The Cable

Obama to Attend Conference in Kenya Despite U.S. Travel Warning

U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Kenya in July despite warnings from the State Department that travel there could be unsafe.

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President Barack Obama is set to visit his father’s homeland, Kenya, in July to take part in a summit connecting young entrepreneurs with global leaders. Travelers who want to join him must first confront the State Department and other Western governments that have long warned: Go to Kenya at your own risk.

A U.S. advisory that serves as a travel alert to Kenya, where al-Shabab has launched a number of successful terror attacks, has been in place since June 2014. On Tuesday, the British Foreign Office extended its own travel warning to Mombasa, a coastal Kenyan tourist destination that remains under constant threat from al-Shabab attacks.

Despite these advisories, the United States plans to co-host the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit from July 24 to 26 in the capital Nairobi, which is likely to attract thousands of delegates from around the globe. The State Department did not return a request for comment Tuesday on whether the United States would revise its travel warning now that the president is set to travel there.

Kenyan officials are furious over U.S., British, Australian, and French warnings, issued after a series of al-Shabab attacks in recent years, most notably the 2013 siege of an upscale mall in Nairobi that left 68 dead. They say fears over attacks on tourists are overblown and are crushing Kenya’s tourist industry, which is the lifeblood of its fragile economy, and in turn, exasperating cycles of poverty and joblessness. The Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers claims that between 25,000 to 30,000 people have lost jobs in the last year in Mombasa.

American diplomats insist the danger to embassy staffers is real. Travel to certain parts of the country, including Mombasa, is restricted, and some staff members have been relocated to other countries.

“Violent and sometimes fatal criminal attacks, including armed carjackings, grenade attacks, home invasions and burglaries, and kidnappings can occur at any time and in any location, particularly in Nairobi,” says the 2014 State Department travel warning, which is still in effect. “U.S. citizens, including U.S. Embassy employees, have been victims of such crimes within the past year.”

To be sure, Obama’s security detail while in the sub-Saharan nation will be extraordinarily tight and expensive. Security precautions on a 2013 Obama trip to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania cost between $60 million and $100 million, and it’s fair to say an event the U.S. president and thousands of foreign delegates plan to attend makes an enticing target. Nearly 4,000 people attended a 2014 entrepreneur conference in Marrakech, Morocco, according to the White House.

The State warning advises those traveling to the conference — which is aimed at connecting entrepreneurs with business leaders, foreign governments, and other international organizations — to be mindful of suicide bombings, shootings, kidnappings, and attacks against planes and boats.

On Tuesday, Kenyan officials praised President Obama’s visit as a chance to show the world the country is safe. Kenya Tourism Board managing director Muriithi Ndegwa called it “an indication of the prowess of the destination to host international meetings.” Kenyan Ambassador to the United States Robinson Njeru Githae told Foreign Policy in an email that Obama’s visit highlights his country’s “safety and security for visitors from all over the world.”

Photo Credit: Tony Karumba/AFP

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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