Will Nairobi fire hit Kenya's economy?

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Tourists watch a herd of Wildebeest run through a field during the annual wildebeest migration through the Massai Mara National park in western Kenya - 2008Image source, AFP

The first casualty of the mysterious fire which forced the closure of the Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi has been the tourism industry.

Kenya is home to wildlife reserves, including Tsavo National Park, the world-famous Maasai Mara and boasts beautiful Indian Ocean beaches.

Tourism is the country's second highest income earner with nearly two million people coming into the East African nation each year.

There has already been a massive cancellation of tourist trips to game parks, although the stunning annual wildebeest migration is now taking place at the Maasai Mara.

It has also affected Kenya's crucial flower and vegetable exports - Kenya's agricultural brings in about $3.9bn (£2.5bn) annually.

Kenya is the biggest exporter of cut roses to the European Union with a market share of about 38%, according to the Kenya Flower Council.

Exporters were stranded with their produce, waiting for international flights to resume.

Vital transport hub

In 2013, Kenya had projected that the tourism sector would grow by around 4% - from the $1bn brought in last year.

It was hoped that the general election in March had helped rebuild Kenya's reputation as a peaceful and politically stable country, making it a destination of choice for tourists after years of unfavourable headlines.

Five years ago, more than 1,000 people were killed after disputed polls and in 2011 several tourists were kidnapped by gunmen the Kenyan government said were members of Somalia's al-Shabab group.

In response Kenya sent troops into Somalia and seized most of the border region from the Islamist militants; and this year's elections passed off peacefully and were accepted without protest.

The government had set a target of attracting three million visitors by 2015 by looking to new markets such as Brazil, Mexico, Morocco and Zambia, Ethiopia and Uganda.

But the airport fire could well undermine such ambitions.

The fire has shown, however, how vital Jomo Kenyatta International is to the region.

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The fire is believed to have started in the immigration zone at about 05:00 (02:00 GMT) on Wednesday.
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It turned into a huge blaze that spread to the arrivals area...
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Some reports said heavy traffic on the road to the airport hindered emergency vehicles.
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But some four hours after the blaze took hold it was reported to be controlled, with senior officials praising the work of the emergency services.
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Would-be passengers were left stranded.
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The fire sent up plumes of black smoke that could be seen from elsewhere in the capital Nairobi.

It is one of the busiest airports in East Africa and has about 16,000 passengers and 200 flights daily.

Mombasa International Airport, the second best option after Nairobi, has a capacity for only nine wide-bodied aircraft and has two runways.

On the first day of flights being diverted from Nairobi, it became clear that Mombasa could not cope.

Nairobi-based teacher Rebecca Nichols, who landed in Mombasa when her flight from Amsterdam was diverted, said her experience was awful.

"Once we landed in Mombasa, everything became chaotic," she told the BBC.

"Passengers were left on the plane for ages and then in the baggage hall before being put on shoddy buses which took 12 hours to get to Nairobi and broke down on the way," she said.

"There were large crowds of people outside arrivals from planes diverted into Mombasa from lots of different destinations - all being told to get on these buses. It was complete chaos."

'No alternatives'

It did not give a good impression of the country to visitors, Ms Nichols said.

"I live in Nairobi and had to put up a young Canadian backpacker who was travelling by herself and was quite worried. And this was her first experience of Kenya."

Experts are suggesting that the slow emergency response by the government in dealing with the incident may have also damaged Kenya's international reputation.

It has certainly dented the reputation of Kenya's national carrier, Kenya Airways - its shares dropped by 2% to $0.11 following the fire.

As the plumes of smoke which billowed over the Nairobi's skyline subsided, fears mounted about the longer-term effects on the entire economy.

But James Milne, of the management consulting firm Frost and Sullivan in South Africa, said it was unlikely to have such a negative long-term impact given Kenya's position in East Africa.

"Realistically Kenya is very well-positioned from a regional perspective both in terms of having the leading economy and, most importantly for me, the best-established infrastructure," told the BBC's Focus on Africa radio programme.

Image source, AFP
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Last year, it was estimated that Kenya exported 123,511 tonnes of flowers

"There are a number of alternative propositions in East Africa, there's Entebbe, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Bole International in Ethiopia, but the issue being that these airports simply lack the localised infrastructure to be viewed as a viable alternative.

Kenya has far superior roads and its rail network works, unlike some of its neighbours which were "non-functional", he said.

"Making a big decision to move away from Kenya as a key transport hub and to move to a totally different country or regional alternative doesn't look like it would really make sense in terms of the huge transport costs associated with moving goods to those airports."

However, there is no doubt it will dent Kenya's full economic recovery after a bumpy few years.

And planning for future emergencies is paramount.

"It's very important that the government does set up a task team that looks at what went wrong… with the key objective being to formulate an adequate disaster response plan for these sort of situations," Mr Milne said.

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