NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — When Ohio resident Bill Haynes heard about the shooting at Westgate Mall by Islamic extremist gunmen last month, he considered canceling his upcoming 17-day safari to Kenya and Tanzania.
“You can’t help but be concerned,” said Haynes, 67. “Here’s a place we’re going to be in about five days and there are some terrorists shooting the place up. That would cause anybody to give some pause.”
Acting on advice from a friend in Nairobi, Haynes went through with his trip except for a stop at Lamu, a coastal city near Somalia where a French woman was kidnapped in 2011.
The risk to tourism was one of the first concerns officials expressed after the attack that left at least 67 dead including 18 foreigners. Tourism generates 14 percent of Kenya’s GDP and employs 12 percent of its workforce, according to Moody’s Investment Services and the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Moody’s predicts the attack will cost Kenya’s economy $200 million to $250 million in lost tourism revenue, estimating it will slow growth of Kenya’s GDP by 0.5 percent. Kenya’s 2012 GDP was $41 billion.
“Evidence would seem to indicate that 2013 could well be a very difficult year for the local tourism industry,” according to a report released Tuesday by Business Monitor International, which revised its 2013 outlook for Kenya’s tourism growth from 3 percent down to 1.5 percent.
Tourism is Kenya’s largest earner of foreign exchange after tea and coffee exports, generating $4.7 billion in 2011, according to Moody’s and the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Kenya is Africa’s fifth largest tourist destination, welcoming approximately 1.8 million visitors each year. Nearly half come from Britain and Europe, while visitors from the United States became an increasing share of the total during the past two years, according to Kenya’s Ministry of Tourism.
The anticipated toll on tourism is expected to magnify the decline in tourist arrivals caused by the massive fire to Nairobi airport’s arrivals terminal in August.
Tourists continue to fly here to visit Maasai Mara National Reserve, where the great wildebeest migration is underway as 2 million animals move north for the season. Authorities are sensitive to anything that could keep visitors away from Kenya’s Indian Ocean beaches and its game parks teeming with giraffes, zebras and other wild animals.
Just hours after the mall attack began, Kenya’s tourism ministry rushed to reassure travelers “that Kenya is peaceful and our security agencies are doing everything possible to ensure that everyone is safe.”
Kenya’s tourism minister said the attack was “a small hiccup” in Kenya’s “resilient” tourism sector and predicted long-term growth to continue.
“This was a very unfortunate, isolated case and it’s being managed,” Phyllis Kandie told the Associated Press over the phone Tuesday. “I believe it’s safe to go to any part of Kenya, and I’d advise travelers to travel as normal.”
But the U.S. State Department last week warned would-be visitors that terrorism remains a concern and that violent crime and kidnappings “can occur at any time and in any location.”
Kenya’s Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku called the advisory “unfriendly and unnecessary” at a news conference Sunday, requesting the U.S. lift the advisory which he said was “not helping.”
Neither the Westgate attack nor the advisory dissuaded hundreds of tourists from snapping photos of baby elephants at the popular David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage inside the Nairobi National Park earlier this week.
“We had a lot of calls from people to see if we were still going to come, but it has been safe so far,” said Anne Plant, 16, who was visiting from Canada.
Two upscale hotels located just blocks from the mall had cancelations last week, although managers assured guests of their safety.
“Last week we had a lot of people trying to keep away from this area, but this week it has actually picked up and come back,” said Neelma Maru, Sales Manager of the Sankara hotel, a five-minute walk from Westgate Mall.
“Every country worldwide has crises once in a while like this,” Maru said. “I think if we fear from terrorist attacks then they gain what they wanted, putting fear in us and keeping us from living a normal life.”
In a news conference the day after the attack, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga said police increased security at malls throughout the country, although reporters visiting area malls found no visible difference in security procedures that are widely considered cosmetic.
Not all were reassured. The large, alcoholic beverage producer Diageo relocated its October business investors’ conference from Nairobi to London following news of the attack.