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Drawn by wildebeest, tourists pour into Kenya despite possible poll violence

By Duncan Miriri
NAIROBI, Jul 17 (Reuters) Tourists to Kenya are shrugging off fears of potential violence during elections in August, pouring into the East African country in droves for a chance of seeing the annual wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara.
Tour operators and hoteliers are reporting near full capacity, in large part because of safari-lovers hoping to see the hundreds of thousands of wildebeest that run the gauntlet of hungry crocodiles as they cross the Mara river in search of greener pastures on the Kenya-Tanzania border.
Elections, often a fraught and tense occasions in Kenya, are being held on August 8.
But the chance of seeing the wildebeest in their splendour has pushed concerns about a repetition of post-election violence in 2008, when 1,200 people were killed, to the back of most tourists' minds.
"We are having a near full capacity in terms of business through the months of July and August," said Kenya Tourism Board communications manager Wausi Walya.
Mahmud Janmohamed, chief executive of TPS Eastern Africa , which operates a safari lodge with views of the migration route, said bookings for this month were similar to last year and slightly up in August.
"We haven't witnessed any cancellations or any challenges," he said, saying nervousness over the poll was being balanced by expectations that any electoral disputes could be resolved in court, not in the streets.
Opposition leader Raila Odinga, whose rejection of the outcome of the 2007 poll sparked serious ethnic clashes, also challenged the election of President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2013 but accepted the court's decision to uphold the result.
The pair are facing off again this year and though they have been criss-crossing the country in robust and colourful campaigns, their supporters have generally remained calm, with only isolated incidents of unrest reported.
"So far we have carried ourselves in a respectable and civilised manner," said Mohamed Hersi, chairman of the Kenya Tourism Federation (KTF), an umbrella association of hoteliers, tour operators and airlines.
Federation members were reporting healthy bookings, with inland safaris faring particularly well.
"I would comfortably say we are 20-25 per cent higher than last year," said Hersi, who has operated top hotels at the coast for more than two decades.
However, tour operators are not being complacent.
"If we start hitting the news headlines for the wrong reasons, then they will cancel. But so far, they don't care if you hold elections or whether you don't," Hersi said.
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