Kenya has long been a fascinating destination of choice for travelers both domestic and international. The East African nation flaunts diverse landscapes, from savannahs to lakes and mountainous ranges, while encompassing ethnic diversity and vibrant, bygone cultures. It’s clear to see what draws people to the place they call ‘Magical Kenya’. I even set foot on these lands way back in 2013 on an overland safari with a group of twenty other wandering souls, creating moments unforgettable and learning what it is that makes this country so appealing to travelers like myself. 

Since 2013, tourism has expanded and evolved in the region, welcoming a more sustainable narrative — one far more inclusive of a positive social and environmental impact than at any time in Kenya’s tourism history. This sustainable narrative comes at a time of necessary spotlight on the intersection of travel and sustainability, as the tourism industry itself evolves to focus more on sustainable development over economic growth. 

Historically, and not uncommon to the general nature of the tourism industry, the Kenyan government had neglected social and environmental factors when employing tourism to bring about rapid economic growth. According to scholarly research, early tourism development in Kenya was characterized by minimal Indigenous involvement and enveloped a colonialist approach. As a result of rapid and unplanned growth, this left the industry economically, socially, and environmentally unbalanced, perpetuating inequality and lacking authenticity.  

Today, changes in tourism practices are looking to fill these gaps.

Ngurunit, Kenya. Photo: David Murphy NOTM: NOTP
Ngurunit, Kenya. Photo: David Murphy NOTM

The growth of a ‘social-purpose’ approach in tourism

Progress in any industry takes time and courage for those who wish to pioneer a new way forward. Colin Murray, the founder of the sustainable tourism company One Horizon Africa, knows this first hand having run a tour company in Africa for over 20 years. “At the time [the early 2000s], One Horizon’s social-purpose approach was deemed as a ‘head scratcher’ by the travel industry,” Colin explains. The profit-focused industry hadn’t fully embraced the importance of socially and environmentally driven activities. 

Nowadays, these factors are increasingly included in the tourism conversation but it has not always been driven by the industry itself. “We are now in a position where travelers are requesting social-purpose experiences. In other words, the demand for sustainable tourism is being driven by consumers,” Colin continues. “Through our socially-conscious tours, we aim to be an example of how tourism can promote positive social change through the use of authentic and respectful human-to-human engagement.”

Recognizing eco-tourism and its importance

The increasing consumer demand for more sustainable experiences brings up the conversation around governance, and also the risk of greenwashing. Greenwashing is a form of marketing in which a company conveys a false impression or provides misleading information about how their company’s services are environmentally friendly. 

Ecotourism Kenya (EK) is one initiative leading the way for sustainable tourism governance in Kenya. EK provides relevant and practical guidance for attaining sustainable solutions to challenging issues in tourism development, for both communities and tourism practitioners. In 2015 EK introduced the formal recognition of ‘Green Destinations’ — facilities, such as accommodations, championing sustainable tourism practices. Through a voluntary certification scheme, EK vets and highlights facilities based on their local socioeconomic, cultural, environmental, and legal operations. The initiative currently features more than 100 accommodation facilities certified under this eco-rating scheme. 

While some companies may not decide to obtain certification, either through Ecotourism Kenya or other governing bodies, travelers can take it upon themselves to navigate greenwashing in the tourism industry. One way to do this is to examine an organization’s website and communications. Do they speak with authenticity? Do they promote their own sustainability metrics? What do their reviews say? Transparency is one key element to understanding the authenticity of a travel experience. 

Kenyan flamingoes. Photo: David Murphy NOTM
Kenyan flamingoes. Photo: David Murphy NOTM

Opportunities for locally-owned operators

The de-monopolization of the tourism industry in Kenya and other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as changes in the way travelers plan their travels (such as increased interest in supporting locally-run business and promoting inclusive economic growth), has opened up opportunities for locally-owned operators to thrive in the market. One such organization is Travel4Purpose (T4P), a Kenyan-based travel company working with locals, at a grassroots level, to provide authentic experiences and valuable cultural exchanges. “Sustainable travel is key to ensuring we can continue to enjoy the beauties of Kenya while being respectful to the culture, the land, and its people. I believe Kenya has great potential for sustainable travel and inclusive growth,” T4P founder, Sham, explains. 

Sustainable travel experience aggregate, I Like Local, works closely with local non-profit organizations to train communities in tourism development and help them put their experiences on the map via the I Like Local platform. Founder, Sanne Meijboom, explains, “In the past five years, a lot of effort has been taken to involve and let communities in Kenya benefit from the tourism industry in their country. Not only to provide them with a fair share but also to give them a source of income that can ultimately lead to the prevention of illegal income-generating activities such as poaching.” 

COVID-19 and its influence on Kenya’s tourism industry

COVID-19 remains one of the greatest challenges facing the travel and tourism industry in Kenya but tourism officials remain positive. Strategies suggest the industry will leverage domestic tourism, driven by Kenya’s growing middle class, and continue to develop relations with neighboring markets. 

Earlier this month, Lufthansa Group carrier Eurowings launched two weekly flights between Frankfurt and Mombasa. Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife, Najib Balala, explains, “Kenya has been making great progress as a destination in attracting tourists from different markets and especially from Europe. This flight is yet another milestone in the recovery of activities in the country.” 

Sustainable tourism - Maasai Mara. Photo: David Murphy NOTM
Maasai Mara. Photo: David Murphy NOTM