As tourism numbers decline, stakeholders are lobbying the government to promote cultural tourism to tap low-budget tourists segment. In June this year, East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism Cabinet Secretary Phyllis Kandie announced a 15% drop in the number of tourists who visited the county in 2013 compared to 2012. Kenya received 1.499 million tourists last year, down from 1.780 million in 2012.
Ms Kandie blamed the decrease on, among other factors, terrorism and travel advisories issue by leading source markets. The decline, she said, saw a drop in revenue collection, saying that last year the industry fetched Sh93.97 billion compared to Sh96.02 billion the previous year.
It is this gap that stakeholders hope cultural tourism will help fill and ensure the numbers remain constant, if not grow by tapping new niche markets. This model – known as homestay tourism – where tourists stay in homes and pay either through working for the host family or in cash, is fast taking root in the country. It has already created local millionaires while augmenting earnings from the tourism sector.
What started as an act of kindness when a Japanese family hosted Peter Ongera in their home when he was student in 1994 has led to a thriving business with almost no capital other than a good home and space. When Mr Ongera returned to Kenya, he received a request from the people who had hosted him: they were interested in visiting the country but wanted to stay in a home rather than a hotel.
Mr Ongera, then still a student and whose home was 200 miles away from the university, took the guest to his lecturer’s house. Mr Tokito Saburo, one of the guests paid $5 (Sh450) per day and when he went back home, he sent nine other clients.
He had to look for homes in Nairobi. He found friends who were willing to host them. The guests would pay him and the hosts as well. The number increased to 20 Japanese in 1995 and in the following year, after travelling to Canada, he hosted 22 Canadians. He assists about 50 foreigners and Kenyans a month in his homestay business. This is how African Home Stays and Safaris was born, with Mr Ongera as director.
The average period of hosting a visitor is four months, but some have stayed for over a year. In the process both the host and the guest get to know each other’s culture in a shorter and informative way and also create an invaluable networks.
Also called cultural tourism, the programme can be regarded as pro-poor self-employment because even the poor have a chance of hosting a guest and making money while at it. Volunteers, researchers, students and low-budget tourists for the majority who use this model.
Mr Ongera feels he is an achiever. He said that “during the World Social Forum held in Nairobi in January, I had 1,500 bookings and raked in over US$100,000 in 10 days. On average clients under the programme pay a minimum $10 a day to the host. This daily charge can’t buy a baby’s meal in five-star hotels where food costs many times over the retail price.”
He earns 20 percent from the assistance he gives to the visitor and host. This amount is deducted from the host who would have registered with his company. Mr Ongera added: “It’s one of the best ways of learning someone’s culture because you eat what they eat, sleep where they sleep; enjoy their whole lifestyle.”
During the period of the stay, the guest becomes part of the home. He or she can cook, wash, take care of animals among other house chores, play around and just do everything the host can do while still doing the core function that led to the travel. When tourists apply for a visit, specifying the kind of experience they want, African Homestay looks for a host and organises security and logistic arrangements.
Locals who have registered with the company get first priority. It costs Sh2,500 for individuals and Sh3,500 for institutions. The bank details are included on the website and so when sending the applications, interested parties attach their bank slips.
The costs incurred by the tourists vary depending on the specific location, period of stay and the package requested. For instance, a tourist who wants cooked food pays slightly more than one who wants to learn how to cook and do it during his or her stay. Mr Ongera, however, said that $50 per day is the average cost.
According to the World Tourism Organisation, cultural tourism accounts for 5% of global tourism and grows at a 30-40% rate annually. Tourism expert Sharon Green says “home stays are unique in many ways. Economically locals are directly paid by the tourists unlike when the tourists pay industry players who are mainly foreign-owned (whose taxes to government are not used to improve the lives of those living in tourist resorts).”
African Homestays and Safaris is registered with the Kenya Community Based Tourism (KECOBAT), which has a membership of over 100 organisations. They receive about 3,000 guests in a month. Depending on the length of stay, Mr Ongera makes an average of $600 in a month from this venture.
In February 2007, African Home Stays was chosen among other social enterprises in Africa by the Queens University Management School on a Trickle Out Project (TOP). TOP was a research project funded by the United Kingdom (UK) Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) examining social enterprises and environmental enterprises in Eastern and Southern Africa. The project considers the role and potential contribution of such enterprises to sustainable development and poverty alleviation.
The report of the project is yet to be released but Mr Ongera is happy that his business was picked among many other social enterprises across Africa. Seven social and environmental enterprises from Kenya were chosen out of 21 companies. Other countries in the study were Zambia, Mozambique and South Africa.
In conducting the study Dr Diane Holt, the principal investigator, remarked that, “We hope that in some small way the TOA project will help showcase the innovative, home- grown, truly transformative business models that form the bedrock of modern Kenya and other countries in Eastern and Southern Africa.”