How Kenya loses race for sports tourism billions

Iten Home of Champions. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]
Sports tourism has made impressive strides in the last two decades globally, thanks to the steady growth of the sports industry.

According to the United Nations Economics Commission for Africa, for the last 20 years there has been growing focus on sports tourism globally, involving travel for purposes of watching sports events, active participation in sports or simply to gaze at sports facilities infrastructure.

The huge potential of the sub-sector came to the fore last weekend when legendary Kenyan athlete Eliud Kipchoge shattered the world record by running the 42km marathon in less than two hours in Vienna, Austria.

The build-up to the rare feat and the actual event captured the world’s imagination, with hundreds of thousands of sports enthusiasts from all over the world travelling to the popular European capital.

The INEOS 1:59 Challenge served many valuable lessons on how to tap the benefits accruing from sports tourism, with Kipchoge having cemented Kenya’s position as the home of legendary athletes.

The country’s recent performance at the World Championships in Doha, Qatar where it finished second on the medals table behind the US further galvanised Kenya’s status as an athletics powerhouse.

The performance at the international stage has put the country on the global map, with running enthusiasts across the world flocking the North Rift to seek the answers on why the country is such a dominant force in the middle and long-distance running.

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The region provides an ideal environment for athletics training due to its high altitude and has produced many world-beaters.

Over the years, some of the best runners across the world have trained in the region, including Britain’s Mo Farah, previous world women’s marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe (whose record was broken by Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei on Sunday), 2012 Olympics 800m silver medalist Nijel Amos as well as New Zealand twins Zane and Jake Robertson.

Swiss Jullien Wanders, who is the current the European record for the half marathon with a time of 59:13, has also been living and training in the North Rift for the past four years.

Apart from the elite runners, hundreds of social runners also visit the country and train with Kenyan world champions as sports tourists. 

Tourist visas

This goes to show the potential of the sub-sector to contribute to the national economy if it is marketed well.

However, Kenya is yet to fully exploit sports tourism as a growing segment of the tourism industry both at national and county levels.

For instance, there is no law regulating foreign runners pitching camp in Iten, Kapsabet or any part of the country as they conduct their training programmes and most visit the country on tourist visas.  

Nandi Deputy Governor Yulita Mitei admits there is a need for policies to regulate sports tourism if the country is to reap maximum benefits. 

Currently, the county is building a Sh80 million Eliud Kipchoge Athletics Training Complex in honour of the world marathon record holder who hails from the region.

Mr Mitei hopes the camp will attract many runners into the county. “At the moment, there is no policy in place that can regulate the sports tourism industry, which needs to be checked on how best the government can benefit from this emerging industry. For now, only hotels are benefiting from the foreign sports enthusiasts as they provide accommodation to them,” he said.

Abraham Mutai, Athletics Kenya Central Rift Chairman and the proprietor of King Solomon Gardens in Nandi County, reckons sports is yet to be taken seriously as a business in the country and can be major revenue earner if given the right attention.

“Counties need to create their own sports events and make them competitive. That way, they will be attractive to many sports lovers all over the country and in return, many business opportunities will open up and help the local communities.

But while there is little marketing of the high altitude areas in counties such as Nandi and Elgeyo Marakwet as ideal sports tourism destinations by relevant authorities, hospitality industry players like Mr Mutai are making a killing from the hordes of foreign visitors.

One such investor is former athlete Lorna Kiplagat, a four-time world champion, who set up a high altitude training camp in Iten two decades ago.

The camp is popular among big names in world athletics.

The Kenyan-Dutch athlete saw as far back as 1999 what other investors in the hospitality industry have come to appreciate in the recent past - the potential of Iten to showcase to the world where athletic talent is born, bred and nurtured.

In the town, which is Elgeyo Marakwet’s commercial hub and headquarters, business in the hotel industry is booming, thanks to the legion of local and foreign athletes who have made it their training base.

A rise in the number of two and three-star hotels that offer accommodation, guided tours, gym and physiotherapy services to the athletes, paragliders and cyclists is an indication of the choice of Iten as a sports destination.

The management at Keellu Resort, a two-star hotel owned by former world marathon champion Wilson Kipsang said they receive teams of athletes from Japan, Saudi Arabia, Germany and the United States in different months of the year.

The manager Joseph Rotich said a bigger number of their clients are foreign athletes and their managers.

“We have just released a number of athletes from Japan, and we expect another team from Saudi Arabia, Germany and the US. This is where local athletes hold their meetings and conferences,” Mr Rotich told Financial Standard. Elgeyo Marakwet County Executive Committee Member in charge of sports Anita Kimwatan said over 3,000 athletes, comprising local and foreign athletes train in the town annually.  

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Sports TourismEliud KipchogeINEOS 1:59Iten Home of Champions