Conference tourism is emerging as a top foreign exchange earner for Kenya, a shot in the arm for a country reeling from a sharp decline in traditional tourist numbers.
Over the last two years, the economic downturn and a surge in insecurity have hit regular tourism, the country's top income earner. However, conference tourism, commonly known as the MICE (meetings, conferences, incentives and events) industry, has been plugging some of the gap in revenues.
For instance, the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) conference, held in August and attended by 37 heads of state and over 10,000 delegates, confirmed that the country is in the big league of conference tourism hosts. According to Jimi Kariuki, the chairman of the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB), this is a strong sign that Kenya has the capacity to successfully host such high-level events.
He explains why this niche market is on the rise: "The KTB, the national marketing agency, and the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC), the largest convention centre in East and Central Africa have recognised the importance of conference tourism to Kenya's economic growth and in enhancing the country's brand equity. Marketing of Kenya as a top destination for business tourists is therefore a top priority in our strategic plans."
The marketing plans seem to work. In 2014 for instance, international conferencing arrivals into Kenya stood at 103,891 delegates, representing 12% of the total international tourist arrivals. In 2015, the arrivals from this market grew by 13% to 117,630 delegates, representing 15.6% of the total international tourist arrivals for that year, according to KTB data.
The subsector is expected to perform well in 2016; with tourism cabinet secretary Najib Bal ala projecting that conference tourists will hit 130,000 by the end of the year. The precedent has already been set. Recently, Kenya has played host to thousands of delegates from different corners of the world. In the last year, Nairobi has hosted the WTO Ministerial Conference and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Additionally, Nairobi welcomed the world during the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in July 2015, presided over by US president Barack Obama.
There is no doubt that the meetings business is lucrative. Singapore leads the way in conference tourism. It hosted 3.5m business visitors in 2013, and earned S5-5bn in revenue. This realisation has prompted...