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jan 18

Rethinking travel to Kenya

We've been keeping an eye on Kenya ever since the disputed reelection of President Mwai Kibaki on December 27 set off periodic outbreaks of violence. The worst clashes between police officers and supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga have been in the slums of Nairobi, the western cities of Eldoret and Kisumu, and the coastal town of Mombasa. Keep in mind that these locations aren't on typical safari itineraries; safari-goers tend to arrive in Nairobi and quickly set out for the national parks in the south and near the Tanzanian border.

While the uneasy situation shifts from day to day, scenes of mobs wielding stones and machetes are rattling Kenya's reputation as one of the safest, most popular destinations in Africa. Hotels near Mombasa, which cater primarily to beachgoing Europeans, are reporting cancellations of about 70 to 90 percent for late January, according to Kenya's Tourism Board.

If you have upcoming plans to visit Kenya, we suggest researching the penalties for canceling, postponing, or rerouting your trip. A recent New York Times Practical Traveler column provides a useful overview of questions to ask and a sampling of policies.

As for safety concerns, the State Department issued a travel alert on January 11 urging that Americans defer non-essential travel to the provinces of Nyanza, Western, and Rift Valley; Britain has taken a stronger stance, advising against all but essential travel to Kenya.

We checked in with tour operator 2Afrika, whose packages we feature regularly in Budget Travel. So far, the company's president Kenneth Hieber says that remarkably few customers have opted to cancel their Kenyan safaris. He returned from Africa on January 14 and has been posting updates on 2Afrika's blog. Hieber stated that "we feel there is no need for anyone to cancel or postpone their safari arrangements." However, if travelers wish to cancel a safari, they will receive a credit for a future 2Afrika safari or be rerouted through other parts of Africa.

Kenya's tourism board has been working overtime to monitor the situation and reassure travelers. In a press release, former chairman Jake Grieves-Cook was quoted as saying: "Only a small proportion of our country—which is greater than the size of France—was affected in any way…We had over 40,000 tourists traveling in Kenya at the time this situation unfolded, with not one harmed or even inconvenienced in any way."

It's not surprising that the tourism board is alarmed. Tourism surpassed agriculture in 2007 as Kenya's top money-maker and, as the Economist reports, Kenyans are already beginning to feel the pinch as travelers and investors become jittery.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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