(By: Kylie Granat & Catherine Bower)

Kenya Airways, the first airline to offer daily direct flights between the US and East Africa, made its maiden flight on Sunday (October 28) when its Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner departed Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) at 23h20 for John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), arriving around 14h51 on Monday (October 29) – a historic flight marking the airline’s entry into North America, and a move that is bound to boost East Africa’s tourism industry.

Prior to departure, Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta noted that the direct flights will open up Kenya to the rest of the world.

Kenyatta took to Twitter, saying: “It is historic for Kenya’s aviation sector to witness the inaugural direct flights between Nairobi and New York finally take off. The direct air link between our country and the US presents great opportunities in trade, tourism and people-to-people relations.”

Speaking at the landing in Nairobi, Kenya’s Deputy President, William Ruto, said: “Kenya’s safari experience is one of the world’s most spectacular wildlife experiences, and has put Kenya both on the global map and on many American travellers’ bucket lists. As more North Americans look to Africa as their next big vacation destination, Kenya now has an opportunity to expand further into the United States’ market and capture market share away from other destinations in Africa.”

The US is currently Kenya’s second strongest source market, mentioned  Mohammed Hersi, Chairman of the Kenya Tourism Federation and Group Director of Operations at Pollman Tours and Safaris. With this, Hersi foresees the new flights affecting other markets such as Canada and Central America, saying: “We are now going to target South America aggressively. Canada will also find it easier to come to Kenya and East Africa…The eight to 12 hours transit has been cut to zero with the direct flights.”

Pollman’s has destination marketing strategies in place to leverage off the new route, says Hersi, with plenty roadshows and agent FAM trips. “Kenya Tourism Board has also engaged big time in a digital campaign with Google and TripAdvisor,” he adds. 

Chief Executive Officer of Giltedge Africa, Murray Gardiner says the flights will definitely boost US arrivals and Kenya’s tourism. “We have seen a large increase in enquiries for East Africa this past year, so the timing for the launch of the direct flights to Kenya is excellent. Also, with Kenya Airways flying from Nairobi to both Cape Town and Victoria Falls, it is now an excellent hub to travel around Southern and East Africa for US travellers.”

The direct flights are expected to benefit local carriers too, as US visitors make their way to other regions in the country. “Kenya is magical, and we believe the majority of tourists from the US market visit Kenya for safari; therefore the direct flights will bring more wildlife lovers to our parks, such as the Masai Mara National Reserve, Amboseli National Park and Tsavo National Park,” mentions Terryann Mutindi, Marketing and Communication Head at Safarilink Aviation.

In addition to the direct flights benefitting Kenya’s arrivals, they are expected to have a positive knock-on effect for Tanzania’s tourism industry, as according to Hersi 45% of tourists on safari use JKIA as a port of entry into East Africa, with Arusha in Tanzania, the gateway to the Serengeti and northern safari circuit, being close.

Mutindi told Tourism Update that Safarilink flies to over 17 destinations across Kenya and Tanzania, making some of East Africa’s iconic destinations that much more accessible, recommending the Masai Mara, Amboseli, Samburu, Tsavo, and coastal regions, such as Diani, Vipingo (Mombasa), Lamu, and Zanzibar to US visitors looking to diversify their itineraries.

Speaking on behalf of Giltedge Africa, Gardiner says the Masai Mara is a must-do for any visitor to Kenya. “But one shouldn’t forget about the Northern Kenya circuit for a unique itinerary, which includes Laikipia, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, and the Samburu National Reserve. It is dotted with reserves with abundant wildlife, scenic mountains, lakes and cultural sites,” he adds.

Other highlights US travellers should consider incorporating into their trip include Lake Nakuru, Nairobi National Park and Kenya's beaches, concludes Hersi.