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 issued travel warnings or advisories for visitors planning a trip there.
Kenyan Travel Advisories
In particular, the British travel advisory warns of political tension in the aftermath of the November 2017 elections. It also highlights the likelihood of terrorist attacks carried out in Kenya by Al-Shabaab, a militant group based in neighboring Somalia. In the last few years, this group has carried out attacks in Garissa, Mombasa and Nairobi. 2017 also saw incidences of violence and arson on conservancies and farms in Laikipia county, due to conflict between private landowners and pastoralist cattle herders. The travel advisory issued by the U.S. Department of State also mentions the risk of terrorism, but focuses mainly on the high rate of violent crime in Kenya's larger cities.
Despite these concerns, both countries have given Kenya a relatively low risk rating - especially in those areas most commonly visited by tourists. With careful planning and a bit of common sense, it is still possible to safely enjoy the many incredible things that Kenya has to offer.
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 February 2018, for example, the U.S. Department of State recommends that tourists avoid the Kenya-Somalia border counties of Mandera, Wajir and Garissa; and coastal areas including Tana River county, Lamu county and areas of Kalifi county north of Malindi. The advisory also warns tourists to stay out of the Nairobi neighborhood of Eastleigh at all times, and Mombasa's Old Town area after dark.
Kenya's major tourist spots are not included in any of these restricted areas. Therefore, travelers can easily adhere to the above warnings while still planning trips to iconic destinations including Amboseli National Park, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Mount Kenya and Watamu. It's also possible to visit cities like Mombasa and Nairobi without incident - just make sure to stay in a safe neighborhood and to exercise caution according to the guidelines below.
Staying Safe in Large Cities
Many of Kenya's largest cities have a poor reputation when it comes to crime. As is true for most of Africa, large communities 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 jewelry 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 is 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 most of them offer life-changing experiences. 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. Be prepared in case something does go wrong by keeping a copy of your passport in your luggage, stashing emergency cash in several different places and taking out comprehensive travel insurance.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on February 20th 2018.