff as ever, that the sang was indeed still froid. The world, I concluded, was learning to live with a day-to-day terrorist threat and take it in its stride.

Today, my colleagues and I are wrestling with what we have to do to persuade the UK government that similar grit is needed when it comes to the threat of terrorism in Kenya. On 15 May the UK's Department of Transport – acting on instructions from the Foreign Office – banned all British-registered aircraft from flying to Kenya. Again, the decision came on intelligence advice amid reports of 'specific' threats against British aviation flying to my country.

No one in President Kibaki's government criticised that decision at the time. After the terrorist attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998, the bomb outrage against Israeli tourists in Mombasa last November at a coastal hotel, and simultaneous missile attacks on an Israeli charter plane, we were highly aware of the cost of terrorism. Far more Kenyans died in both those incidents than did foreigners.

Already our security services were on high alert and preventive measures had been taken all over the country, especially around 'potential' Western targets. We had also had some outstanding counter-terrorist successes with key arrests at home and a daring snatch operation in Mogadishu in which our special forces had, with local co-operation, picked up a key suspect for the embassy attacks who now awaits trial in the United States.

Our policy was then and remains now that it is far better that we lose tourism business than lose the life of a single tourist.

Yet, that said, the damage from the British flight ban is of almost inestimable scale. Unlike the highly diversified economies of the West, tourism is a critical industry for Kenya. It represents 15 per cent of our crucial foreign-exchange earnings and an astonishing 12 per cent of national GDP – an eighth of our entire economy. Other airlines, not least our national carrier, Kenya Airways, continue to fly to Nairobi and Mombasa. Yet the British are the largest single tourist market, and the impact of BA's absence is vast and disproportionate. One medium-sized hotel company reports that it has had 5,000 'bed-nights' cancelled up to September already, a loss of perhaps $500,000. In a country already suffering high unemployment, thousands are being laid off.

When one replicates that figure across the industry and adds the discretionary spending that every tourist would make, the figures are terrifying. According to the Kenya Tourism Federation, which represents the whole industry, business failures are already imminent. Losses are at least $1 million a day.

The multiplier effects are also spreading. One major international conference has already been cancelled, business trips are being abandoned, the crucial horticultural and fruit-and-vegetable export industries are being hit. The impact on government tax revenues is inevitable. And all this comes just at the very moment when confidence in the new Kenya of President Kibaki was beginning to take off. It is hard not to conclude that the terrorist has won without firing a shot.

Kenya's experience in all this is not unique. Across the world, developing countries –many highly dependent on tourism – are suffering the dire consequences of 'specific' or even 'non-specific' terrorist threats. Indeed, even Britain and the US have seen their tourism figures badly affected by the natural fears of a nervous travelling public – yet the pain for those economies is sustainable; for us it is not.

Slowly but surely a network of government-issued 'travel advisories' is systematically shutting down the world. Often, where these are applied travel-insurance plans are invalidated.

What is to be done? In the case of Kenya, we believe that we have done all we can. We have collaborated intimately with the British and US security and intelligence services to maximise our own efforts and have flung huge security corridors round our airports. We have heightened security measures in numerous ways across the country. And we have poured resources into our counter-terrorism efforts. What more would you like us to do?

It seems to me that it is time to review the 'travel advisory' machinery. I sympathise with my counterpart Jack Straw. If he were to remove the warnings, he would be held responsible if anything were to happen in Kenya or elsewhere. So his disincentive to do so is massive. Yet we all know that he is acting on intelligence advice that cannot be published. Intelligence services are, by their very nature, secretive, unaccountable and cautious. Perhaps an international, independent, non-political risk-assessment machinery is now needed.

Meanwhile, we in Kenya are paying a hugely increased security bill to protect British aircraft that are not even landing at our airports. It does not make sense.

If the world is increasingly acknowledging that international terrorism is a threat in any place and at any time, then it is a gross injustice that there is one rule for Heathrow airport and another for Jomo Kenyatta International. Did some anonymous caller remove the threat to Heathrow? I doubt it, yet the tanks went home. Come and put your tanks on our lawns if you must. They are welcome to them. But don't bankrupt one of your oldest friends in Africa. And let's all work together to get the ban lifted.

Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka is foreign and international affairs minister of Kenya.