By Joseph Akwiri
MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - Kenya does not expect its already suffering tourist trade to see any improvement until after a presidential election in March because of fears of a repeat of the ethnic violence that rocked the country when Mwai Kibaki was re-elected in 2007.
Tourism is one of Kenya's top earners of foreign exchange, raking in 98 billion shillings ($1.14 billion) last year, but Islamist attacks from neighboring Somalia and the euro zone crisis have deterred Western visitors.
Voters will pick a new president on March 4, the first election under a new constitution and the first since the 2007 vote that triggered ethnic killings across the country.
"We don't expect any improvement in international arrival numbers at least until after the elections, and that is anticipating that the elections will be peaceful," Muriithi Ndegwa, the head of the Kenya Tourist Board, told reporters.
"The happenings of 2007/2008 post election period have not been forgotten, especially by foreigners."
During the weeks-long violence, tourists canceled their bookings while others fled the country, turning beach front hotels, attractive to Europeans for their competitive prices and relatively short flights, into ghost resorts.
The industry slowly recovered but a steady wave of grenade and gun attacks since the country of 40 million sent troops into neighboring Somalia to help crush an Islamist rebellion has hit the leisure sector this year.
The ailing economies in the euro zone, a major source for Kenyan tourism, compounded the sector's woes in 2012.
"Our traditional tourist markets have all declined in number of tourists arriving," Ndegwa said.
Kenya received 1.02 million tourists in the first 10 months of this year, a 2 percent decline in annual terms, Ndegwa said.
Visitors from France declined 29 percent year-on-year to 28,834 tourists between January and October, he said.
Ndegwa said the country was targeting new source markets such as India and China in order to attract more visitors.
"We are also very keen on domestic tourists who are currently holding 37 percent of bed occupancy in hotels countrywide," he said.
(Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Alison Williams)
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