Uganda’s tourism sector received a boost recently when the country hosted its inaugural Hike4Life challenge. The annual event, which is organised by Focus, an international humanitarian relief organisation, seeks to mobilise resources through sponsorship of hiking or cycling challenges.
Participants who are drawn from around the globe help to boost the host country’s tourism. Focus works with its agencies in Europe, North America and South Asia.
Uganda’s hiking challenge around Mt Elgon — which is famed for mountain climbing and hiking safaris — brought together 41 participants from Europe, USA and Canada. Although the country has attractive rivers, lakes, game parks and cultural sites, the tourism sector is under exploited due to poor marketing strategies. The choice of Mt Elgon for the Hike4Life event was inspired by its intact natural beauty and highly challenging terrain.
“We wanted an environment that could dare contestants both mentally and physically. In consultation with our local partners, Mt Elgon emerged as the best venue” said Irfan Haji, vice chairman of Focus agency in Europe.
Uganda views the Hike4Life event as an opportunity to showcase some of its less exploited tourist attraction sites. Mt Elgon for instance, is a popular tourist site but a poor road network and inapt bridges discourages tourists, particularly budget travellers, from visiting the region.
Consequently, tourist arrivals in the country are lower than those of neighbouring countries. For instance, Uganda recorded an estimated 844,000 tourists in 2008 compared with 1.1 million registered by Kenya during the same period.
But organisers of the Hike4Life challenge expressed optimism about the impact the event had on the country’s tourism sector.
“We are delighted to have hosted this event in Uganda. Many of the participants had never travelled to this country; the hiking challenge offered them an opportunity to experience the hospitality and warmth of its people, as well as discover the magnificent countryside,” said Mahmood Ahmed, the Aga Khan Development Network resident representative in Uganda, during the event.
The Uganda hiking challenge raised some $250,000 which is to be injected into the ongoing humanitarian activities in Afghanistan and India. This is in contrast to previous Hike4Life events that raised an average of $500,000 each.
Focus was established in 1994 by the Ismaili Community and is an affiliate of the AKDN — a group of private and international agencies who foster social welfare activities in developing countries. Focus’ speciality is international crisis response and disaster management interventions particularly in Asia — Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. Interventions have also taken place in Madagascar and Mozambique.
So far, Focus has held eight Hike4Life events. The inaugural edition was held in Egypt in 2002 and involved a bikathon along the River Nile. Subsequent events included a climbing challenge hosted by Kenya in 2003 and a hiking event around Mt Kilimanjaro in 2007.
Through deeper outreach networks in various parts of Asia, Focus is able to supplement relief efforts of large international aid bodies such as the Red Cross, Oxfam and the World Food Program.However, officials are concerned that the need for humanitarian assistance is rising faster than they can mobilise ample resources.
Shahed Karim, board member of Focus Europe attributed the trend to the severe effects of climate change that are often blamed on industrial pollution prevalent in the developed world.