Election violence anxiety puts brakes on Kenya's tourism hopes
* Tourists fear possibility of poll-related violence
* Sector is a top foreign exchange earner
* Weak global economies worsens chances for recovery
By Beatrice Gachenge
NAIROBI, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Many beaches on Kenya's sun-kissed Mombasa coast are empty and resorts are half-full on fears that the violence that ripped through the East African country after its last election in 2007 will erupt again when it votes on Monday.
Swedish nuclear-engineer-turned-sun-worshipper Patrik Kilstam said at a resort in Mombasa he will be long gone by the time the first ballot is cast.
"We planned our holiday intentionally to ensure we are out of Kenya before March," said Kilstam, 43, in the country for the first time on a two-week holiday with his wife and daughter.
The sentiment expressed by Kilstam is expected to devastate Kenyan tourism, one of the country's biggest foreign exchange earner, just as it was starting to recover from the after-effects of the 2007-2008 turmoil, when tourism earnings tumbled 20 percent.
Although 2012 earnings have yet to be reported, the sector has made a steady recovery despite a spate of Islamist grenade attacks and the euro zone crisis. Tourism, which raked in $1.2 billion in 2011, accounts for 14 percent of GDP.
No tourists were hurt in the fighting after the disputed 2007 result but the violence was horrific, prompting foreigners already in the country to flee and others to cancel bookings.
The worst single attack occurred on New Year's Day 2008 when youth armed with machetes slashed at men outside a church in the scenic Rift Valley and forced women and children inside the mud-brick building before setting it alight, killing 30.
Then, as now, alliances forged for the elections have lined up another largely ethnic-based contest for political power.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta are neck-and-neck in opinion polls, pointing to another very close and potentially contentious outcome. Results are expected to come out within 48 hours of the vote.
But even if there is no violence, tourist operators like UK-based Will Jones say the damage for 2013 is done. Jones' agency, which markets Africa to high-end tourists mainly from the United States, is bracing for a bad year.
Jones has confirmed only 20 bookings for Kenya starting in the second half of the year compared to 50 for the whole of last year.
"Kenya just isn't a safe bet, it's the uncertainty that has put people off. We have been shy of investing too much time and effort into Kenyan itineraries," said Jones, speaking from southern England.
Many tourists are eyeing neighbouring Tanzania, which offers similar safari adventures and business conference options.
"They (tourists) are saying forget it. I can do Kenya next year," said Mahmud Jan Mohamed, chief executive officer of TPS Eastern Africa, the largest hotel group in eastern and southern Africa.
KIDNAPPINGS, PRE-ELECTION VIOLENCE
The tourism industry has been battered repeatedly over the past five years.
The state-owned Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) has blamed lower visitor numbers in 2012, which were down about 3 percent from 2011, at least partly on travel warnings issued by Britain, the United States and Australia following the killing and kidnapping of tourists in the coastal resort of Lamu.
Kenya sent troops into Somalia in October 2011 to root out the Somali group al Shabaab, blamed for the attacks, drawing retaliatory grenade blasts in the Kenyan capital and the coastal city of Mombasa, a popular holiday destination for foreigners.
The strikes have since fizzled, and KTB is cautiously optimistic.
"We are anticipating recovery from April going into the high season, but should the elections go to the second round, tourism might pick up in July thus missing out on any gains in the first half of the year," said KTB chief executive Muriithi Ndegwa.
The country has also already seen some pre-election violence.
About 200 people have been killed in tribal clashes over land and water along the country's coast in clashes that broke out sporadically between August and December. Police said the violence was instigated by politicians who wanted to evict members of communities they expected to vote for their rivals.
The killings took place at the Tana Delta just 180 km from Malindi, one of the coastal A-list havens that attracts names such as U.S rapper Jay-Z and Formula One's Flavio Briatore, and put off "would-be' tourists just ahead of the mid-November to mid-February high season.
Many resort hotels are already witnessing a sharp decline and have taken the opportunity to close down for maintenance, taking jobs away from ordinary Kenyans.
"We are operating at average bed occupancy of between 35 and 50 percent, down from 90 percent. December to March is high season for us," said Mohammed Hersi, general manager at Whitesands hotel, Mombasa's biggest resort.
Purity Mwazani, 25, a single mother to a six-month-old daughter, said she was jobless and aiming to be a stay-at-home-mum after being laid off in February by Blue Bay beach resort in Malindi where she had worked for two years on a casual basis.
"The letter explained ... that the hotel management could no longer afford to sustain our wages," said Mwazani, who worked as room steward, adding 15 others colleagues were fired.
"I will be recalled when the hotel's operation picks up, but I don't know when that will be."
For 60-year-old Hilda Markela, a Dutch tourist on her fourth visit to Kenya, it was still an attractive destination, however.
"This noise about Kenya being unsafe is uncalled for," Markela, on a month-long holiday, said strolling on the beach.
"I am here until mid-March. I won't go anywhere. You will came back here after those elections and find me just as safe."
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