Kenya is undoubtedly one of southern Africa's most beautiful countries, and thousands of travelers visit every year without incident. However, thanks to the country's unstable political situation, most Western governments have classified Kenya as a high risk travel destination. According to official travel warnings from the U.S. and UK governments, terrorism is a concern due to the presence of the Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group Al-Shabaab in neighboring Somalia.
In May and June 2016, political protests turned violent in Kisumu, whilst the last few years have seen terrorist attacks in Garissa, Mombasa and Nairobi. As a result, many would-be visitors have changed their travel plans, and Kenyan tourism has dropped dramatically. However, with careful planning and a bit of common sense, it is possible to minimise the risk - leaving you free to enjoy all of the things that make Kenya incredible.
NB: The political situation changes daily, and as such it is worth checking government travel warnings for the most up-to-date information before booking your Kenyan adventure.
Choosing Where to Visit
Travel warnings are regularly updated based on the threat of terrorism, border skirmishes and political unrest expected at any given time. All three of these factors affect specific areas of the country, and avoiding those areas is a good way to significantly limit potential danger.
As of October 2016, for example, the U.S. Department of State recommends that tourists avoid the following counties:
Mandera, Wajir and Garissa in the northeast; Tana River and Lamu on the coast; the area of Kilifi county north of Malindi; and Eastleigh neighborhood in Nairobi.
These restricted areas do not include Kenya's major tourist spots.
Therefore, travelers can easily adhere to the above warnings whilst still planning trips to iconic destinations including Amboseli National Park, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Mount Kenya, Watamu and Mombasa. With that being said, major cities like Mombasa and Nairobi still require caution due to a high rate of violent crime.
Staying Safe in Large Cities
Many of Kenya's largest cities (including the capital, Nairobi) have a poor reputation when it comes to crime. As is true for most of Africa, large populations living in abject poverty inevitably results in frequent incidents including muggings, vehicle break-ins, armed robberies and carjackings. However, while you cannot guarantee your safety, there are plenty of ways to reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim.
As with most cities, crime is at its worst in the poorer neighborhoods, often on the city outskirts or in the informal settlements. Avoid these areas unless you're traveling with a trusted friend or guide. Never walk on your own at night - instead, employ the services of a registered, licensed taxi. Don't display expensive jewellery or camera equipment, and carry limited cash in a money belt concealed beneath your clothes.
In particular, be aware of tourist scams, including thieves disguised as police officers, vendors or tour operators. If a situation feels wrong, trust your gut and remove yourself from it as quickly as possible. Often, a good way to escape unwanted attention is to step into the nearest supermarket or hotel. With all of that being said, there is plenty to see in cities like Nairobi - so don't avoid them, just be smart.
Staying Safe on Safari
Kenya has one of the most developed tourism sectors in Africa. Safaris are generally very well run, the lodging is superb, and the wildlife fantastic. Best of all, being in the bush means being away from the crime that plagues the larger cities. If you're worried about dangerous animals, follow the instructions given to you by your guides, drivers and lodge staff and you shouldn't have any issues.
Staying Safe on the Coast
Certain parts of the Kenyan coast (including Lamu County and the area of Kilifi County north of Malindi) are currently considered unsafe. Elsewhere, you can expect to be hassled by locals selling souvenirs. However, the coast is beautiful and well worth visiting. Choose a reputable hotel, don't walk on the beach at night, keep your valuables in the hotel safe and be aware of your possessions at all times.
Safety and Volunteering
There are plenty of volunteer opportunities in Kenya, and it really is a life-changing experience. Make sure to volunteer with an established agency. Talk to ex-volunteers about their experiences, including tips for keeping you and your possessions safe. If it's your first time in Kenya, opt for a group volunteer experience in order to make the transition to life in a third-world country easier.
Staying Safe on Kenya's Roads
Roads in Kenya are poorly maintained and accidents are common due to a slalom course of potholes, livestock and people. Avoid driving a car or riding a bus at night, because these obstacles are especially difficult to see in the dark and other cars often lack key safety equipment including working headlights and brake lights. If you rent a car, keep the doors and windows locked while driving through major cities.
If you're planning an imminent Kenya trip, keep an eye on the government travel warnings and talk to your travel company or volunteer agency in order to get a realistic idea of the current situation. Political unrest in the major cities is expected around the time of the 2017 elections. Be prepared in case something does go wrong by keeping a copy of your passport in your luggage, by stashing emergency cash in several different places, and by taking out comprehensive travel insurance.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on October 13th 2016.