Travel Warnings for Kenya
The US government regularly renews its travel warnings for Kenya based on a threat of terrorism, border skirmishes, violent crime in the cities and political unrest during election time. Until the Westgate Mall attack in September, 2013, most of the violence took place far away from anywhere the vast majority of tourists would visit.
Since the Westgate Mall attack, the US re-issued it's Travel Warning, and the UK Government and others continue to stress that it is not adding anything new to the general alerts that existed before. The US Travel Warning still states:
There are no restrictions on U.S. embassy employee travel to Kenya's most popular tourist destinations such as Masai Mara, Amboseli, Lake Nakuru, Tsavo, Lamu Island, Hell's Gate, Samburu, Mount Kenya, Malindi, and Nairobi. Travelers should keep informed of local developments by following local press, radio, and television reports prior to their visits. Visitors should also consult their hosts, including U.S. and Kenyan business contacts, hotels, tour guides, and travel organizers.
If you felt safe enough to visit Kenya before the Westgate terror attack, then the point is, the security has been beefed up and the situation has not changed much. Of course, any Travel Warning is a little off-putting if you've just booked a trip or safari. I've received several e-mails from worried safari goers, as well as parents whose children plan on volunteering in Kenya. But basically, it is fine to travel to Kenya as long as you stay tuned to local election news, avoid the border with Somalia, and take heed of some basic safety precautions below. Ask your tour operator for guidance as well, they are concerned about your safety as well and should have on the ground experience.
Staying Safe in Nairobi, Mombasa and other large towns
Nairobi has a bad reputation, similar to Johannesburg and Lagos, as far as crime goes. It's a big city, there are a large number of people living in poverty and struggling to get employment. But as a visitor, if you follow the basic guidelines below, you should be fine. As with most large cities, a lot of crime happens in the outskirts or poorer neighborhoods, areas tourists don't normally venture unless you're with a friend. There's a lot to see and do in Nairobi, so don't avoid it, just take care and be smart about it. Given the Westgate Mall terror attack, there is now extra security at all the upscale Malls in Nairobi. Most visitors on safari won't opt for a mall visit anyway, and most tour operators steer their clients clear of the city center because of traffic congestion.
- Make a copy of your passport and keep it in your luggage.
- Don't walk on your own at night, always take a taxi.
- Don't wear jewelery.
- Don't carry too much cash with you.
- Wear a money belt that fits under your clothes.
- Don't carry a lot of camera equipment or other valuables.
- Beware of thieves posing as police officers - if it doesn't feel right, it's not.
Note: If you're wandering round the streets in Nairobi, and are feeling hassled or threatened, step into the nearest shop, supermarket or hotel. It helps calm your nerves and people are generally helpful and friendly if you let them know you are worried.
Staying Safe on Safari in Kenya
Kenya has one of the most developed tourism sectors in Africa. Safaris are generally very well run, the lodging is superb, and the wildlife fantastic. Follow the rules your guides, drivers and lodge staff tell you about as far as the wildlife is concerned and there are really no special safety issues you need to worry about. For more tips see my article -- Is going on Safari Dangerous?
Staying Safe on the Coast in Kenya
Don't ever walk on the beach at night, unless you are staying in a private resort and the owners know it's safe. There are parts of the Kenyan coast like Lamu and Mombasa, that have a reputation for being a little unpleasant, as far as just getting accosted by young men wanting to sell you things. Beware of your valuables at all times and keep them in a locked safe. The Kenyan coast is beautiful, so don't miss it, just book a decent hotel and enjoy yourself.
Safety and Volunteering in Kenya
There are lots of volunteer opportunities in Kenya, and it's a really a life-changing experience. Make sure to volunteer with an established agency. Talk to ex-volunteers about their experiences and how they managed to stay safe and keep their valuables safe too. If it's your first time in Kenya, opt for a group volunteer experience to get used to the way of life. In general, rural people are always a bit more friendly than city folk, that's common all over the world.
Staying Safe on Kenya's Roads
Roads in Kenya aren't very good so accidents are quite common. Potholes, road blocks, goats and people tend to get in the way of vehicles. Avoid driving a car or riding a bus at night because potholes are difficult to see and so are other vehicles especially when they are missing their headlights, a fairly common occurrence. If you are renting a car, keep the doors and windows locked while driving in the major cities. Car-jackings occur fairly regularly but may not end in violence as long as you comply with demands made.
What To Do If You Are on Vacation in Kenya and Political Unrest Breaks Out?
In 2007/8 there was a significant amount of political unrest in Kenya which kept nearly all tourists out of the country, despite the fact that barely any major national parks or beach resorts were affected. However, it's your vacation and vacations are meant to be relaxing, hopefully a little adventurous -- but certainly not terrifying. Your safari company, volunteer agency or airline should be up to date on what is going on in Kenya, but here's what to do if you happen to be there already and things go wrong. Kenyans will return to the polls again on March 4th 2013, but there is no expectation it will be nearly as chaotic as in 2007/8.
If riots break out, or there is a sudden attack while you are enjoying a vacation in Kenya, your first call should be to your embassy. For US Citizens click here for your embassy web site; For UK citizens click here, for all other nationalities - click here.
If you are a US Citizen you can contact the US Department of State emergency line at: 1-202-501-4444. If you have access to the internet check your local Foreign office or Department of State web sites. They will have the latest information on flights out of the country, contact numbers and more.
Your government will be monitoring the situation and have plans for evacuation if the need arises. Evacuations will get you to a safe country, not necessarily home, that will be your problem to deal with. Contact your tour company and find out if they can reschedule your itinerary, or get you back home if the situation warrants it. Talk to the local staff at your hotel, they will be able to tell you exactly what is going on and give you the background of the situation.