Case study: Ecotourism in Kenya

By Matt Burdett, 27 January 2018

On this page, we look at ecotourism in Kenya as one case study of sustainable tourism in one low-income country.

Ecotourism in Kenya

Kenya has a wide range of ecotourism activities, including cultural (indigenous peoples) and environmental (hiking and adventure tourism, and wildlife safaris). For example (Kenya Travel Tips, 2018):

  • About 7.5% of the country is designated for wildlife conservation
  • There are 23 National Parks and 28 National Reserves, plus six marine reserves
  • Wide range of wildlife including lions, elephants, zebras and over 1070 bird species
  • 536 kilometers of coastline, which is largely sandy beaches
  • Six World Heritage Sites

Tourism is a major industry in Kenya. However, it is very difficult to ascertain detailed figures on ecotourism, although there are some figures about tourism in general. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics collects detailed information about tourism. The number of international visitors has been largely stable for several years there has been a slight decrease:

  • Reported Visitor Departures by Purpose, 2009 – 2016. Source: Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 2017.


The number of tourists visiting the Game Parks and National Reserves actually decreased during the same period, as shown below. This corresponds with the slight decrease in overall holiday visitors during the same period, but it is not evenly distributed among the parks with some, such as the Nairobi National Park, experiencing an increase.

  • Reported Visitor Departures by Purpose, 2009 – 2016. Source: Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 2017.

These visitors contribute an estimated US$1 billion per year to the Kenyan economy, which is roughly 10% of gross domestic product. Tourism is the biggest industry in Kenya, employing 9.3% of workers (Kenya Tourism Board, 2016).

National scale ecotourism

Responsibility for tourism in Kenya is under the Kenya Tourist Board. It has a sustainability committee which works on four principles (Kenya Tourism Board, 2016):

  • Environmental conservation
  • Education and empowerment
  • Social responsibility
  • Culture and heritage preservation

The Kenya Tourist Board introduced an ‘Eco-rating Scheme’ in 2002 for accommodation providers (such as hotels) and in 2015 this was expanded to tour operators with the ‘Travel Life’ rating scheme. There are now over 100 eco-rated facilities in Kenya. There are also annual awards given for the most sustainable practices.

These advances are in line with Vision 2030, Kenya’s national development plan. Tourism is the lead sector in the plan to achieve a transformation of the national economy (Kenya Tourism Board, 2016).

Kenya’s plans for tourism rely on five pillars to avoid greenwashing. ‘Greenwashing’ is a term “used to describe the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service” (Greenpeace, n.d.). The five pillars are:

  • Pillar 1 – Leveraging the Might of Giants / Benchmarking. This means that Kenya looks abroad at similar policies to learn lessons, such as looking at Ecotourism Australia, and CAST in the Caribbean
  • Pillar 2 – Broad & Inclusive Sustainability Guidelines. Reference to the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Pillar 3 – Education & Specialization. Includes support for three major tourism conferences held annually in Kenya.
  • Pillar 4 – Recognition of Champions. Eco-rating Schemes and other awards.
  • Pillar 5- Partnership / Integration. Includes stakeholder agreement and recognition.

Local scale sustainable tourism: The Maasai Mara National Reserve

  • Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Source: Key45, 2003.

The Maasai Mara National Reserve was first established in 1961. Since then it has earned a reputation as one of the best ecotourism destinations in the world. Ecotourism is encouraged by tour companies and accommodation providers.

Cottars Safari Service

Cottars is one of the oldest tourism companies in Kenya, having been first registered in 1919. It is an award winning ecotourism company that makes efforts to be sustainable. It operates in the area around the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

  • When visitors come to the area and use Cottars, they are expressly charged a lease fee for wildlife conservation. Some of this revenue is shared with local communities and also used to help develop the 6,000 acre Olderikesi Wildlife Conservancy on the edge of the Reserve as a way to expand the area under conservation.
  • Cottars employs accredited guides to ensure they are in harmony with the environment and culture of the area; many of these guides are from the local area.
  • Tourists are encouraged to bring a few items with them from their home country that can support local people, such as school supplies for the Olpalagilagi Primary School for a total of 200 students.
  • Cottars takes tourists to visit the local Maasai villages which helps to provide a market for traditional products such as beads, which helps local people economically.
  • Financial and legal support was provided to local communities to fight for land rights, resulting in the legal ownership of the Olderkesi Group Ranch in 2010.
  • Combines with groups such as Bridging the Gap; a bridge was built across the Sand River, preventing an average of six deaths per year and allowing local people to access social amenities.

(Sources: Cottars, 2015;, 2012)

Olarro Lodge

  • Olarro Lodge, Kenya. Source:

Olarro Lodge is a rural hotel about halfway between Nairobi and Lake Victoria, near the border with Tanzania. In January 2015, it won the coveted Gold Eco-rating Certification from Ecotourism Kenya. It is about 5 km from the Maasai Mara nature reserve, and is within the Olarro Conservancy. The conservancy is a 7,500 acre area which is owned by around 150 local Maasai landowners. To ensure the principles of ecotourism are successfully implemented, the Lodge has made several alterations to be more sustainable.

  • Solar power is produced on-site with 150 solar panels
  • Two wind turbines add to the electrical supply
  • Water is heated with 17 solar water heaters, which can heat around 600 liters of water each
  • Signage encourages visitors to save electricity
  • Energy saving light bulbs are found throughout the hotel
  • Water is sourced from a natural spring within the conservancy, and rainwater is harvested from rooftops of the buildings and stored in three 100,000 litre underground tanks
  • Waste water is treated on-site and used to provide irrigation for the hotel’s lawns
  • Guests are encouraged to behave more sustainably by being educated about these features on their arrival

  • Olarro Lodge, Kenya. Source: Karanja and Shabanji, 2015.


Cottars, C., 2015. Cottars Strive for Excellence in Sustainable Tourism. In Naturals Magazine number 06. Accessed 27 January 2018., 2012. Cottar’s Conservation, Community, Culture & Commerce. Accessed 27 January 2018.

Greenpeace, n.d. Greenwashing. Accessed 27 January 2018.

Karanja and Shabanji, 2015. Replicable Best Practices At Olarro Lodge. In Naturals Magazine number 06. Accessed 27 January 2018.

Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 2017. Statistical Abstract 2017. Accessed 27 January 2018.

Kenya Tourism Board, 2016. Sustainable Tourism Report 2016 Accessed 27 January 2018.

Kenya Travel Tips, 2018. Tourism in Kenya. Accessed 27 January 2018.

Key45, 2003. Gnus and zebras in the Maasai Mara park reserve in Kenya. Wildebeest and zebra migration in Maasai Mara. Sourced from Accessed 27 January 2018., n.d. Accessed 27 January 2018.

Case study: Ecotourism in Kenya: Learning activities


  1. Why is Kenya a suitable destination for ecotourism? [4]
  2. Outline the changes in tourism numbers in Kenya in recent years. [3]
  3. Outline the national approach taken to ecotourism in Kenya. [5]
  4. Suggest how the Maasai Mara National Reserve can be considered in keeping with ecotourism principles. [6]
  5. Do you consider tourists to the Olarro Lodge are ecotourists? Explain your answer. [4]
  6. Overall, do you think ecotourism can bring benefits to people in Kenya? Why? [8]

Other tasks

Conduct research into another remote tourist destination that offers ecotourism, such as the Kuna Yala of Panama. Compare the efforts made by both destinations and suggest which is the more sustainable form of ecotourism.