When the giant cruise ships pull into Mombasa’s harbor and disgorge hundreds of Western tourists, souvenir vendors are there on the pier to greet them. The vendors’ curios — carvings of animals and wooden utensils — sell for $10 or more in a city where many workers earn just a few dollars per day.
John Ngundo, 55, is a veteran of the curio trade in Mombasa. Lately, he said, business has declined. He blames his problems on the increase in piracy off the Somali coast. “We don’t get tourism coming into the port because people are afraid,” he said on Saturday morning as a few elderly Italians trickled past from the cruise ship Costa Europa.
Across Mombasa, everyday Kenyans are seeing their incomes decline as Somali pirates put a growing dent in sea trade and tourism in East African waters. Piracy is not a new problem: it has plagued the region for more than a decade, ever since the collapse of Somalia’s last functional government in the early 1990s. But this year has seen a huge spike in seaborne crime on the Indian Ocean. There have been around 100 major documented pirate attacks on commercial and cruise ships, and around 40 successful hijackings.
It’s not just the curio vendors feeling the pinch: fishermen, boaters, port hands and mariners are in trouble, too. Many shipping companies have begun rerouting traffic to avoid East Africa; cruise lines are considering doing the same. “Piracy obviously has affected the entire shipping industry,” said Khalid Shapi, managing director of Pollman’s Tours, which arranges safaris for cruise ship passengers in Mombasa.
“The trickle-down effect is that people are losing their jobs,” said Frederick Wahutu, director of the Kenya Ships Agents Association in Mombasa.
Habib Hakem, 29, owns a small fleet of deep-sea fishing boats and employs around 20 people in Mombasa. He said that in a normal year he would have around 60 contracts to take tourists on fishing expeditions, but this year, due to concerns over piracy, he has had only 15 contracts.
“Fishing is not lucrative right now,” Wahutu confirmed.
Kenyans are seemingly unanimous in asking the international community to do more to combat piracy. Wahutu, Shapi and Ngundo all said they want more foreign warships patrolling East African waters. “What I ask is [for] the world to put [forth] more effort, so these men can be stopped,” Ngundo said, while standing over his customer-less souvenir stand. “If piracy continues, it will bring a lot of loss.”