The Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) jointly held a hiking expedition to the snow-capped Mountain Rwenzori to boost tourism and build forward better from the effects of COVID-19.
The expedition is part of the take on the Pearl of Africa Challenge. It featured Ugandan long-distance runner and holder of the 5,000m and 10,000m world records Joshua Cheptegei, kickboxing champion Moses Golola, the Chief Executive Officer Uganda Tourism Board Ms. Lilly Ajarova and UNDP staff members. Funded by UNDP, the expedition sought to showcase the beauty of the Rwenzori Mountain, promote mountaineering tourism in Uganda, and drive domestic and international tourist traffic to experience the magical adventure that the mountain offers.
In supporting the expedition, UNDP also sought to showcase the investment opportunities of mountain destinations and to provide an overview of successful business models, innovation and the impact of climate change.
During the flag-off ceremony held on December 10, 2020 at Serena Hotel, Kampala, Ms. Ajarova described Rwenzori as an exceptional mountain with 11 peaks compared to the highest two mountains in Africa; Mountain Kilimanjaro and Mountain Kenya with three peaks each. Rwenzori is the third tallest mountain range in Africa famed for its equatorial snow-capped peaks.
In her speech, Ms. Ajarova asked Ugandans to support domestic tourism and explore the country’s beauty. She commended the Bakonzo community for protecting the mountain and conserving the environment, adding that such practices come with benefits such as employment opportunities.
She appreciated UNDP Uganda for sponsoring the trip and its generous support to the tourism sector.
In his speech, Cheptegei acknowledged the beauty of Mountain Rwenzori and encouraged the Bakonzo community to treasure the mountain. He also vowed to search and support talent in the community. “When I returned from the World Cross Country Challenge, I took off one month to rest and prepare for this hike. Therefore, I'm more than ready and I urge other Ugandans to join me,” Cheptegei said.
Also present at the event was the Managing Director, Rwenzori Trekking Services, John Hunwick who thanked Cheptegei for the talent search offer and reassured Ugandans that there is potential in their country which needs to be harnessed and supported.
The Kasese Resident District Commissioner, Lt. Joe Walusimbi reassured the tourists of security and encouraged the community to protect and conserve the environment.
Uganda is a land of hills, valleys, picturesque planes, block and volcano mountains, offering the most rewarding mountain climbing opportunities and hiking experiences with rewarding memories that last a lifetime.
COVID-19 hits tourism sector hard
Before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), tourism was Uganda’s leading foreign exchange earner contributing 5.6% of GDP, employing over 536,000 people and contributing an equivalent of 16.6% of total exports in 2019.
However, COVID-19 hit the sector hard. According to a 2020 United Nations study on the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19, Uganda’s tourism is projected to register a loss of more than USD 5 billion in the next five-year period (2021-2025). The pandemic also reversed some of the gains made towards the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Uganda especially on poverty eradication (SDG 1), reducing inequality (SDG 10) and unemployment (SDG 8).
UNDP Resident Representative Ms. Elsie Attafuah observed that whilst the pandemic has affected Uganda’s tourism industry, it presents opportunity to rethink the future of the sector, including how it contributes to the attainment of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. Citing the sector’s strong ability to adapt, innovate and recover from adversity, she was optimistic the sector will recover from the effects of COVID-19, uplift local communities and stimulate socioeconomic growth in the country.
She called for a renewed discussion and reflection on the potential of tourism to spur growth, “I urge us all to reflect on how we can build forward better and harness the power of tourism to generate quality jobs for durable growth, reduce poverty and offer incentives for environmental conservation – a triple win to help Uganda transition towards a more inclusive, professional and resilient economy.”
The potential of mountains
Mountaineering offers significant opportunities to meaningfully engage the mountain communities, particularly the youth and women in the tourism value chain. Yet, it remains largely unexploited in Uganda.
Mountains in the rift valley have long been attractive tourism destinations, with Mountain Kilimanjaro attracting over 35,000 visitors a year. The success of Mountain Kilimanjaro as a hiking destination suggests that there is much room for expanding this type of activity in Uganda especially at the spectacular Mountain Rwenzori.
Globally, mountains occupy 25% of the earth’s land surface; host 23% of the earth’s total forest cover; are home to 15% of the population and host about half of the world's biodiversity hotspots. They are also home to great cultural diversity among people adapted to the challenges of mountain life; and provide freshwater for everyday life to half of humanity.
Yet mountain communities are among the world’s poorest and are highly vulnerable to extreme weather events and natural disasters, face harsh climate conditions and problems of remoteness and accessibility which hinder economic activities, infrastructure development and industrial production.