* Tanzania now receives about 1 mln visitors a year
* Tourists mostly come from Britain, US, Germany, Italy
* Surge in visitor numbers over past two years
By Fumbuka Ng‘wanakilala
DAR ES SALAAM, Aug 28 (Reuters) - Tanzania expects tourist numbers to double to 2 million by 2017, the state tourist board said, challenging regional rival Kenya where Islamist attacks have scared away visitors.
Tanzania, famed for its pristine beaches and safari parks beneath snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro, has always played second-fiddle to Kenya, which has a more developed tourism industry and better air links to the key markets in Europe and United States.
But a surge in visitors to Tanzania in the past two years has chipped away at Kenya’s dominance and helped Tanzania’s ambitions to become a regional tourist hub.
“We expect to reach 2 million tourist arrivals by 2017,” Devota Mdachi, acting managing director of the Tanzania Tourism Board (TTB), told Reuters in an interview.
“With more international airlines flying into Tanzania ... improved infrastructure, increased tourism investments and marketing, we can reach that target.”
Tanzania’s tourist arrivals rose 1.7 percent in 2013 to 1.095 million, earning the country $1.85 billion. In 2012, arrivals surged 24 percent as the country hit the 1 million-mark for the first time. Visitors mostly come from Britain, Germany, the United States and Italy.
Next door, Kenya’s industry has struggled. Tourist numbers slid last year to 1.5 million after an all-time peak of 1.8 million in 2011. In the first quarter of 2014 arrivals fell 4 percent compared to 2013, while a leading Kenyan hotel chain said the real figures were worse.
Frequent attacks by Somali Islamist militants have crippled Kenya’s tourism industry, scaring away tourists, some of whom looked elsewhere for tropical beaches and wildlife safaris.
Some Western tourists have found that, due to their governments’ travel advisories about the security situation, their travel insurance does not cover them for the Kenyan coast.
Tanzania has experienced nothing like the level of deadly violence that has hit Kenya, which angered Islamists militants by sending troops to fight al Shabaab militants in Somalia.
The semi-autonomous Zanzibar islands have experienced sporadic security problems, with a series of bomb attacks over the past year, targeting mosques, churches and restaurants, and acid attacks on a Catholic priest and two British teenagers last year which were blamed on Islamist militants.
But one tour operator in Zanzibar said the archipelago had benefited from the fact that the problems were worse in Kenya. “A lot of tourists who have cancelled their trips to (the Kenyan port city of) Mombasa are now coming to Zanzibar and that’s something that’s good for the local tourism industry.”
The impact on Kenya’s woes on Tanzania has been mixed.
While some operators say tourists are switching from Kenya to Tanzania, others say they are suffering due to the fact that Nairobi remains an air transit hub for the whole region.
“The Kenya security issues have impacted negatively on Tanzania ... as 30-40 percent of tourists visiting Tanzania come through Kenya due to the fact that Kenya has more international carriers,” Lathifa Sykes, CEO of the Hotels Association of Tanzania (HAT), told Reuters.
She said Tanzania’s tourism industry had potential for further growth over the coming years, but investments were stifled by a complex and unpredictable tax regime, limited tourism infrastructure and inadequate marketing and branding.
Growth of 9 percent a year since 2010 could be accelerated to 20 percent a year if the government worked more closely with the private sector, Sykes said.
Tourism employs about a third of Tanzania’s work force and contributed 13 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012, making it a vital industry for a nation of 45 million people that needs more jobs.
Like other African nations, tourist officials are now worried that fears about the spread of the Ebola virus, which has decimated tourism and other business in West Africa, could have knock on effects on the other side of the continent.
“The message that we’ve been putting across is that this disease (Ebola) has not entered Tanzania and so far we have not had any cancellations,” said the tourist board’s Mdachi, adding that airlines for now were saying their flights were still full. (Editing by Drazen Jorgic and Robin Pomeroy)