Malindi on life support

With economic meltdown in Italy coupled with Kenya’s shrinking tourism fortunes leading to high rates of unemployment, a once burgeoning coastline town is on the verge of becoming a ghost town

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BY JOLIE LANJI

The Kenyan coast continues to globally receive praise for its white sandy beaches, friendly people, rich culture and beautiful weather. It is also the most affordable option compared to the Indian Ocean Islands of Seychelles and Mauritius. Diani, Vipingo, Nyali, Malindi, Watamu & Kilifi have been tourist hot spots for close to three decades but the deteriorating decline in the tourist income in Malindi & Watamu was one of the most alarming tourism trends of 2015.

The history of the Portuguese, specifically Vasco Da Gama, in Malindi is rather intriguing, especially because today, the impact of the Portuguese, Oman Arabs or British influence is barely evident in the coastal town. Malindi has for years been the Italian holiday hub for close to three decades. The Italian influence in the city is quite distinct. Restaurant menus and street signs in Italian, fluent Italian speaking hotel staff, the Italian cuisine and the casinos show the stranglehold of the Italians on the Coastal town. Walking along the white sandy beaches & hearing the local beach boys converse fluently in Italian, clearly explains why Malindi was dabbed “Italy Ndogo” over twenty years ago.

A number of locals referred to the Italian invasion as the most modern version of Neo-colonialism. In typical Italian fashion, a number of people claim the city is characterized by Mafia money, drugs and rampant sex trade. For three decades, generations of Italians have established businesses, built hotels and villas and invested heavily in this Coastal town. Most, if not all, reside in luxury villas along the Indian Ocean in the leafy Italian suburb of Casaurina, with some married to local Giriama women. Their children are educated in International Schools in Malindi but after prep school, they are sent to Mombasa for High School, to sit their I.G.C.S.E examinations before acquiring degrees from reputable institutions. Once they graduate from university in Italy, they then move back to Kenya and take over the family businesses, and the cycle continues.

For years, Malindi has boasted a high profile list of visitors ranging from Italian celebrities, down to Italian government officials. The influx of Italian tourists is attributed to the late Duranti Camillo who owned a popular hotel in the town. Others date the Italian invasion back to 1964 when Italian engineers and space scientists established the San Marco Space Research Centre in Ngomeni, Malindi. Years later, a number of wealthy Italians slowly began to invest in the small coastal town, and within no time, “Italy Ndogo” was established.

Other than the late Duranti Camillo, other investors included international renowned architectural designer Armando Tanzini, who constructed the popular White Elephant Hotel in 1981. Millionaire Vitali Gianfranco who established the Coconut Village, before the development of the Coral Key chain of hotels owned by prominent Italian investor, the late Marco Vancini.  In February 2015, Mr Vancini, who was then, the consular for Malindi, was killed in an accident along the Malindi-Mombasa Highway. The Italian investor had lived in Malindi for over 40 years and a few years prior to his death, marked the slow but definite, crumble of the hotel industry in Malindi. It was reported that the group of hotels was in debt. At the time, there were a number of travel advisories in effect for Kenya  and were soon going to be under receivership. The exlusive coral Key Chain of Hotels which included Coral Key, the Blue Key and the Lawfords Beach Club & chains of villas and cottages are now closed & currently up for sale.

Less than five years ago, flamboyant tycoon, who managed the Renault Formulae One team, established the Billionaire Resort for an estimated Sh500 Million. The state of the art resort, as the name suggests, unlike other tourist operations in Malindi, does not depend on hotel guests. The resort is reported to comprise 40 apartments overlooking the sandy beaches, more than half of which have been sold for 1.5 Million Dollars each.

Just like the rest of the resorts, this too is predicted to turn into a white elephant within the next year or so and the million-dollar question remains, what killed sunny old Malindi?
“Initially the crisis facing the real estate industry and tourism sector in Malindi was solely blamed on security but security is no longer a problem and yet Malindi still is dead. The government needs to research, re-evaluate the new policies being put in place to boost tourism to ensure they are relevant to the current situation on the ground because there are greater looming problems,” corresponded of Italian Embassy & COM.IT.ES Member of Malindi, Roberto Macri, said. Mr Macri, who speaks fluent Kiswahili and other local languages has lived in Maindi for 38 years and is disturbed by the economic crisis facing the small fishing town.

Indeed, after the terror attacks, security has been a key consideration however; it is not the most fundamental reason why the industry has declined. The sluggish flow of tourists, both local and international, affected the structural growth of hotels adversely in 2013 and 2014. This led to the dismissal of workers in the hospitality industry. The slight improvement of flow of local tourists in 2014 towards 2015 was predicted to encourage the structural growth of the hotel industry in other regions but the situation in Malindi remained almost stagnant. The flow of the international and local tourists was expected to improve in 2015 and indeed, it did improve throughout Kenya, however, Malindi was considerably a dead town throughout 2015, despite the aggressive marketing by the Kenya Tourism Board.

The Italian economic crisis directly affected “Italy Ndogo’s” economic structure and as the crisis spiraled out of control, the counter effect in “Italy Ndogo” caused a rather drastic impact on the investors in Malindi and the tourism sector as a whole.

The message of reassurance on Italy’s economy from the Italian Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan fell on flat ears seeing as the Italian investors in Malindi continue to sell off their property and close down businesses saying it is impossible to predict the economic climate in Italy. They can no longer, they say, sustain owning the holiday homes. The Italian government is focusing on major structural changes in order to kickstart growth and to ensure the debt levels remain sustainable by targeting the labor market, fiscal policy and judicial system in Italy. Returning back to Italy is not the most rational solution, however; it is the easiest option especially due to the corruption, inflation in Kenya and the constant harassment from immigration officers.

Initially, a number of villas owned by Italian residents, would be leased out to families visiting Kenya at lower prices than hotels. This added salt to injury in the context of dwindling fortunes for the hotel industry in Malindi. Simultaneously, towards the end 2015, three quarters of these same villas in the Italian suburb of Casaurina were and are currently on sale or vacant. Homeowners in Italy can no longer afford to maintain homes in two countries as hotel investors, in turn, can no longer sustain their staff with no guests in the hotels.

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The exodus of the Italian villa owners has led to the rise in unemployment. The owner of the Billionaires Club, Flavio Briatore adds no value to the local job market, as he is quite particular about the staff he employs, most of which are foreigners from Italy, including the waiting staff and managerial staff. The rise of unemployment in the area has led to a high number of male youth being recruited by the Al Shabab militants, which raises the issue of the change in gender roles among the members of the community in Malindi as the girl child is forced to play double roles in breadwinning.

Over the years the foreigners in Malindi have been involved in land syndicates to rob the locals of beach plots but it was not until the spiral effect of the crisis, that the issue was illuminated by the locals.

About ten years ago, the foreigners would buy at least an acre of land for as low as Sh10, 000 from desperate villagers. As the foreigners attempt to sell their homes, the locals are gradually coming out to demand their fair share. This has roped in politicians with Kilifi North MP Gideon Munga’aro warning tycoons ‘grabbing’ land from residents in Malindi to either compensate them accordingly or face legal action.

The bleak economic landscape has led to the closure of more than just hotels and restaurants. A number of clothing stores, butcheries, and fitness centres and even hospitals have had to either shut down or make drastic cutbacks.

Ramadhan, a curio vendor, refers to Malindi as ‘mji mauti’, a dead town. He says life is very expensive in the town and business can no longer sustain any of the local families due to the fact that there are no clients to sell products to.

Malindi is at the critical phase of economic constriction. The town is on life support. Before long, it may end up a ghost town, as the unemployed are constantly moving in search of jobs.

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