Can mountaineering boost tourism revenue?

by Trevor Lutalo
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Across the globe, mountains offer a beautiful aesthetic to any landscape. Away from the beauty, mountains contribute to tourism activities such as mountaineering, gliding, rock climbing and caving. Mountain Tourism represents between nine per cent and sixteen per cent of all international tourist arrivals according to recent data from the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). The same source indicates that there were 195 to 375 million estimated mountain tourists in 2019 alone.

According to the same source, the 10 most mountainous countries received only eight per cent of global tourist arrivals. These are; Bhutan, Nepal, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Lesotho, Andorra, Afghanistan, Chile, China, and Armenia.

Uganda is home to a host of mountains that can support a plethora of tourist activities. If well-harnessed mountain tourism can become a phenomenon in the country and help tap into the billion-dollar venture.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) promoting sustainable tourism in mountainous regions has the potential to generate additional livelihood options, offering alternatives for communities and aiding in poverty alleviation.

Banking on the success of the 2021 Rwenzori Expedition by a star-studded group led by UTB CEO, Lily Ajarova and the King Oyo Expedition of 2022 led by His Majesty King Oyo of Tooro Kingdom which have had a trailblazing impact on the industry, the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) continues to promote and develop mountain tourism as a major product that can avail life-changing opportunities for the communities and also the support ecosystem preservation efforts.

Both of the expeditions were documented into short films that have gained traction and helped in fostering and directing the conversation on mountain ecosystem restoration and climate action across the globe.

The film showing King Oyo’s expedition titled “Rwenzori – The Source of Life” recently scooped gold at the New York Festivals TV and Film Awards. The film is expected to market Uganda as a tourism destination and promote Mountain tourism as a sustainable adventure that can benefit communities and the country’s economy.

Ajarova says the board is investing in popularising adventure tourism products such as mountaineering, ziplining cycling and white-water rafting.

“The great mountaineering resource in Uganda with mountains Rwenzori, Elgon and Virunga are unique, rich and diverse and require more development and promotional attention, it feels different from any other experience in this country. Reaching the peak Margherita gives you a feel of being on top of the world, everything feels below you, it’s euphoric,” says Ajarova

Uganda Wildlife Authority’s Bashir Hangi says mountaineering is one of the activities that are environmentally friendly and have less impact on nature. “People do hike the mountains and come back; we do not encourage people to cultivate along the slopes of mountains. Once a mountain is inside a protected area, there is no human activity that can happen inside there, not even grazing. We ensure there is regulated access for purposes of firewood and medicinal herbs,” he notes

“Communities that share boundaries with our protected areas we share twenty per cent of the benefits with them so that it goes to livelihood improvement through palatable agricultural practices,” he adds

Climate Action and Conservation in the Rwenzori Range

The Rwenzori Mountain range, named the “Mountains of the Moon” by Alexandrine geographer Ptolemy, is home to prized and endangered animal species such as duiker antelopes and unique vegetation. The survival of both this ecosystem and the downstream communities relies on the waters of the Margherita glaciers, which form the highest source of water for the Nile River.

A stark indication of climate change in Uganda is the alarming reduction of these glaciers, diminishing from 6.5 square km in 1906 to less than 1 square km in 2003. If this trend persists, the glacier is anticipated to vanish by 2050, driven by escalating temperatures due to climate change. This poses threats to local water supply, land degradation, and an increased risk of flooding and landslides. Urgent global action is crucial to safeguard these mountain ecosystems, necessitating local investments in ecological preservation and disaster preparedness.

Furthermore, rampant forest fires have wreaked havoc on vegetation that crucially regulates river flow downstream. This has led to severe flooding, causing significant harm to communities at the mountain’s base, including the submersion of their spiritual sites. The degradation of the mountain ecosystem is further compounded by deforestation and the rapid growth of the local population.

In collaboration with the UNDP, UTB is partnering with King Oyo on the “Conserving Ecosystems” campaign, focusing on advancing climate action and environmental conservation in mountainous areas.

“By leveraging King Oyo’s influence, the campaign aims to mobilize support for climate action and foster community ownership of Uganda’s development agenda. The restoration and protection of the natural environment are identified as paramount not only for preserving the mountain ecosystem but also for safeguarding the cultural heritage embedded in these landscapes,” notes UTB spokesperson Simplicious Gessa.

“The campaign seeks to address the interconnected challenges of climate change, environmental degradation, and the well-being of local communities, emphasizing the importance of collective efforts in mitigating these pressing issues,” he adds.

Highlighting the inclusive nature of sustainable tourism, the campaign underscores the potential for direct community benefits. From mountain guides and porters to hotel and restaurant staff, as well as local artists and craftsmen, everyone stands to gain.

This campaign advocates for the intentional empowerment of women and youth throughout the tourism value chain, ensuring their active participation and skill development. By enabling local communities to drive sustainable tourism development, the campaign aims to ensure that increased tourism activity directly benefits the people at the grassroots level.

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