Kenya Worries That Renewal of US Travel Warnings Will Further Harm Economy

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:15pm EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - Kenyans are crying foul over a decision by Washington to renew cautions to Americans about travel to East Africa, a move that came despite optimism here that they would be lifted, following significant improvements in security.

Officials said the advisories would directly affect progress in revamping the tourism sector and the export of horticultural goods to the U.S. and Europe.

The State Department earlier this month warned Americans on the continuing potential for terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens in East Africa, updating earlier advisories issued last September. The new advisory expires on Sept. 13, 2004.

"The Department of State believes there remains the threat of future terrorist attacks in East Africa. The potential for future threats against civil aviation continues throughout the East Africa region. Seaports may also be targeted," it said.

While it does not instruct Americans not to travel to the region, or to leave, the warning advises travelers to the region to "carefully review their plans" in the light of the threat.

The advisory covers Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia, Sudan, the Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion and the Seychelles.

Last month, Britain also updated its travel advice regarding the region.

"There is a high threat from terrorism in Kenya as there is in other countries in East Africa," the Foreign and Commonwealth Office warned, adding that visitors "should be particularly vigilant in public places, including tourist sites and hotels."

Kenya's government said the new warnings would undermine its attempts to improve the economy and fight poverty.

The tourism and horticultural industries are key foreign exchange earners for Kenya and employ hundreds of thousands of people.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Katana Kazungu said the language used in the new advisory was not as strong as that in earlier ones, and the impact on Kenya's economy was likely to be minimal.

He noted that earlier advisory had mentioned the possible use by terrorists of shoulder-launched missiles against passenger aircraft in East Africa.

A recent Foreign Ministry report said Kenya had lost more than $150 million, or 1.6 percent of its gross domestic product, over the past year because of travel advisories issued by the U.S. and Britain.

The greatest impact has been felt in the predominantly Muslim province along Kenya's Indian Ocean coast, the center of the tourism industry, where 13,000 staff involved in the sector had lost their jobs, it said.

The CEO of the Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers and Caterers, Kabando wa Kabando, said that 35 beachside hotels have closed, due to falling visitor numbers.

Jake Grieves Cook, chairman of the Kenya Tourism Federation, complained about the updating of the advisory.

He said the Kenyan government "has fully recognized this global terrorist threat and in the last 12 months has significantly improved the national security apparatus."

Measures taken include the formation of a tourism police unit and a special counter-terrorism intelligence unit, and improvements in airport security.

But Investment Promotion Council chief executive Julius Kipng'etich said Kenyan media was to blame, accusing news organizations of focusing on the negative side of the country and giving the perception that terrorist cells were still active here.

Kenyan media needed to learn to be patriotic and aware of their national interests, like their counterparts in the U.S., he said.

The State Department said it believed supporters of al Qaeda and other extremists were active in East Africa, and that attacks against Americans could include suicide operations, bombings, or kidnappings.

Security analysts here attributed the travel advisory decision to delays in passing the Suppression of Terrorism Bill, the only legal instrument in Kenya that specifically targets terror-related crimes.

The legislation has been held up over complaints by Islamic leaders and some non-governmental organizations who believe it unfairly targets Kenya's Muslim minority, and have termed the bill as retrogressive and targeting Kenyan Muslims.

In August 1998, the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and in the capital of neighboring Tanzania, Dar-es-Salaam, were bombed in an almost simultaneous attack carried out by al Qaeda. More than 250 people, including 12 Americans, were killed, and some 5,000 were hurt.

In November 2002, an Israeli-owned hotel in the coastal city of Mombasa was bombed, and on the same day, terrorists tried unsuccessfully to shoot down an Israeli passenger airliner over Kenya. Twelve Kenyans and three Israelis died in the hotel attack.

Several suspects are currently on trial in connection with the Mombasa attack.

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