SAMBURU, Kenya Lounging by the hotel pool in one of Kenya's storied nature reserves, Debbie Shillito sees one small advantage to the travel warnings issued after a presidential election here sparked violence.
"You get all the attention," Shillito, a Canadian tourist, told The Associated Press in the Samburu National Reserve, where only 15 percent of the rooms at her upscale hotel were occupied this week, leaving the staff at her beck and call. Last year at this time, the start of the high season, the hotel was 80 percent full.
Kenya, one of the most prosperous and tourist-friendly countries in Africa, has seen up to $1 billion in losses linked to the bloody turmoil following President Mwai Kibaki's disputed re-election, officials said.
In the days after the Dec. 27 vote, riots and ethnic violence erupted from the coast to the rural highlands, killing some 500 Kenyans, displacing thousands and prompting the Nairobi stock exchange to close and shops and restaurants to padlock their doors. Ships docking at the port of Mombasa could not offload their goods destined for Kenya and elsewhere in the region because transporters feared being attacked by militias who had set up roadblocks on some of Kenya's main roads.
The United States and Britain warned their citizens against all but essential travel to Kenya, where tourism usually brings in $900 million a year and is among the top five foreign currency earners. More than 5,000 tourists who had been expected to arrive at the coast this week canceled trips at the last minute, according to an official of the Kenya Tourism Federation who asked that his name not be used because he was not allowed to speak to the media.
"These travel advisories are what are stopping people coming here," said Jake Grieves-Cook, spokesman for the tourism federation. The image of Kenya has changed from "giraffes, welcoming people and stability" to "the lunatic with a machete sharpening it on the road," he said. "So we have a lot of work to counter that image."
Tourism's high seasons are December to March and then July to September.
"At the time when we had the worst riots, we had over 30,000 tourists" on the Kenyan coast, which has a total bed capacity of 32,000, said Grieves-Cook. "Everything as far as the tourists were concerned proceeded without a problem at all."
He said that no tourist has been injured or killed during the violence.
Shillito, who traveled from British Columbia with her husband, said friends have been worried about her safety.
"The news coming from this place is maybe nerve-wracking, but I have not felt under threat," she said. "Without a doubt I am going to recommend Kenya to all my friends."
The effects stretch far beyond tourism. The turmoil also has driven up prices of staple foods such as bread, maize flour and some vegetables because of roadblocks along main roads. The transport problems also led to temporary fuel shortages in the region because supplies got stuck at the port in Mombasa. Kenya is the transit point for a quarter of the gross domestic product of Uganda and Rwanda, and one-third of Burundi's GDP, according to the World Bank.
Uganda at one point suspended domestic flights for lack of fuel.
The United Nations has long used Kenya as a logistics center for providing aid to neighboring countries, including Somalia, Sudan, Uganda and Congo. Now stockpiled aid was being used for Kenyans who fled their homes because of the political violence.
Kenyan business owners, many of whom saw their shops looted or burned in the chaos, said they will try to rebuild.
"They've paralyzed me," said Francis Maina, whose three-year-old furniture shop was looted and burned. Only a few sofa sets with mismatched cushions and a few unfinished chairs remained.
He says he needs more than $150,000 to restart but he is not optimistic about getting a loan from the bank.
"When they see this," he said, pointing at the ashes from burned timber, "they will not give me anything."
Conservationists in parks such as the Masai Mara say they rely on tourism to keep the parks up and running. But even though no violence has been reported in the parks, and no tourists have been killed in the violence, tourists are still too scared to come to Kenya, officials say.
"It is hard to comprehend how quickly things went wrong," said Brian Heath, chief executive of the Mara Conservancy. "One day we had full occupancy in a couple of days there is hardly anyone."
Independent economist David Ndii says it is difficult to predict the full economic impact of Kenya's political violence, but it will certainly cut the 6.1 percent growth rate Kenya recorded last year. In addition to tourism, tea and coffee are key to an economy seen as the region's anchor.
"Even you if you restore calm, basically for the next couple years you cannot get the growth you had before," he said. "We are talking of shaving off 2 to 3 percentage points of your economic growth."