Kenya crisis comes to Aspen

Charles Agar
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” With violence following a recent corrupt election in Kenya splashed across the pages of newspapers around the globe, the tourist economy there is in trouble.

And bad press for Kenya means more than just a few tour companies tightening their belts, according to Aris Grammaticas, a safari company owner visiting Aspen this week. The recent strife ” or fallout from misconceptions about the situation ” is a huge blow to Kenya.

Grammaticas, in Aspen with his wife, Romi, this week to visit friends and family, will speak at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. He’ll focus on the history of Kenya, the roots of and misconceptions over the recent unrest and what the future holds for a land that normally attracts visitors from around the world.

“The reason for this talk is to try and bring tourism back,” Grammaticas said. “We want to make people comfortable.”

Grammaticas is transparent about his self-interest, and said the family business has suffered as a result of recent bad press and travel restrictions resulting from the unrest.

But Grammaticas, who employs some 450 workers, said that the loss of the tourist dollar is not just affecting his pocketbook, but the likes of all Kenyans ” he estimated just one of his employees, for example, supports up to 17 people at home.

“A lot of [safari] companies are in danger of dying,” Grammaticas said, adding that the U.S. tourist market is very important.

And he is frustrated because the travel bans and general fears of visiting Kenya are based on misconceptions.

The tourism downturn also means less foreign capital turning into safe drinking water and new schools for rural Kenyans in need, Grammaticas said, as many grassroots nonprofits rely on tourism.

“It is imperative to kick start the tourism industry,” Grammaticas said.

Born in Tanzania the son of Greek immigrants working in the sisal trade (used for making twine), Grammaticas and his wife Romi, a UK native, met in Kenya in the mid-1960s and opened their own safari company in 1972 with a mind to making trips into the wild lands of Kenya more affordable.

The Grammaticas, along with three of their four children, run safaris from their Governor’s Camp, the first free-standing tent camp in the Masai Mara Wildlife area.

The operation has grown, and the camp recently was the home base of BBC filmmakers shooting the show “Big Cat Diaries.”

Grammaticas speaks from more than 60 years of experience in a country that is normally a model of democracy, he said.

Kenya was one of the first of the many colonized African nations to go through insurrection and move to democracy without heavy bloodshed, he said.

“It’s been an icon in Africa of stability,” Grammaticas said.

And despite historic divisions along tribal lines and the rise and fall of corrupt officials, Kenya has a long history of stability, with majority Kikuyu people and minority Luo finding peaceful solutions to conflict.

“I think both sides behaved abominably,” Grammaticas said of the recent election and the strife that followed.

He stressed, however, that the violence was isolated mostly to Nairobi slums and parts of the rural Rift Valley.

And ” whether expat, tourist or journalist ” not a hair has been touched on any Westerner’s head, Grammaticas said.

“The whole problem has never been directed at Europeans,” Grammaticas said.

Kenyan people are fed up with their corrupt leaders, Grammaticas added, and he expects change.

“My confidence is in the Kenyans,” Grammaticas said. “The Kenyans are very placid people on the whole.”

A recent bi-partisan agreement ” in large part thanks to the intervention of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Condoleezza Rice ” has the country back on track, he said.

His message: If you were considering going on a visit or a safari in Kenya but decided to put it off because of recent events, go anyway.

To illustrate, Grammaticas said he never would leave his children and seven of his grandchildren in a country that wasn’t safe.

For more information about Tuesday’s event, contact ACES at (970) 920-1441.