After The Fire: Longtime Kenyan Tour Operator Talks Travel

After The Fire: Longtime Kenyan Tour Operator Talks Travel

Some aspects of African tourism are more predictable than others, said Richard Corcoran, a Kenyan tour operator of more than 30 years who has weathered many storms – most recently, the fire at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Corcoran co-founded Liberty Africa Safaris, now the third-largest operation of its kind in Kenya. With 104 employees, the company provides service for tour operators all over the world. It has a fleet of 40 minibuses, 25 land cruisers and two lodges along the Kenyan coast – Delta Dunes Lodge and Kipalo Camp.

Last week’s airport fire left thousands of people stranded, many of them tourists. “It was a horrific week,” says Corcoran in a report in HowWeMadeItInAfrica. “We had more than 50 people stranded here trying to leave and more than 50 people trying to get in to join the safaris. (The fire) cost us a lot of money but I must say I am also quite impressed… we were back in operation two and a half days later.”

Tourism is a major revenue producer and employer in many African countries. However, the industry faces many obstacles, the report said. Uprisings in North Africa, the threat of terrorist attacks, political instability and recession in developed countries have all negatively affected tourism on the continent.

Some aspects of African tourism are more predictable than others.

“Generally, when East Africa is not doing very well, South Africa is booming,” Corcoran said. “If it is South Africa that is struggling like it did after the World Cup, then East Africa is booming and it kind of swings like a pendulum.”

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Liberty Africa Safaris operates across Africa with offices in South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Libya and Kenya. Diversifying into other markets acts as a cushion against difficult times in East Africa, Corcoran said, such as the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy, repeated tribal clashes and post-election violence in Kenya.

But expansion also has its challenges. “The last time I saw our office in Libya was on the news and there was no wall on the front of it,” Corcoran said. “The whole place was destroyed.”

The company’s Egypt branch has also been struggling since political unrest began in 2011. “In Egypt and Libya all (we) can do is keep our team. Tourism is all about people. You keep your team, your contacts… until things improve and then you reawaken everything. It is going to take time, but things will get better.”

In Kenya, the 2011 tourist kidnappings and the 2012 tribal clashes that killed 110 people resulted in tourists cancelling bookings at Delta Dunes Lodge.

Such difficulties have made the African people resilient and tenacious, Corcoran said. “This is Africa. I struggle to explain to my partners how Africa works, how things can turn around so quickly, both for the positive and for the negative. Europe is all about stability.

“In Africa everything is done with the heart, not with the head. If you sit down with a calculator and start doing all these risk analyses, then Africa is not for you. You have to have a passion for Africa.”

Doing business across Africa can be rewarding in many ways, Corcoran said. “You have to know that you can make a big success here. You can do so much on this continent, but it is all about people. (You have to) to keep your allies close, look after people, treat them well and Africa will reward you in so many ways, not just financial.”

Liberty Safaris Africa is diversifying into accommodation and transportation with plans to expand investment in those areas.

Often considered a rich’s man’s business that doesn’t benefit the local communities, tourism is under-appreciated in Africa, Corcoran said. “That is so shortsighted. I mean, (a significant percentage) of Kenya’s GDP is created by tourism. Take that out of any equation and nobody is going to have a job. It affects the country so dramatically.”