By James Macharia
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Recent bombings in Kenya have dented President Uhuru Kenyatta's plans to boost tourism and undermined his pledge to restore security after last year's Westgate shopping mall attack.
Travel warnings issued by the United States, Britain, France and Australia last month have sent their citizens packing, emptying Kenya's palm-fringed beaches and forcing hotels to lay off staff.
On taking office last year Kenyatta vowed to lift tourist numbers to 5 million annually within five years, three times' last year's level, and get economic growth into double figures in his bid to raise incomes and lift millions out of poverty.
Those targets always looked optimistic to economists and seem further out of reach following a spike in attacks on Kenya, blamed on militants linked to Somalia, this year.
The travel alerts are also a fresh point of friction between the West and Kenyatta, whose pending trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) has cast a shadow over relations with a nation seen as an ally in the battle against militant Islam.
"The West risks opening a new divide with Kenyatta as they did with the ICC, but the tension so far appears more benign," said Macharia Munene, a university lecturer in Nairobi.
Western governments said they could only have limited contacts with a leader facing charges of inciting ethnic killings after violence during elections in 2007 left about 1,200 dead. Kenyatta denies the charges and his case has been delayed due to a lack of witnesses.
The travel advisories have put the coastal city of Mombasa, where suspected Islamist bombers killed three people this month, off-limits to many tourists. Western governments have also urged vigilance elsewhere. As tourists fled, jobs have also gone.
"I was sent home ... because there weren't enough visitors at the hotel," said 27-year-old Tumaini Sidi, a maid at the luxury Sai Rock Beach & Spa Hotel in Mombasa.
Beach resorts and safari lodges now face the challenge of securing bookings for the crucial July-September period, as Somalia's al Shabaab Islamist group has threatened more strikes if Kenya doesn't pull troops out of Somalia. Kenya said it won't quit Somalia.
Tourism is Kenya's second-biggest source of foreign exchange after agriculture, earning $1.02 billion last year or about 12 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.
But those figures only tell half the story. The industry is a major employer, providing about 500,000 jobs directly and generating work for a host of support industries, from food suppliers right down to vendors selling trinkets on the street.
Some 900 tourists cut short their holidays after Britain issued its warning on Mombasa on May 14, weighing on an industry that saw tourist numbers slide to 1.5 million last year after an all-time peak of 1.8 million in 2011.
If the decline deepens severely this year, some economists say it could shave 1 percentage point or more off economic growth, which the IMF forecasts at 5.5-6 percent.
“Kenyatta's double-digit target for economic growth was already overly optimistic, but the continued decline in the tourism sector will further complicate efforts to boost growth," said Sarah Collier at UK-based risk consultancy Maplecroft.
Worries of violence during last year's election had deterred many from visiting the country's white sandy beaches and game parks. A peaceful vote raised hopes for an upturn, only to be dashed when Al Shabaab gunmen stormed Nairobi's upmarket Westgate mall in September 2013, gunning down shoppers. At least 67 people died.
Kenyatta, whose family business empire includes a chain of hotels, is now trying to shore up the industry by encouraging domestic tourism: waiving taxes on air tickets and offering tax breaks to firms who pay staff holidays.
As Europeans, who account for nearly half of Kenya's tourists, become wary, the government is eying more visitors from China, but that is a long-term plan. There were only 38,000 Chinese visitors in the 2012/2013 fiscal year.
Central Bank Governor Njuguna Ndung'u played down prospects for a downturn in tourism that would hurt growth. "It could only be a temporary hiccup," he told Reuters, citing a forecast of 5.6 percent for growth in fiscal 2014/15 starting July 1.
But if security worsens it could have a broader effect.
"The impact of the security situation on domestic confidence is far more important as a driver of growth," said Razia Khan, head of Africa research at Standard Chartered bank said. "This is where Kenya faces its greatest vulnerability."
Kenya insists it is on top of security and is tracking militants. "We are guarding ... all known crowded areas within the city," said Nelson Marwa, Mombasa county government commissioner. "You will not see us but we are there."
Deputy President William Ruto said the government was being blamed for attacks that got through without being credited for the many more it has stopped.
Some Western diplomats, though, voiced frustration that Kenya had not bolstered security more robustly after Westgate. No top officials lost jobs over the attack, even when troops were found to have looted the mall during the four-day siege.
Western diplomats and security experts also say security forces are being hampered by poor coordination between agencies. And Kenyan strong-arm tactics can be counter-productive, despite counter terrorism and other training from Britain, the United States and Israel amongst others.
One diplomat pointed to the rounding up of hundreds of people from a Somali-dominated area of Nairobi after recent bombings.
"All it does is turn them more against you," he said, adding Kenya had to do more to win the battle against militant ideas and address the issues driving recruitment.
Al Shabaab has not claimed responsibility for the May attacks in Nairobi and Mombasa, which has prompted some to question whether the government is right to blame it. Officials insist it is al Shabaab or their sympathisers. Al Shabaab could not be reached for comment.
This highlights the challenge facing Kenya. Kenyan experts say al Shabaab may be increasingly turning to "hired hands" from Kenya's own radicalised youth, many of them drawn from the Muslim community, which makes up 15 percent of the population.
"It is rented terrorists," said Mutahi Ngunyi of Nairobi-based consultancy firm Consulting House, adding the Somali group was paying sympathisers to lob grenades or detonate home-made explosives.
Privately, some Kenyan officials also say Washington and European governments are playing politics, seeking to punish Nairobi for its closer ties with Beijing and for awarding new contracts, such as a new railway, to China rather than the West.
Western states, who are big aid donors, say they are only acting because of security worries.
"We are not allowed to politicise security," said John Bradshaw, the British High Commission spokesman in Nairobi.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Akwiri in Mombasa and John Tompo at the Mara Reserve, Feisal Omar in Mogadishu and Fumbuka Ng'wanakilala in Dar es Salaam; Editing by Edmund Blair and Susan Fenton)