Kenya’s wildlife tourism industry is in trouble. Its once-thriving safari brand hasn’t been able to recover from the aftermath of the 2007-2008 postelection violence, and the al-Shabaab attacks that followed in 2013 and 2015. And the “safari” brand itself is aging poorly. “Younger travelers no longer want to be driven around in a 4×4; they want to interact with the environment,” says Kenneth F. Backman, an associate professor of sustainable tourism who specializes in East Africa at Clemson University.
But there may still be hope for East Africa’s wildlife mecca. That’s if conservationists and tourist operators manage to pull off their plans to diversify the industry by boosting specialized tourism and appealing to a growing market of middle-class Kenyan visitors. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, domestic visitors generated nearly 60 percent of the contribution that tourism made to Kenya’s gross domestic product last year — more than foreign-tourist spending — and the local market is expected to grow from around $2.3 billion to about $4 billion in 2025.
Could specialized tourism be the answer? Conservationists hope so. They think it may be the only chance for birds like the Taita apalis, which researchers say could soon become the first bird to go extinct in Africa since the dodo. “The only way to convince local communities to preserve them is to show they have economic value,” says Vincent Otieno, field assistant for Nature Kenya, an environmental society. The bird’s natural habitat, in Taita Hills, is near the famous Tsavo National Park, and now researchers hope they will be able to convince tourists to stop looking for lions and instead trek the forest to watch one of the 150 remaining members of this small and fluffy bird species.
For now, Taita Hills has received only a handful of visitors — but the idea could work, judging by the success of Lake Baringo National Park. Located in northern Kenya, this reserve began to charge $50 to tourists to come watch its 470 bird species; it made $44,000 during migration season last year. So far this year it has already welcomed 5,000 tourists from places like China, Japan and France.
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