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Ethical Conduct of Tourism Industry Project - MERC

Current tourism practices in Kenya threaten the Maasai and their stewardship of East Africa's wildlife. Over forty years ago, Kenya established itself as a tourist destination where travelers have unique opportunities to view stunning big game, immense biodiversity, and native cultures, particularly the Maasai. Although Kenya’s tourism industry is the most important economic sector, it is rapidly becoming a liability to the nation’s environment as well as a threat to the cultural and social well-being of many local communities.

According to the Kenya Association of Tour Operators (KATO), Kenya has over 4,000 independent tour operators. While many operators strive to achieve the principals of ecotourism, poor licensing procedures and the absence of government oversight have allowed the spread of unsustainable and unethical business practices. In particular, unregulated tourism practices in Kenya are negatively affecting the Maasai. The tourism industry frequently portrays the Maasai as a tourist attraction rather than a unique people who should be understood and treated with respect.

Because of their proximity to the internationally renowned parks of East Africa and their dependence on natural resources, the Maasai face increasing competition for threatened natural resources. Often this competition comes from tour operators and tourist lodges. Certain operators within the industry market culturally or environmentally sensitive tours that in reality often do more harm than good. While the tour operators profit from their practices, the Maasai and the wildlife that they protect, rarely profit financially or otherwise from contact with the tourists. In addition, as the Maasai face reductions in their rangeland due to expanding development, their ability to protect the biodiversity that populates these plains also decreases.

The deterioration in relations between the tourism industry, the Maasai, local authorities, and the Government of Kenya must be reversed now in order to prevent permanent, irreversible damage to the unique natural and cultural resources in East Africa. This growing tension demands an immediate, cooperative response to ensure the future of tourism in Kenya.


Technical and financial support is sought by MERC to generate respect from government and tourism industry representatives for the environment and indigenous cultures on which the tourism industry depends for survival. Unlike other organizations advocating for sustainable tourism initiatives in Kenya, MERC offers a uniquely Maasai perspective. Its initiatives will complement other ecotourism efforts while distinguishing and amplifying the concerns that are unique to the Maasai. MERC is encouraging policy reforms, including the adoption of Ecotourism Principles and an Ecotourism Code of Conduct (Attachment A), to advance responsible practices within the tourism industry.

The first step in MERC’s proposal is a community-based conference to adopt an Ecotourism Code of Ethics and lead Maasai representatives in the development of an action plan for future activities. The draft conference agenda includes sessions dedicated to the analysis of the problem, potential remedies, and the identification of key stakeholders and partner organizations. Shortly thereafter, MERC would like to hold a follow-up conference to introduce the Maasai vision to a wider range of stakeholders, including representatives from the tourism industry, local and national governments, other indigenous groups, and international organizations dedicated to environmental or cultural goals.

In the interim, MERC will continue to generate local, national and international awareness of the threats posed by unregulated tourism in Kenya and seek technical and financial support to sustain its advocacy work. The deterioration of the Maasai culture and native lands directly impacts the biodiversity of the area, so the Maasai are particularly appropriate advocates for sustainable tourism policies. While the Maasai may not have the practical resources to implement a sustainable tourism project independently, MERC hopes that the international stature and name recognition of the Maasai will help generate worldwide support for sustainable tourism activities in Kenya. MERC and the Maasai plan to create a new path towards environmentally and culturally sustainable tourism in Kenya by working in partnership with the NGO community, the tourism industry and the government.


A long-term action plan that would achieve MERC’s Maasai-endorsed goals might include components such as:

  • Tourist Awareness and Outreach - Tourist awareness of environmental and cultural issues at a destination is a fundamental component of an effective ecotourism program. Tourists learn how to protect and preserve local wildlife and habitats; interact and learn about local cultures in an atmosphere of mutual respect and personal enrichment; and support community-based income-generation enterprises. This will lead to the transfer of wealth to communities in remote areas. Cooperative education programs would be most successful if implemented in conjunction with the local private tourism sector, county councils, the Kenya Wildlife Service, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, the Ministry of Tourism and the Maasai people.
  • Training of Tour Guides and Operators - Available training programs in Kenya do not adequately teach tour operators to understand the laws pertaining to wildlife conservation. Rather, programs concentrate on teaching the names, description, behaviour, and distribution of the various wildlife species. There is an immediate need to produce an informed, honest and dedicated group of people in the tourism industry.
  • Increased Governmental Oversight of the Industry - The government should develop and enforce a code of conduct and ethics to regulate tourism operations in Maasailand and the country. These laws should govern the way the industry markets its products (e.g., national parks and local cultures), tourist and tour guide behaviour in parks and on Maasai communal lands, and regulate the manner in which the industry interacts with the local communities to protect the interests of vulnerable local populations.
  • Integration of Maasai into Tourism Operations - The Maasai need economic empowerment through training and employment opportunities in the numerous lodges in Maasailand. Increased economic independence would result from just compensation for Maasai products, a share of revenues collected from the parks’ fees, and prevention of dehumanising photography and copyright violations.
  • Mechanism for Allowing the Maasai People to Benefit From and Support Tourism - The Maasai need assistance to establish a financial mechanism for the equitable collection and disbursement of revenue from tourism-related activities. Tourism revenue in Maasai territories should lead to tangible benefits for the Maasai, such as social programs aimed at schools, health clinics, and a clean water supply.


Jensen, K., et al. Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition. 2003. 3 Oct. 2003 <>.