Long-distance running in East Africa – potential for sports tourism?

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East Africa is known for its athletes who dominate long-distance running. The best talent come from specific areas such as Nandi Hills in Kenya or Arsi Zone in Ethiopia. Running is increasingly popular activity in western countries too, not so much as a competitive sport but as an exercise. Yet many of them take the hobby rather seriously, training for marathons and other tough races. The question is can these East African countries develop “running tourism”, would amateur runners come to train or even compete in the “home of long-distance running”? This article concentrates on Kenya since I’m much more familiar with it than Ethiopia. Professional or national level runners from other countries commonly attend high-altitude training camps in in Kenya, but only few amateur runners do visit Kenya with running in mind. No tourist is likely to visit there for the sake of running alone, but would possibly as part of an East African holiday involving also visits to game parks and coastal destinations. They may also be interested in climbing high mountains like Kilimanjaro or Mount Kenya.

Majority of famous Kenyan runners come from Rift Valley region, from counties around the major town Eldoret. This part of the country is far from major tourist attractions. Very few tourists visit the region, which is a shame since the landscape is very scenic and full of potential places of interest that remain off the beaten track.

Proper marketing is needed to attract “running tourists”. Advertising in running magazines and websites of popular running events would be relatively cheap and reach target customers. There should be suitable accommodation to meet the need of travellers. Some may be ready to pay for luxury but most would likely be happy with simple and affordable, yet safe and clean accommodation. Decent gym facilities would an advantage, as would be pool for chilling. Short trips to nearby attractions could be arranged so it would not be all about running. Then there should be proper means of transport, no one will come if the destination is difficult to reach. Transport is a major problem for tourist anywhere in Africa, usually only options are local public transport (cheap but uncomfortable), or private transport (expensive), but nothing between. Despite all safety/security issues in Kenya, the Rift Valley region is relatively safe.

Rift Valley scenery near Iten, Kenya. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
Rift Valley scenery near Iten, Kenya. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

There is a company called Run With Kenyans offering upmarket tours to Iten, also visiting Nandi Hills and Nakuru National Park. Some other tour companies also offer tours to the region on their websites, but expect again steep prices. Those on tighter budget can travel there independently (by buses and matatus). Iten is probably the best destination, not only since it is the most profilic running town, but also next to scenic Kerio Valley. Another recommended town to visit would be Kapsabet, which is close to Nandi Hills and not far away from Kakamega Forest either. Both towns are fairly easy to reach from Eldoret, which also has an airport (scheduled services from Nairobi by JamboJet and Fly540).

Apart form training there are also number of running competitions of interest. Nairobi Marathon is a major event taking place each October. Lewa Marathon is a charity marathon on non surfaced roads at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, while Masai Mara Marathon is a similar event held near Masai Mara National Reserve. There also Rift Valley Marathon held near Eldoret. The tourism industry in Kenya still holds a rather narrow view assuming that tourists are only interested in few main attractions, visiting the coast and a game park of two, then flying back home. Anything beyond that is poorly exploited.

The ailing tourism sector could benefit from embracing niche tourism, of which running is just one example. It would not only bring more visitors to the country, but ones that may well visit there again and even become regular visitors – very valuable tourists indeed.

Further reading: Challenges to sustainable sports tourism development in non metropolitan region in Kenya: A case of Iten township, Kenya. Joseph Muiruri Njoroge, 2015

2 thoughts on “Long-distance running in East Africa – potential for sports tourism?

    Joe Njoroge said:
    September 11, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    Thanks for referencing my work 🙂


      africathistime responded:
      September 11, 2015 at 6:39 pm

      Thanks Joe. Yours was a good and intriguing article.


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