Runners on set to take off for the 21- Kilometre race of the Rwenzori Marathon on September 3. PHOTO/ COLLINS MUHWEZI

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The hidden potential of sports tourism

What you need to know:

  • With Uganda’s tourism potential, if more resources are invested in marketing, the country’s revenues would quadruple in the next five years.

Tourism is one of Uganda’s top foreign exchange earners bringing in more than $1.5 billion annually.
Over 1.5 million foreigners flock into the pearl of Africa to catch a glimpse of wildlife and other tourist attractions like the mountains and rivers.

However, little has been done to harness earnings from festivities especially those in the sports docket. Globally, sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games, Olympics, World Cup and regional tournaments are big crowd pullers, earning host countries billions of dollars.

Uganda’s sporting events were growing steadily before Covid-19 reared its ugly head in 2020. The list comprised a number of marathons, football events and regional tournaments to mention but a few.
However, the turn up in terms of fans both local and foreign remains low.

What is wrong?

Amos Wekesa, a renowned tourism entrepreneur, explains the value of sports tourism for Uganda. PHOTO/FILE

Sports tourists are characterised by long stays in a destination and high disposable income which Uganda should tap into.
To understand why sports tourism is not taking off, Prosper magazine posed the question to Amos Wekesa, a renowned tourism entrepreneur in the region who has just organised the Rwenzori Marathon- a replica of the Kilimanjaro marathon in Tanzania.
Wekesa recognises the importance of sports events as big tourist attractions, “Sports has a great potential to boost the tourism sector. Examples can be drawn from various sporting events from around the world.”

He cites the Kilimarathon that is hosted at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro. The event brings in thousands of running enthusiasts who in turn leave behind more than $300 million in foreign exchange for the communities around Moshi and Arusha.

But in explaining what Uganda is not doing right, Wekesa says, “We are not marketing.”
He questions, “Why would Rwanda advertise on the Arsenal and PSG jersey and Uganda can’t? Why would Kenya spend over $50 million advertising and we can’t?”
Wekesa notes that with the amount of tourism potential Uganda has if it invests in marketing itself, the revenues would quadruple in the next five years.

“A country like USA has over 21 million marathoners if we can get just one percent, it would be big for the country and business around,” says Wekesa.

But for sports to be effectively harnessed, government must invest in sporting facilities.
Currently, Uganda is grappling with scarcity of sports infrastructure which is reflected in the few regional tournaments hosted.

Majority of the national infrastructure is either under maintenance like Namboole Stadium or are yet to be certified by international sporting bodies.  
However, despite the shortfalls Uganda continues to ride the wave of success at international events like the Olympics, World Athletic Championships and Commonwealth Games – thanks to stars like Joshua Cheptegei, Jacob Kiplimo, Peruth Chemutai who have gone all the way to shine.

Wake up call
In terms of facilities, international bodies like CAF and FIFA have revoked accreditation of facilities like Namboole Stadium to host international football matches.
Now Uganda has to pay hefty sums of money to hire St Mary’s Stadium in Kitende – a private stadium belonging to a local football club Vipers to host its home games.
With Namboole off the menu, it means the country’s capacity to bid for any serious regional athletics events is shuttered because for years, the stadium was the sole host of national truck and field events.

Government’s multi-billion plan to have regional sports facilities is moving at a snail’s pace. So far five years down the road ever since regional stadiums were launched by President Museveni in Fort Portal, little has been done.

However, for event organisers like Wekesa, “Government needs to wake up and swing into action. We can’t continue losing out to our neighbours yet we have more potential than them.”

Wekesa adds that government must step up her efforts in marketing the nation abroad.
 Ms Lilly Ajarova, the executive director at Uganda Tourism Board, who also participated in the Mt Rwenzori Marathon notes, “Sports tourism is something we can’t ignore anymore. It is growing and the returns are visible in other places.”

However, we need to streamline how events are organised and done. That involves formulating the right policies to support organisers.”

However, Ms Ajarova’s plans are usually watered down by the budget allocation to the sports and tourism sectors. Sports as a subsector under the Ministry of Education was allocated Shs47 billion to cater for 51 sports associations and federations.

While tourism as a whole received Shs194.7 billion, up from Shs181 billion in the financial year 2021/22, tourism experts like Wekesa say this is still very low.

Regional comparison
But how does Uganda compare to its neighbours in the region?
Compared to its neighbours Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda which have taken up an aggressive marketing strategy, the tourism industry in Uganda is just growing.

Tanzania and Kenya in 2019 spent 4.8 percent and 5percent respectively of their GDP on tourism while Uganda only spent 3.1 percent.

But when it comes to sports, Kenya and Rwanda take the biggest share. Kenya boasts of the Safari rally, a World Rally Championship accredited event that brings in hundreds of thousands of racing fanatics and the Magic Golf Open among others.

Rwanda, on the other hand, has invested a lot in sporting facilities especially indoor sports, making it a top destination for basketball on the continent on top of an aggressive marketing strategy that has seen it appear on global football brands like Arsenal and PSG.

On the other hand, Uganda has been lucky to host a number of international sporting events like the Cricket World Cup qualifiers, Rugby Africa Cup, among others.

However, if the nation is to stand shoulder to shoulder with the continent’s giants like South Africa, Egypt and Kenya, authorities need to invest big in marketing and developing sporting facilities.

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