Masai Mara, usually teeming with tourists at the start of the summer tourist season, has this year been eerily devoid of visitors.
The start of the tourism season, along with the famous annual wildebeest migration across the Mara River, usually attracts thousands of visitors.
Yet this year the coronavirus pandemic has left empty the game reserves, hotels and iconic hot-air balloons from which animal lovers traditionally watch the migration.
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The tourism industry is one of many that has taken a significant hit due to the pandemic. Those who work in the industry are reliant on the salaries made during this tourist season to support their families throughout the year.
Unlike other industries, which are sure to pick up again as soon as the pandemic’s spread slows to a halt, there is no telling when tourism will return to our country. Some have even predicted a two to three-year time span before things return to the way they were.
The number of families affected by this has been tremendous. Government statistics estimate that one in every ten Kenyans are supported by the industry. Tourism has subsequently been a primary target of stimulus measures which President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government have been instituting since the pandemic hit our country. These are integral to ensuring that the tourism industry is indeed able to survive in these trying times.
The eight-point stimulus plan announced by Uhuru towards the end of May included a significant component aimed at alleviating the plight of tourism professionals. A special budget totalling Sh2 billion was thus earmarked to quite literally save the industry. This funding will come in the form of attractive loans that will help tourist infrastructure, such as hotels, restaurants and other related businesses, meet their financial obligations at a time when they have no income.
We Kenyans are a proud people. Uhuru understands that people want to earn their keep and not live on government hand-outs. Considering the over 5,000 wildlife service professionals currently out of work due to the overall closure of national parks, Uhuru’s budget earmarked an additional Sh1 billion to hire these for other tasks that would allow them to continue to work and proudly provide for their families
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Martin Luther King Jr famously said, “Every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities”. Despite the challenges which Covid-19 has presented, instead of focusing on the negative, Uhuru and his government have been developing their long-term vision for our country. This is premised on the knowledge that the day after the pandemic will soon arrive. When it does, we must ensure that we are well-poised to reclaim our economy and thrive.
The vast amount of tourists that frequent our country on a yearly basis has meant that much needed upgrades and renovations can never really take place. This summer’s tourist season with its lack of tourists and plethora of tourism professionals interested in working, has therefore provided us with the perfect opportunity to focus on these upgrades and repairs.
The budget announced in Uhuru’s 7th Presidential address on the coronavirus pandemic therefore included an extra Sh2 billion for associated projects.
These include rehabilitating water infrastructure, building measures to prevent flooding in the rainy season as well as steps meant to increase the sustainability of our delicate eco-system. Even basic things such as replanting trees and rehabilitating vegetation which has been harmed by heavy volumes of visitors, can go a long way towards helping guarantee the future of some of our vulnerable and even endangered species.
Uhuru’s hope is that the Kenya which emerges post Covid-19 will be significantly better positioned to both welcome visitors and ensure the future of our wildlife. Speaking alongside Pavan Sukhdev, the President of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) late last year Uhuru stated, “We cannot achieve sustainable development without making deliberate efforts to conserve nature”.
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While conservation has always been high on our president’s agenda, the coronavirus pandemic will allow us to attain many of the environmental milestones we set for ourselves even earlier than anticipated. These have included achieving a minimum of 10 per cent forest cover and restoring a minimum of 60 million hectares of forest. The government also plans on instituting extensive measures that prevent natural hazards such as droughts, fires and floods.
We must continue to creatively and efficiently utilise this temporary lull in visitors to make the important environmental progress needed to reclaim our position as one of the most heavily visited countries on the continent when normality returns.
Ms Anyango is a social commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org