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How businesses in tourism sector braced the pandemic to thrive

Over the past two years, the majority of businesses have been struggling to get back on their feet following the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these have been businesses that are run by young people. One of the young entrepreneurs in Kenya whose business was most affected is Pancras Karema, the founder and chief executive officer at Expeditions Maasai Safaris, a tour and travel company based in Nairobi.

“In 2020, I lost my dad, Dr. Karema. He was my biggest cheerleader, way before this business became a tangible enterprise. Navigating a global pandemic as a young entrepreneur without my father’s guidance has been tough on me and the business,” he begins. His heartache was compounded by the amount of heat his business sustained. “The COVID-19 pandemic almost brought our company to its knees,” he says.

This is not so far-fetched. Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that up to 1.7 million Kenyans lost their jobs in three months to June 2020. The number of people in employment fell to 15.87 million between April and end of June 2020 compared to 17.59 million the previous quarter. In the three months to September last year about 15,547 workers aged between 55 and 59 years lost jobs. The hardest hit sectors of the economy included export processing zones (EPZs), aviation, horticulture, tourism and hotels. Firms operating in export processing zones shed 8,135 jobs by June. 230,000 jobs in the tourism and hospitality sector were lost as businesses operated under minimum capacity or complete shutdown.  Kenya’s economy contracted for the first time in almost 12 years in the second quarter of 2020. Gross domestic product (GDP) fell 5.7 percent, compared to a growth of 4.9 percent in the three months to March 2020 and expansion of 5.3 percent in the similar period in 2019. In November 2020, the National Treasury downgraded Kenya’s economic growth outlook for 2020 to 0.6 from 2.5 percent.

To survive, Pancras and his business had to adapt to the new realities. “We adapted with the changing customer behavior. Despite all operational restrictions, we have seen our company scale to greater heights,” he says. “Throughout the pandemic, young entrepreneurs have feared failure, but I’ve learned that the more you fail, the more you learn and the better you get at executing your dream. Never cave in to the pressure to be perfect in the public’s eye. Rather than striving to fit into the marketplace, follow your gut and stay true to your dream.”

Karema’s recovery has been in tandem with the continued recovery of the tourism sector in Kenya. In June 2021, the government has allocated Sh. 2.3 billion to the tourism sector to help it recover from the economic fallout caused by the pandemic. The Treasury allocated Sh. 1.7 billion to the Tourism Fund and Sh. 643 million to the Tourism Promotion Fund to help lift the sector battered by the effects of the pandemic which restricted travel.

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According to The Tourism Research Institute (TRI) estimates that it will be another three years before arrivals in Kenya rebound to the pre-pandemic levels. The institute said it expects international visitors to hit 2.2 million in 2024, slightly surpassing the 2.1 million visitors in 2019 when the industry had one of its best years. “We expect international arrival recovery in 2024 (at 2.2 million) from the 2019 figure of 2.1 million,” said the TRI in a report.

However, this recovery could be jeopardized by the raging Omicron variant that has been spreading across the globe like world fire. The variant has already created an uncertain outlook for the aviation and travel industries, challenging the nascent recovery these sectors have just begun to see since the pandemic hit last year.

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