Can Kenya's Olympic heroes inspire a tourism gold rush?

Story highlights

  • Kenyan track stars enlisted to support sports tourism
  • Athletics tourism already popular, golf and rugby among new targets

(CNN)After David Rudisha's blistering surge to a second 800-meter Olympic gold medal, Kenyan officials were almost as quick to hail his achievement.

"Magnificent performance David Rudisha," wrote Vice-President William Ruto on Facebook. "The country salutes you as our great ambassador."
    Ruto's choice of words was significant. Kenya's highest-profile track star has long served as an ambassador for the nation's tourism industry, and there is growing recognition that illustrious sporting tradition can be parlayed into a lucrative asset.
    Over the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, only the US and Russia claimed more athletics medals than Kenya. Along with East African neighbor Ethiopia, Kenya has dominated the middle and long distance events, and its athletes are internationally recognized and admired.
    "Our sportspeople put the country on the global map," says Fatuma Hirsi Mohamed, principal secretary at the Ministry of Tourism. "They have created top of mind awareness about destination Kenya among potential tourists."

    Getting back on track

    Mary Keitany of Kenya, winner of the 2011 London Marathon, during a training run in Iten.
    Tourism is a powerhouse industry in Kenya. It generates around $6 billion a year and employs almost 10% of the population.
    But in recent years, amid terrorism fears, it has declined from 1.47 million visitors in 2010 to 1.11 million in 2015, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
    Sports tourism generates around $600 billion a year globally according to the World Travel Market, and it is the fastest growing sector in the industry according to the World Tourism Organization. Kenyan tourism officials believe it could offer a route to recovery.
    "We need to develop a profound understanding of the benefits and impact of sports tourism," wrote Najib Balala, Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, in a recent article. "My ministry will do everything to encourage sports tourism as a package in the Kenyan market."

    Prized assets

    Kenya already possesses attractions for sports tourists.
    The quiet town of Iten in the Great Rift Valley is known as the home of Kenyan athletics. Hundreds of champions have trained in the high altitude conditions, including Rudisha, and it has become increasingly attractive to foreign visitors.
    "The numbers are increasing every day," says Lornah Kiplagat, the Kenyan-born Dutch world champion runner, and founder of the High Altitude Training Center in Iten. "Before it was only elite athletes but now we have fanatical runners from across the world."
    Visitors range from young students to middle-aged tourists seeking an alternative to beach holidays, says Kiplagat. They are drawn by the challenge, and the landscape, but most of all by the champion runners.
    "The main advantage of Iten is that so many World and Olympic champions are here," she says. "People have a chance to live with them and see how they live."
    The local industry is growing. British running coach Gavin Smith runs training camps for sports tourists in Iten, and says the town is adapting to meet increased demand.
    "Iten is a new and emerging option for recreational runners and sports tourists," says Smith. "It is a very small and rural town but it does now have the infrastructure to support a tourist industry with a number of hotels, guesthouses and restaurants, and improving basic services such as pharmacies, banks, (and) internet services."

    Building an industry

    Tourism authorities are seeking to develop new assets beyond the athletic heartlands.
    The Safaricom Lewa Marathon began in 2000 with 180 runners, which had grown to over 1,200 runners by 2015, according to official figures. This has raised over $5 million to support conservation efforts in the region.
    The Kenyan Tourism Board also announced $20 million of new funding last year to be invested in sports facilities around the country, including athletics, rugby, golf, and water sports.
    Existing events such as the Kenya Open golf tournament and Maralal International Camel Derby will also see more investment.
    "Kenya has embraced all manner of sports," says Hirsi Mohamed. "Visitors will be spoilt for choice."

    Speed bumps

    Despite the confidence from officials, there are concerns that Kenya is not maximizing its assets.
    "Sports tourism is a dynamic sector but exploitation is low," says Simon E. Chebon, a sports marketing expert and founder of the 'Run with Kenyans' initiative.
    Chebon believes more co-ordination is needed between the government and private sector, as well as between different sectors of the tourism industry.
    "We need a multi-sector approach," he says. "With 'Run with Kenyans' the target was for people to train and combine this with safari...There is also a huge opportunity through the conference sector to have an aspect of sports tourism alongside."
    Chebon adds that government efforts have surged around showpiece sporting events, and then dropped off afterwards.
    If the Kenyan sports tourism industry is to flourish long term, proponents will need some of their great athletes' stamina.