The election of Barack Obama signaled more than a milestone in American politics. It also reverberated across the ocean, where the beleaguered tourism industry of Kenya is hoping that Obamamania will result in a resurgence of visitors to the ancestral homeland of the president-elect.
And there could be no better time for that wave of visitors to come, as Kenya's own presidential election in December 2007 was accompanied by an outbreak of violence, including widespread killing, that brought tourism in the country close to a halt. On top of that, the State Department (www.travel.state.gov) continues to warn potential travelers about the risks of violence by criminals and terrorists in Kenya.
Now, the Kenyan government is predicting that Kogelo, the small farming village near Lake Victoria where Obama's father lived and where his step-grandmother, Mama Sarah, still resides, will draw Americans looking to trace Obama's roots and seeking a gateway to western Kenya.
In preparation, the government is literally paving the way for visitors to reach it. Already, the road to Kogelo is done, the airport in nearby Kisumu is being expanded, and a museum telling the story of the Obama heritage is under construction and set to open late this year. A delegation from the Kenya Ministry of Tourism traveled to Kogelo after Obama's victory to see if the infrastructure there could support a hotel, and the minister of tourism will attend the Inauguration on Jan. 20 to promote business. Delta Air Lines will begin four weekly flights from Atlanta to Nairobi in June.
In expectation of a surge of travelers perhaps including some of the thousands who read "Dreams From My Father," Obama's 1995 memoir, in which Kogelo plays an important role several outfitters are devising itineraries around the village. Mutua Kivuitu, director of Intrepid Travel's Kenya division, knew the time was right to plan a tour when he visited Mama Sarah's home and flipped through the guestbook. "You can see that quite a bit of visitors from all over the world came to see the house," he said.
Intrepid Travel (www.intrepidtravel.com), based in Melbourne, Australia, has planned an eight-day Roots of Obama tour, which will traverse the popular game parks of Lake Nakuru and Masai Mara but will also include two nights in Kisumu and the intervening day in Kogelo. Once there, visitors will meet Kobilo Roy Obilo, one of Obama's many cousins (a claim so common that cars now sport bumper stickers with statements like "Obama, first cousin"), who will show them the town center and a school named after the president-elect and will take them into Mama Sarah's home. Some visitors might even meet her. (Prices start at $2,750 a person, excluding airfare.)
Kivuitu believes many itineraries will begin in Kisumu and head west, opening up regions of Kenya heretofore untouched by tourism.
Somak Safaris (www.somaksafaris.com) of Brea, Calif., now offers two trips that spend a day in Kogelo. Travelers from Britain will spend the night in a tented camp that Somak will complete in April; those coming from the United States will stay in a Kisumu hotel. Prices start at $4,780 a person, including airfare, for an 11-day safari.
BUT some tour operators question whether a small, nondescript village will be enough to draw visitors.
"Our position is that you're going to Kenya to see the wildlife and to meet the people, and the trip to Kogelo would be anticlimactic," said Dennis Pinto, managing director of Micato Safaris (www.micato.com) in New York City. "It's relatively difficult to get there. You'd have to fly to Kisumu, which is not terribly close to anything, and then you have to drive 40 miles just to see a village." For that reason, Micato is not planning to offer an Obama trip in 2009.
Likewise, no formal Obama itinerary has been developed by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts (www.fairmont.com), based in Toronto, which manages three properties in Kenya, none particularly close to Kogelo. "There's not a lot of attractions you're going to get to at the destination," said Sean Billing, managing director of Fairmont in East Africa. "Going to see Mama Sarah's house is not going to be the kind of attraction that pulls people there. The expense associated with that would far outweigh the value."
Kivuitu of Intrepid Travel agrees that Kogelo only contains enough of a story for a day trip. "There's not a lot apart from the home, the town and the school," he said. "It's just a quiet town."
Other tour operators will offer Kogelo as a side trip upon request. For example, the luxury outfitter Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.com) of Downers Grove, Ill., will add it as an optional day trip by helicopter from Lake Nakuru nearby for $7,410 a person, based on two people traveling together.
Kensington Tours (www.kensingtontours.com), a company based in Wilmington, Del., that devises private safaris, is happy to take guests to Kisumu and Kogelo as an extension to, say, a 10-day, $3,410 trip to Masai Mara for an additional $553 a person. The company had originally planned to promote its own Kogelo itinerary, but the influx of expected demand for the new destination has not materialized.
"No one has actually mentioned Obama when booking a Kenya safari," said Gabrielle Nijdam, senior East Africa consultant for Kensington. "They care more about getting a less expensive tour than they do about Obama."
But whether or not people will flock to Kogelo in 2009, tour operators are still hopeful that Obama's election and the publicity surrounding his father's hometown will bring back the tourists who have disappeared since the violence of early 2008.
To some extent, that has begun to happen. In October, the most recent month for which the Kenya Tourist Board has tabulated statistics, American travel to Kenya was down only 6.4 percent from the same month in 2007. In the first quarter of 2008, when the violence occurred, travel was down over 43 percent. Calls to the reservation line at Micato increased 12 percent in November over November 2007, and Web traffic spiked 17 percent. There was so much interest in Kenya at the Luxury Travel Expo in Las Vegas last month that Micato ran out of brochures. "Given the prevailing economic conditions," said Pinto of Micato, "we can only attribute this to the Obama factor."
For the Fairmont hotels in Kenya, although interest from travel agents and tour operators increased in the final months of 2008, bookings for the year were still down about 22 percent from 2007. "It's very difficult to gauge whether there's been an uptick or whether that's a bit of wishful thinking," Billing said. "But Obama's win gave us an additional story to tell."
Kivuitu remains optimistic about the appeal of Obama's past. "We have yet to feel it," he said, "but we believe it is coming."