By Joseph Akwiri
MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - The number of tourists visiting Kenya's coast fell by 22 percent in the first eight months of this year compared to 2011 due to concerns over Islamist violence and the cost of landing rights in the traditional tourist hot spot, tour operators said.
Alongside tea and horticulture, tourism is one of Kenya's major foreign currency earners and raked in 98 billion shillings ($1.18 billion) last year, just shy of its 100 billion shilling target, and up from 74 billion shillings in 2010.
But officials said on Friday that the number of tourists arriving in Mombasa, the gateway to the Indian Ocean coast, had dropped to 121,472 between January and August this year, compared to 156,521 in the same period last year.
They attributed the fall to the cancellation of major charter flights to Mombasa.
"This year alone, we have witnessed the cancellation of at least five major charters that were flying directly from our key market sources to Mombasa," Sam Ikwaye, chairman of the umbrella Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers and Caterers, told Reuters.
He said British-operated Monarch Airlines, Air Berlin, France's Corsair and Tui UK were among those airlines which had canceled. SN Brussels from Belgium and 1 Time airline from South Africa had also pulled out.
"Most of these charters were flying in daily, some twice weekly, and were packed with tourists, so you can see what these cancellations have done to us," said Ikwaye.
Britain, the United States and Australia issued Kenya-related travel advisories to their citizens after a British tourist was killed near the coastal resort of Lamu last year.
Kenyan troops later entered Somalia to try to root out the al Qaeda-linked militant group blamed for attacks in the area, triggering apparent revenge grenade and gun attacks in the capital Nairobi, and the port city of Mombasa.
Concerns about a repeat of the violence that erupted after a disputed presidential election in 2007 also linger and deadly riots in the port city of Mombasa and inter-tribal fighting further north on the coast have unnerved tourists.
Ikwaye said what he called the high cost of landing in Mombasa had also kept tourists away, while fears of Somali pirates meant few cruise ships had docked at the coastal resort so far this year.
(Editing by James Macharia and Andrew Osborn)