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1 November 2012 The Impact of Community-based Afro-alpine Tourism on Regional Development
Ernst Steinicke, Martina Neuburger
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Can existing Afro-alpine tourism promote poverty mitigation and resolve regional disparities? This article explores the significance of alpine tourism in the Mt Kenya region based on analysis of the state of the art and official statistical data along with own surveys, mapping activities, and household observations. The results show that economic benefits from mountaineering tourism in the Mt Kenya region are smaller than commonly calculated, and that low and inconsistent incomes are distributed unevenly. There are clear parallels to the critical situation in the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda: Alpine tourism does not reduce regional income disparities and largely fails to promote sustainable development. The article also takes a closer look at the development effects of community-based tourism, drawing from the example of the Mt Kenya Guides and Porters Safari Club (GPSC), a community-based tourism organization operating from Naro Moru, at the fertile western foot of Mt Kenya. Results show that this form of tourism stabilizes the livelihoods of rural households, contributes to community welfare, and reduces the vulnerability of families. The GPSC's democratic organizational structure with elected and regularly rotating offices prevents the enrichment of only few members and ensures even distribution of benefits to all members and to the whole community. Overall, however, there is not enough tourism in the study area to initiate sustainable regional development in the foreseeable future.

Introduction and main hypothesis

For many years, tourism was considered a magic formula for promoting regional development and reducing poverty in developing countries (Ashley et al 2000; Harrison 2001; Mowforth and Munt 2003; UNWTO 2007; Telfer and Sharpley 2008). This applies in particular to the glaciated highlands of East Africa, which—in top-down processes—were all declared national parks over the past decades. The state national park authorities of Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda attach extraordinary economic importance to Afro-alpine tourism in the scenically very attractive highest mountains of Africa: Kilimanjaro (5895 m), Mt Kenya (5199 m), and Rwenzori (5109 m) (see,, and

In contrast, the present contribution and numerous other studies (eg Sinclair 1998; Hall 2007; Zhao and Richie 2007; Saarinen et al 2009, 2011; Van Der Duim et al 2012) take a critical and differentiated approach. Analyses of the effects of alpine tourism on nature reserves in tropical countries (eg Vorlaufer 1995; Banskota and Sharma 1998; Müller-Böker 2000) as well as specialized studies of Afro-alpine tourism in Kenya and Uganda (Osmaston et al 1998; Erhard 2000; Erhard and Steinicke 2006; Steinicke 2011; Steinicke and Neuburger 2012) typically show that, at best, high-mountain tourism benefits state organizations and big tour operators, whose headquarters are usually located in the respective capital. In comparison, the development impulses received by the destinations visited are insignificant: Both in the Mt Kenya region (Erhard 2000) and in the Rwenzori Mountains (Craddock Williams 1998; Steinicke 2011), alpine tourism offers only marginal and insecure monetary income. Despite this rather unfavorable balance, which is also observed in other tourist regions of the global South (Harrison 2001), in many areas the local population has tried to increase benefits to the community in organized fashion by distributing income from tourism directly to the families, avoiding external absorption of profits. This idea, termed “community-based tourism,” has been adopted in development collaboration in recent years and has been used as a regional development strategy (Scheyvens 2002; Blackstock 2005; Okazaki 2008).

From the less than voluminous state of research on community-based tourism in the high mountains of tropical Africa, as well as observations based on it, the following main hypothesis can be deduced for the Mt Kenya region: Existing Afro-alpine tourism can neither promote poverty mitigation nor resolve regional disparities. However, strategies of community-based tourism stabilize the livelihoods of rural households, even though they are inadequate measures for advancing regional development.

This work is intended as a contribution toward more detailed analysis of community-based tourism in the tropical mountains of Africa, as previously provided for East Africa by Manyara et al (2006) and Manyara and Jones (2007). The following sections explore the significance of alpine tourism in the Mt Kenya region and present the example of the Mt Kenya Guides and Porters Safari Club (GPSC), a community-based organization in Naro Moru, at the semiarid, but fertile, western foot of Mt Kenya. Naro Moru Location is characterized by scattered settlements and, according to the 2009 population census, has a total population of 21,533; Kamburaini Sublocation, which is an important starting point for climbing the volcano, has 6414 inhabitants in 1813 households (KNBS 2010). Based on the above main hypothesis, the study was designed to answer the following questions for Naro Moru and, more specifically, for Kamburaini:

  • How does alpine tourism in general affect the regional economy at the foot of Mt Kenya? Does tourism in the Mt Kenya region act as a driver of regional development and resolve sociospatial disparities?

  • Does income from community-based tourism stabilize households' livelihoods? How substantial is this income for the members of the cooperative in Naro Moru?

  • Which aspects of community-based tourism—eg “participation” or “empowerment”—are relevant to development and people's livelihoods? Can they promote both poverty mitigation and future prospects for the next generation?


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