In June, Watamu on Kenya’s north coast lies in slumber. Many of the shops and restaurants are shuttered for the interim; the long stretches of white sand beach are nearly empty.
Rains, alternating between proper deluges and drizzling mist, punctuate most days; the region’s biannual rainy season is running late this year. However, even underneath an overcast sky, this small town is gorgeous.
Here, one can also find some of the best Italian food in Kenya, from gelato and focaccia to after-dinner liquors. A hefty proportion of the expatriate population here is Italian, having emigrated south from Somalia around the 1960s due to insecurity.
Lying on a headland between a place called the Blue Lagoon and Watamu Bay, tourism and fishing constitute Watamu’s economic backbone. Fishermen can usually be spotted on the beach, pushing their boats out to sea, sorting their nets, and catching octopus, red snapper, and kingfish.
Nearly all their catches are sold to hotels and restaurants frequented by holidayers in particular, says 37-year-old Peter Mapacha, a Watamu native.
The Watamu community – home to around 30,000 people – is nearly 100% dependent on tourism according to Mapacha, a tour guide himself. Every person who works as a boat captain, in a hotel, or as a cook supports 10 others in their community.
It’s estimated that at least 3,000 locals are employed in the tourism sector. Mapacha mostly hosts guided coastal walks, where he explains the seasonality of tidal patterns, the egg-laying habits of sea turtles, and can even locate eels lurking in shallow coral reefs, teasing them out with a long stick.
When the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) – a government body charged with managing tourism in the country – announced that they would increase fees for tourists for any water sport or sport fishing in the Watamu marine park and reserve for tourists from a few dollars to $15 (KSh2114) a day, there was an uproar amongst the local community.
The fear: cash-rich tourists will avoid Watamu for cheaper areas.
There had been no stakeholder consultation – particularly from affected communities – which Article 10 of the Kenyan Constitution requires. The amendment of the Wildlife Regulations, through which KWS increased park fees, also was not presented to Parliament for scrutiny and approval.
Given these oversights, Abdulswamade Sherrif Nassir, a member of parliament penned a letter on 1 July 2022, protesting the ‘unprocedural formulation, publication, and enforcement’ of the revised conservation fees.
We haven’t been coming to Watamu because of the fee situation.
His letter indicated how KWS had not presented the fee revision before Parliament, that there was no record of explaining its purpose, and that the Committee on Delegated Legislation had not scrutinised the revision following provisions of the Constitution. “The Instrument cannot be therefore said to have any legal effect,” Nassir said.
Due to the public outcry, then Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala suspended the enactment of the fee revision for negotiations for three months; stakeholders were placated, saying that KWS would communicate a fair solution. A stakeholder meeting in August 2022 was called in Mombasa, more than 100km south of Watamu, with only 12 hours in late October. During that period, the venue was changed four times.
A Watamu stakeholder tells The Africa Report that as a community, they have been racking their brains and doing the math to try to find a financially-viable solution to help out KWS.
KWS ‘unpredictable and unaccommodating’
The agency is not without its critics. It’s estimated that 80% of revenue goes to headquarters, while the actual parks lack manpower and resources.
“We suggested charging an arrival tax – $11 in conservation tax for anyone coming into the country, $7 departure -, which would bring in an estimated KSh11bn a year,” says the stakeholder. “That would be a fraction of the workload and reduce administration fees so KWS can go out and do actual conservation.” Stakeholders also suggested bed fees, or for bigger businesses to pay a yearly $2500 licensing fee. “But such solutions all went unconsidered because KWS said that’s not how they do things, but isn’t that the point? What they’re doing now isn’t working.”
There was no further communication since that hectic stakeholder meeting until 1 November when the KWS Watamu Headquarters was implemented without notice. KWS did not reply to multiple requests for an interview.
Watamu has had a storied history of keeping its coasts clean. Mapacha remembers that about 20 years ago, there was plastic waste everywhere. Yet its current, cared-for state is mostly due to private sector interventions like Turtle Watch and the Watamu Marine Association – it’s unclear how the collected money would contribute to better conservation efforts.
Mapacha says that despite this clear correlation between tourism and livelihoods – one ravaged by Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions – KWS has been unpredictable, unaccommodating, and unconstitutional in their alteration of marine park fees. KWS is the governmental agency mandated with both environmental conservation and overseeing community-wellbeing. The advent of these fees had led to huge cancellations and diversions to other parts of the Kenyan coast, which are free from such fees.
This has a direct impact. Evidence suggests that old clients won’t come back
One of the most infuriating aspects of Watamu Marine Park fees is that fees only apply in Watamu and not elsewhere along the Kenyan coast. Kitesurfers, for instance, who stay for weeks or even months at a time – could just go to nearby Kilifi, Diani, or Lamu for no additional cost and that’s what many have been doing.
Stakeholders claim that businesses, already suffering from high taxes, inflation, and lingering Covid-19 ramifications are barely keeping up with other local and international vacation destinations. In late 2022, there were massive cancellations from regular international clients due to news of the fee increases. Mr. Jan Langer of Temple Point Hotel tells The Africa Report that he had 16 reservation cancellations worth KSh3m (approximately $25,000).
These steep water park fees are not only damaging to local businesses, but also KWS’s own finances. One Watamu water sports owner tells The Africa Report that he received a message from someone the other day, saying: “We haven’t been coming to Watamu because of the fee situation.”
“This has a direct impact,” the owner says over an encrypted call. “Evidence suggests that old clients won’t come back.”
As a community, we’re not opposed to contributing – we want to keep our beaches clean, it’s in our interest to do so, says a stakeholder. “But we’re not willing to have it done behind our backs.”
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