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Is a Decline In Tourism Behind Terrorism in Kenya?

Should we really be blaming the United States for issuing travel warnings against Kenya?
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A fisherman at Lake Baringo, Kenya. (Photo: Byelikova Oksana/Shutterstock)

A fisherman at Lake Baringo, Kenya. (Photo: Byelikova Oksana/Shutterstock)

Eight months ago, an attack by Somalian extremist group al-Shabab left 48 dead in Mpeketoni, a coastal town in Kenya. Much like the deadly 2013 siege on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and subsequent ones in Witu and Kromey, the Mpeketoni tragedy devastated the local community and captivated global media. It also re-affirmed Kenya’s label as a danger zone, and one that the United States has strongly advised avoiding.

Kenyan officials say that these warnings have proven to be detrimental to the country's tourism industry, which accounted for 12.3 percent of the country’s GDP in 2013. They argue that this decline will in turn create poverty and unemployment—the sort of desperation that acts as a catalyst for terrorism to take root. As the New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman reported:

Kenya’s coastal tourism is collapsing and part of the reason—a big part of the reason, Kenyan officials say—are Western travel warnings. After a round of violence last summer in a remote coastal area where dozens of Kenyan villagers were killed, many Western embassies issued frightening-sounding travel advisories that exhaustively detailed all the perceived risks and dangers of visiting the Kenyan coast and other parts of the country.... Kenyan officials are incensed, saying that the coast is hardly a raging war zone and that the Western travel warnings amount to “economic sabotage,” scaring away travelers who rely on government advisories to explain where’s safe and where’s not. Worse, many Kenyans contend—and even some diplomats say—these warnings could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But is that a fair accusation, or an accurate one?


The effect of terrorism on the tourism industry is well documented. A 2003 study in the economics journal Kyklos determined that terrorist attacks directed at Greece’s tourism industry cost the country 23.4 percent of its annual tourism revenue in 1998, while attacks in Austria between 1985 and 1987 contributed to a 40.7 percent loss in tourism revenues in 1988. Similar relationships have also been reported in places like Thailand, India, Israel, and Egypt.

A map of al-Shabab attacks from 2011 to 2014. (Photo: BBC)

A map of al-Shabab attacks from 2011 to 2014. (Photo: BBC)

It’s impossible to pinpoint what percentage of these declines in tourism can be attributed to the travel warnings versus fear over terrorist activity. After all, it’s not like these attacks weren’t themselves a tourism deterrent; there were certainly enough newspaper headlines to alert anyone making travel plans. Still, a travel warning certainly adds to that sense of malaise. As one American official in Kenya told the New York Times’ Gettleman: “Our policy doesn’t make much sense... There are neighborhoods in Washington, Anacostia, for example, that are way more dangerous than Nyali or Diani.”


Assuming then that Kenyan tourism’s suffering can at least partially be attributed to federally issued warnings, to what degree does this ensuing poverty directly lead to terrorism? Here the evidence is murky.

A 2004 analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research determined that—contrary to popular belief—political freedom is actually more preventative to terrorism than a country’s wealth. Specifically, the study determined that countries with an “intermediate degree” of political rights actually made for the best breeding ground for terrorism. As lead author Alberto Abadie explained: "On the one hand, the repressive practices commonly adopted by autocratic regimes to eliminate political dissent may help [keep] terrorism at bay.... On the other hand, intermediate levels of political freedom are often experienced during times of political transitions, when governments are weak, political instability is elevated, so conditions are favorable for the appearance of terrorism."

The Kenyan government certainly falls in Abadie’s “intermediate” level of democracy; it was just five years ago that the country enacted its new constitution (though a 2014 ranking by human rights think tank Freedom House deemed Kenya to be only “partly free”).

A 2002 story in the New Republic makes a similar claim:

On the whole, we must conclude that there is little reason to be optimistic that a reduction in poverty or increase in educational attainment will lead to a meaningful reduction in the amount of international terrorism without other changes.... [Many] madrasahs, or religious schools, in Pakistan are funded by wealthy industrialists, and that those schools deliberately educate students to become foot soldiers and elite operatives in various extremist movements around the world. She further reported that "most madrasahs offer only religious instruction, ignoring math, science, and other secular subjects important for functioning in modern society." These observations suggest that, in order to use education as part of a strategy to reduce terrorism, the international community should not limit itself to increasing years of schooling, but should consider very carefully the content of education.

The Kenyan government certainly falls in Abadie’s “intermediate” level of democracy; it was just five years ago that the country enacted its new constitution (though a 2014 ranking by human rights think tank Freedom House deemed Kenya to be only “partly free”).


West Point Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center wrote a lengthy analysis in 2012 about al-Shabab (which is basically an offshoot of al-Qaeda). Speaking with 15 former members of al-Shabab, study author Muhsin Hassan found that while poverty itself doesn’t appear to be a root cause—only five of the 15 people surveyed cited unemployment as their reason for joining al-Shabab—poverty-related effects “such as idleness and low self-esteem, cannot be ignored in this discussion.” That’s certainly significant, as Kenya ranks toward the bottom-end in several economic indices. But ultimately, much like the National Bureau of Economic Research report, Hassan pins terrorism on factors relating to political strife, like “frustration with clan politics, lack of opportunities to improve the quality of their lives, and other difficulties that come with war.”

As much as countries travel warnings might scare away potential tourists, there seems to be little evidence that the resulting poverty continues the chain of terrorism in Kenya. Extremists don’t feed on poverty as much as they do political instability; as a young government, Kenya presents an unfortunately easy target.