Grace and her husband Kevin had big plans for their fifth wedding anniversary and for several months, the young couple had saved up for a weekend in Diani in the company of their closest friends.
The flight tickets had been booked months in advance and after much deliberation, the group had even settled on a cottage a few yards from the pristine Diani Beach and were just waiting to confirm the reservation.
Then COVID-19 struck and like thousands of other jet setters, the group of friends suddenly found themselves grappling with a new reality. Growing infections, physical distancing guidelines, lockdowns and curfews ushered a new normal and with an uncomfortable uncertain of just how long the confinement would last.
Today, the country as with the rest of the world is slowly emerging from the shackles of the pandemic. And although travellers cannot yet globetrot as they did two years ago, many still dream of escaping their homes, but for less distant destinations.
Travel restrictions meanwhile show no signs of going away, but as vaccination efforts gather pace and businesses slowly steer up operations to pre-pandemic levels, there is a general feeling in the air that things might just be getting back to normal.
A World Bank report released last week anticipates that Kenya’s economy is set to grow at 5 per cent this year compared to -1 per cent in 2020 and above the sub-Saharan Africa average of 3.5 per cent.
It is in this backdrop that the Magical Kenya Travel Expo 2021 was launched last week in readiness for the peak travel season that comes with a colourful array of options for travellers who’ve felt overly claustrophobic the past 18 months.
Launched at the five-star Diani Reef Beach Resort and Spa, this year’s expo marked a full-scale return to pre-pandemic glitz, with over 40 countries, 11 of them in Africa participating.
Participants, including several hotels, resorts, clubs, tour and travel agencies, collectively lauded the support received from the local tourism market that made it possible for many establishments to weather last year’s slump.
Local airlines in particular played a vital role in ensuring the sector remained vibrant by introducing new pricing strategies that specifically targeted domestic travellers looking for short, affordable packages.
Regional low-cost carrier Jambojet for instance kicked off the season by launching operations to Lamu, its fourth coastal destination after Mombasa, Malindi and Ukunda.
The route was launched on the back of its #NowTravelReady campaign and the airline now flies from Nairobi to Lamu via Mombasa four times weekly with an introductory fare of Sh7,100 one way from Nairobi to Lamu, while Mombasa to Lamu will cost travellers Sh4,600 one way.
On his part, Jambojet’s boss, Mr Karanja Ndegwa says that by partnering with various entities in the sector including the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) and the Kenya Wildlife Service(KWS) to broaden product offerings under #NowTravelReady, Jambojet is essentially focusing on the one principle that continues to make it one of the most trusted low-cost carriers regionally.
“Lamu County is undeniably one of Kenya’s top tourist destinations both for local and international travellers,” said Mr Ndegwa while launching the latest route to Lamu.
“With the ongoing LAPSSET project, we expect increased traffic into Lamu from tourists and potential investors,” he said. “We want to ease their movement with the introduction of this route.”
The Magical Kenya Travel Expo 2021 will see the industry offer domestic tourists luxurious packages that are traditionally seen as the reserve of external visitors during the peak season.
Grace and Kevin have scheduled a visit at the breathtaking Wasini Island and the couple was elated to find out the entire trip will cost the two of them less than Sh50,000.
“We booked early and took advantage of an offer of a round trip to Ukunda at Sh10,000 from where we’ll head to Wasini for the weekend and a chance to swim with dolphins,” a visibly excited Grace explains.
The two said booking their flights early and scouting for affordable Airbnbs have helped trim their budget, leaving them with some savings they had not anticipated.
Analysts reckon that regional and domestic travel will continue to generate new revenue streams for the tourism sector for a better part of the next two years as international travel slowly picks pace.
Some countries are working to introduce vaccine passports that will make it easier for citizens that have already been fully vaccinated to take international trips without the need for mandatory quarantine upon arrival.
Kenya leads the East African region with the population of its citizens that have been fully vaccinated, giving the tourism sector the social and economic soil within which the tender roots of recovery can firmly take shape.
In the meantime industry players will be banking on efforts such as the recently launched Elephant Naming Ceremony and the month-long Oktober Beer Festival to encourage more Kenyans to explore their country.
The success of these initiatives that have already received popular support across the board will fuel ongoing efforts by industry players and service providers to revive annual packages that were steadily growing in popularity before the pandemic struck.
Travellers to the Lamu and Rusinga Cultural Festivals for example are keenly waiting to see if the annual fetes will return to their pre-pandemic glory this year.
Beneath the Baobabs, formerly ‘The Kilifi New Year’ is also scheduled for the beginning of next year and organisers anticipate a return of activities that made the fete electrifying for both local and international visitors.