This week United States President Barack Obama returned to Kenya for the first time since visiting in 2006 when he was a U.S. Senator.

Like a growing number of Kenyan visitors, he’s coming to Nairobi for business, in his case Nairobi’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit. The Summit is just one in a growing number of international business gatherings in Kenya’s capital in the coming year, and signals a renewed focus on the city as one of Africa’s premier destinations for meetings and business.

Last week, Skift sat down with Phyllis Kandie, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism. She was joined by three colleagues: Anne Kinyua, who is Kenya’s Tourism Secretary; John Kaplich, the group’s Communications Director; and Jacinta Nzioka, Kenya Tourism Board’s Marketing Director.

The group was on a press tour in New York City in hopes of shifting the conversation about Kenyan tourism away from headline-friendly news such as an ongoing concern over terrorism that was best illustrated by the deadly terrorist attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall in fall 2013. It’s also dealt with a downturn thanks to Ebola fears, despite the fact that Miami, FL is as close to the west African outbreak as Nairobi is.

It’s made recent moves to simplify the visiting experience, such as adding an e-visa option to supplement the existing visa-on-arrival program. It’s also continuing to push its East African shared visa with Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda.

Skift: When you look ahead either to this year or 2016, what are you excited about?

Minister Kandie: I can tell you with all confidence that we are seeing growth in tourism sector, seeing the numbers coming back over the next one year or so. There’s a new or re-imagined confidence in Kenya as a destination. We’re confident that after this tour that we’ve just had in the U.S. over the past one week, that we’re convinced that trade is excited again. Kenya is back. We’re seeing a growth and for us it’s not just about tourists.

We’re seeing a re-imagined market in terms of business tourists many because there’s a lot of interest in Africa in terms of investment opportunities. Especially after last year’s African summit at the White House a lot of interest in Africa in terms of as the last frontier in terms of investment.

We position ourselves as a country to take advantage of those opportunities. We’re seeing a lot of inquiries and a lot of delegations to come and find out exactly what’s going on and what opportunities are available.

Just this year alone we have the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi that’s happening next week, where President Obama will come. We have the World Trade Organization ministerial summit in December in Nairobi. We have other conferences in between, one of which is the African Travel Association.

Kenya is the transport hub as you know. We’re seeing a new reimagine of tourist that’s coming in. With those two parallels in terms of interest in East Africa as a destination for both investment in tourism, I think we will see the numbers coming back.

Skift: Do you think that business travel replacing some of the leisure travel or is that increasing faster than the leisure travel is returning?

Kandie: I think it’s early days to say it will grow faster but I see a tremendous growth in that area.

What we have done over the past one year is to provide for an East African visa so that we want to ensure that we facilitate the traveler to visit the region. If they’re interested in terms of being an investor then they decide where they want to invest whether it’s in Kenya, Uganda or Rwanda.

Skift: Preferably Kenya.

Kandie: Preferably Kenya, yes. But we quickly saw that opportunity and we’ve responded to that. The other thing that we’re doing obviously is investing in a lot of infrastructure projects or rather providing those opportunities for investors. As you know now infrastructure projects is not confined to one partner state, we’re working as a region. We have huge infrastructure opportunities both in roads and railways in pipelines, in airports, in power generation.

Skift: Can you talk a bit about the investment in airports?

Kandie: I can talk about Nairobi. Nairobi, we just finished a new extension where we been catering for six million passengers as we speak. We’re starting a new field. It will be ready in the year 2017 and it will cater for 20 million passengers. The two projects that are already being constructed. The six million is ready. The one for 20 million is under construction as we speak.

Skift: Do you expect more business travelers there at the beginning because that’s the central place for them to do business there then elsewhere in other countries as opposed to leisure and travelers coming in?

Kandie: Yes, partly that is it because it comes with a whole infrastructure development railway. It’s a whole system all the way from to Lamu to the northern part of Kenya. Lamu is at the coast. It makes it even easier to access that part of the region.

Anne Kinyua: Also to add, even now even when we don’t have a direct flight [from the U.S.] to Kenya, Kenya is still the number two feeder market to Kenya.

Kandie: We expect the numbers to grow.

Skift: How have Gulf carriers been to opening Kenya up to more travelers not just from the U.S. but from call it most of the world?

Kandie: What that has meant is that Kenya is now affordable. Because if a bigger part of the expenses go into airfare then definitely that is an impediment. With the coming of these airlines then Kenya is more affordable and the connection is just one city’s distance away from the destination. For us it’s an interesting thing. The GCC region is only five, four hours into Nairobi and stop over with good connections. It’s interesting and shorter especially for Americans and Asians. Previously they had to go to Europe then come down to Africa.

John Kaplich: You also find some of those carriers now, and tourism authorities in those countries market Kenya. They put packages that say come to Dubai for four days and then go on safari.

Skift: How is that changing how you’re thinking of the Kenya tourism product, whether for outbound Chinese travelers or Gulf state travelers as opposed to the traditional marketing of a Safari to somebody in London or somebody in the U.S.? Is the product changing as well?

Kandie: As I told you we are seeing a reimagining with business tourists coming, which is totally different from the leisure. That’s one. The other product that we had not really marketed is our culture. You see a re-imagined tourist that is interested in culture, natural tourism. We have quite a number of festivals that we are promoting and it’s very interesting.

To take farther the business tourist what we’re doing also, in terms of infrastructure, we’re investing in business conferencing to make Kenya that destination in terms of conference tourism. As we speak there’s a big international conference we’re building in Nairobi. Investing together with the private sector so that within the next three we have huge conference facilities permitting meetings and events. We see that as a product that we want to really compete with South Africa for.

Skift: Is that your primary competitor?

Kandie: Not anymore. What we sell is the experience.

Skift: With the nice repeat numbers, did Kenya not have as many challenges with Ebola? The repeat visitors are smart enough to know there a distance there.

Kandie: I would say Ebola didn’t really scare a lot of visitors. I don’t think so. I think that what really scared a lot of people as tourist because they were not sure how we were going to tackle the issue. I think there is a lot of confidence coming into the country from the rest of the world that we’ve managed to surmount the problem. That’s why we have all these heavy weights coming into Kenya. They’re confident that Kenya is safe and that has been a huge investment for us.

It was more of that than Ebola per say. It really amused us but it wasn’t funny.

Skift: That’s a nice word.

Kandie: Really. It went overboard but completely another misconception.

Skift: It’s easier now for brands to communicate with consumers than it’s ever been, whether you’re doing it through your own website or your broadcast or things like that. What’s Kenya doing to control the narrative? How are you telling the story in new ways beyond just hoping reporter writes about it?

Kandie: What we have done is service here. We have engaged that a global PR firm to really give us support in terms of that. They’ve been on board for the past three months and so we are launching a global campaign. That’s what we’re doing.

We have our own leadership going out there. Our president has been on the forefront really talking about exactly what the reality is in Kenya and that’s why I’m here. Our ministers are out there talking about the situation in Kenya and really making that correction about the situation.

Number three, I think the damaging thing also that happened to us was travel advisories. The UK just lifted their travel advisory which was quite damaging for us for the past one year. We’re hoping that the U.S. will also do so hopefully in the very near future. We’re in the soft category in travel advisory which really means the risk is very low.

Skift: What’s the one point you’re trying to emphasize about Kenya right now?

Kandie: I think just to reemphasize that really Kenya is back and Kenya is back with a fresh product that has more diversity, that can serve clients from business all the way to leisure.

Kenya is safe to visit with all this investments that are coming through from world leaders like the Pope and Obama and Ban Ki-moon and huge international conferences like WTO and the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.

Kenya is safe to visit and I think that’s very important. We put about 12% of our budget into the security sector. Also, it’s important to say that we have working with our international partners to address these problems, which are global. A lot of it is really intelligence sharing which we are on top of, not only from at the international arena but also community sharing information with governments. We want to believe that we have surmounted the problem. 90% of Kenya is safe, especially to westerners and western companies.

 

Photo Credit: Workers finish installing a large billboard showing Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, left, and President Barack Obama, right, in downtown Nairobi, Kenya Thursday, July 23, 2015. Ben Curtis / Associated Press