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Rural-Urban Dynamics in the East African Mountains

Sylvain Racaud
Bob R. Nakileza
François Bart
et al.

Part 5

14. Mountain tourism in dynamic settings: challenges and efforts to align tourism to emerging realities in Mount Kenya

Joseph Kariuki Murithi

Texte intégral

1Mountains are important assets for the tourism industry. The resources they are endowed with provide the attractions for visitors to these highland areas. This makes mountain areas one of the best visited tourist destinations in the world. However, the fragility of mountain areas makes them vulnerable to various forces of change including environmental pressures, governance circumstances and social economic factors surrounding them. This then presents precautions on the need to take care of the mountains and their resources and adopt tourism practices that are sensitive to mountain environments, socioeconomic and cultural setting of the places where they are found. Hence over the years, there have been calls for the need to offer environmentally sensitive, socioeconomically sustainable and culturally responsible tourism practices in mountain areas (Kruk et al. 2007). This diversification in alternative tourism products and practices makes it possible not only to lessen environmental pressures on mountains by tourists but also to provide host communities with more opportunities to benefit from tourism and consequently offer an important incentive to conserve mountains and their resources.

2Challenges facing mountain resources then become a key concern for tourism analysts and mountain enthusiasts, especially in regard to their conservation. Hence mountain tourism has also been linked with concerns for the protection of nature (Bart 2006). In most highland areas therefore, environmental values supersede other values in mountain tourism development. However, these protection values are mostly emphasised for the purposes of maintaining mountain pristine allure and good environments that are suitable for recreation, but exclude sensitivity to other values such as local people’s cultural heritage on which mountain tourism depends on as well. However, it is also notable that most mountain areas have a relative endowment in both natural and cultural resources making them amenable to equal exploitation. This chapter analyses the resource endowments of Mount Kenya, challenges that have been experienced in past attempts to exploit the mountains by various actors through tourism, and what this has meant for sustainable mountain tourism development. Locality specific and specialized nature of resource endowments that make adoption of alternative tourism products and practices become applicable to only some destinations around the mountain are also examined.

Natural and cultural heritage: the basis for tourism development in Mount Kenya

3Mount Kenya is a resource rich highland area endowed with significant natural and cultural resources. As a highland area, the mountain presents predominantly a high altitude trekking opportunity for many nature loving tourists from all parts of the world. The mountain mainly offers conventional mountain tourism activities such as trekking though there are emergent opportunities for developing and promoting new tourism products especially in the cultural sphere. For a long time, therefore, the mountain has depended largely on mountain hiking as the principle tourism offer. The scenic beauty of the mountain, especially its glaciers, has over the years provided the most appealing attraction that has lured mountaineers. Interest in mountain tourism activities in the area had started in the late 19th century when explorers like Count Teleki make attempts to climb the mountain. In 1899, Halford Mackinder, César Ollier and Joseph Brocherel made the first ascent on the mountain paving the way for mountaineering tourism in the area. The Mackinder camp along the Naro Moru hiking route is named after Mackinder, the team leader of this first mountaineering group. The overall alpine allure, the glaciers and wild nature of the mountain have formed the basis of the area’s tourism. This predominantly uni-dimensional use of mountain as a tourism destination has meant many opportunities for both visitors and host communities to remain unexploited, and largely undeveloped. This is especially true given the biological and cultural diversity the mountain is endowed with, that potentially should offer additional tourist attractions and consequently diversified livelihood options for local mountain communities. Due to socioeconomic, environmental and governance changes and challenges that have faced the mountain over the years, overspecialization with one type of tourism product has proved restrictive and untenable.

4Over the last decade however, there has been an emergence of new, diverse forms of nature and cultural tourism products such as ecotourism, cultural and historical heritage tourism promotion around the mountain. This has partly been due to the realization that the mountain region has largely depended on mountaineering which itself has not been able to meet the development and conservation needs of the mountain and its people. Furthermore, there has also been a need to adopt the new emergent or alternative tourism types for the Mount Kenya area. Taken as a single tourism destination, Mount Kenya then is endowed with enough natural and cultural heritage that can transform regional development of the central region as well as the country at large (TBTMP 2007). Effort to entrench conservation values for mountain resource endowment on which tourism is based is pegged on sustainable exploitation of the natural and cultural heritage. Tourism remains the best approach to exploit this heritage for the purpose of meeting the conservation and development obligations of the mountain.

5Due to its heritage, Mount Kenya has been internationally recognized as an important conservation area. Consequently, the national reserve and national park that are within the mountain were added to the World Heritage Site List in 1997. In 1978, the national park which together with the Amboseli National Park makes them the only two UNESCO biosphere reserves in the country were put under the Man and Biosphere programme (UNESCO 1999). This international recognition has meant that the mountain continues to attract international visitors who actually constitute the biggest visitor numbers to the area annually.

Figure 48. Mt Kenya, mountain and national Park

Figure 48. Mt Kenya, mountain and national Park

6The mountain also continues to draw the interest of local people for the heritage it is endowed with for their aesthetic, recreational, cultural and educational significance. This makes strong justification for involvement of local people especially local tourism groups in the management and conservation of the mountain. The largest number of visitors to cultural centres, such as the Meru museum for instance, is made up of local people, especially school groups, that make educational tours to the museum. However, in tourism terms, the mountain’s full cultural and social economic potential has not been exploited but recent government policies on regional planning have recognized this potential with an emphasis on promoting it (GOK 2008a, GOK 2008b, GOK 2008c, GOK 2008d, and GOK 2008f). With mountain tourism then largely being dependent on its rich heritage and having both local and international recognition, concerns about the future appeal of the mountain to local and overseas visitors should form the basis around which diverse tourism products around the mountain should be exploited and developed.

7Practically however, the mountain area is also affected by various changes, and new challenges have emerged. The challenges raise the question as to how the mountain itself and its stakeholders can weather the multiple pressures exerted on it, while also being expected to provide opportunities for sustainable exploitation of its heritage. Tourism thus remains central to the ways in which the mountain and its stakeholders can address the challenges (social economic, environmental and governance) facing it. This is because sustainable conservation and utilisation of mountain resources have been affected by socioeconomic, environmental and governance changes taking place locally on the mountain and also from outside. The change factors have affected the appeal and attractiveness of the mountain areas in various ways and have led to the need to rethink the tourism development strategy on the mountain especially through diversification of tourism products which are sensitive to the environment and local people’s culture and livelihood needs. With mountain tourism being one of the motivations for conservation of the heritage and also acting as one of the ways to utilise this heritage, the conservation objective remains an important factor in efforts to help the mountain to realise sustainable development.

Diverse challenges and their impacts on mountain tourism development

8Development of tourism in Mount Kenya has faced many challenges. The challenges range from environmental problems impacting an already fragile area, governance challenges that originated in the 1990s resulting mainly from state interference in the management of natural resources, especially forest and forestlands, as well as problems related to pressures of social economic dynamics in areas adjacent to the mountain. These factors have directly or indirectly contributed to the fluctuating performance in terms of tourist visitation to the mountain. In the mid 1990s, the annual visitation to the mountain was as low as an average of 17,000 and the number kept fluctuating to an average of 10,000 in 1998, going up again to an average of 25,000 in 1999, a subsequent drop to an average of 11,000 in the year 2000 and a consequent rise to an average of 26,000 in 2001. The fluctuating performance of tourist visits has however been a key feature of many destinations across the country but influenced by local, national and international levels (Ramser 2007, Kareithi 2003).

Tourism, conservation and governance transition from centralised to devolved arrangements

9Governance issues have affected tourism in most destinations in the country. The Mount Kenya area has not been spared. During the 1990s when the state grip and influence on natural resources management was at its peak, threats to the conservation of mountain resources on which tourism depends were at their highest (Kariuki 2006). The state presided over forest excisions and mismanaged forests under the management of the Forest Department (now the Kenya Forestry Services, KFS). Unsustainable practices in the forests led to deterioration of environmental conservation measures and significantly reduced the allure of the mountain to attract tourists. Many tourism actors in Mount Kenya concerned with the state of affairs came with their own initiatives to address the fast rate of deforestation on the mountain. For instance, the Mountain Lodge initiated a reforestation programme to enable restore the integrity of the mountain near Hombe forest. There were also many other bad practices like growing of Cannabis Sativa (bang) in the forest and misuse of the shamba system (intercropping of young forest seedlings with food crops especially by the Forest Department through corruption in allocation of land portions for the activity) that affected the forest a great deal (Kariuki 2007).

10Over the last decade, the forest and the entire mountain ecosystem have been undermined by the governance related malpractices. Governance related reforms have contributed to the emergence of new positive trends in tourism numbers to the mountain over the last decade. Since 2003, when a new government that had come with an agenda for reforms in all sectors came to power, major gains have been reported in the natural resource management and tourism sectors. These reforms have mainly enabled participation of stakeholders in these sectors and enhanced accountability of public institutions in the natural resource and tourism sectors. This has further led to diversification in approaches to the sustainable use of mountain resources. Consequently, comparative visitation statistics analysis from various government statistical abstracts show a marked improvement in tourism numbers in the mountain between 1990 and 2010. However, the statistics also show tourism visitation being very sensitive to the political climate as for the two decades, periods around election time show poor visitation to the mountain. This actually is the trend in all tourism destinations in the country.

11Tourist visitation trends also lead to the conclusion that governance reforms by way of enhancing more stakeholders’ (including local people) participation and reduction of political tensions in the country guarantee stability in the destinations. Political stability improves destination visitation to the mountain as well as to other destinations in the country.

12Various policy and legal reform interventions have also improved the performance of the tourism sector even in the mountain area. The forest amendment Act 2005 for instance has enabled development of new tourism practices such as ecotourism. The law has made it possible for community forest user associations (CFAs) and private sector actors to develop ecotourism projects in forest areas after entering into agreements with the Kenya Forest Service (KFS). The reforms have also expanded opportunities for local people to participate as the law has put the necessary framework for stakeholders to participate in forest management. Both the local community groups (CFAs) and the private sector have rights to access forest areas and use forest resources for ecotourism promotion purposes (GOK 2005).

13Enabling decentralization through participation of local people in activities such as ecotourism involving the use of mountain resources continues to play a significant part consolidating the gains realized in the recent past. This is because centralized state governance arrangements that existed in the past seriously affected relations between the various actors at the local levels. Community groups, state agencies such as the Forest Department (now the Kenya Forest Service) and even conservation civil society groups were constantly at loggerheads. Today, partnerships and collaboration between stakeholders have improved tourism management on the mountain. For example, through mutual agreements, community conservation and tourism groups that in the past resisted efforts by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to regulate the activities of porters and guides working on Mount Kenya agreed to settle the issue. Today, porters and guides are required to have KWS accreditation cards, a certificate of good conduct from the police to be able to work with tourists. This is an attempt to professionalize their work and help create and improve a positive image of the mountain tourism experience for the visitors.

14Governance reforms from a national context can be understood from 2010 when a new constitution was passed and the introduction of a devolved system of governance to counties as administrative, economic and resource management units installed. Devolution to the county is bound to affect mountain development tourism in a major way. Almost all counties around Mount Kenya (Nyeri, Laikipia, Meru, Tharaka Nithi, Embu and Kirinyaga) target development of tourism and use it as an important source to generate alternative income streams for the counties. This may have implications on the use of mountain resources as the counties look for ways of developing new tourism products and better utilize the existing ones if tourism is to play any significant role in regional development. Therefore, tourism in the mountain area may be headed for better times with the counties seeking to develop and market hitherto untapped mountain resources’ tourism potential.

Environmental challenges and impacts on mountain tourism development

15Mountain tourism is dependent on the good state of the environment. Disruptions in the state of the environment in mountain areas impact negatively on tourism development. Many environmental challenges in Mount Kenya are due to human activities, resulting in significant impacts on mountain resources. However, climate variability and change has also impacted tourism in a major way.

16One of the greatest environmental challenges in the mountain area is poor waste management practices. Poor waste management manifests itself in two ways: The first one is the poor disposal and management of municipal waste especially in mountain tourist areas around Meru town. Meru town is just adjacent to the mountain especially in the Imenti forest area. The poor disposal of waste has caused the mountain to lose its environmental allure that is critical to development of alternative tourism products such as ecotourism that are environmentally sensitive.

17In forest areas near Meru town, there is a tendency by the Meru Municipal Council to dispose its waste in sites at Imenti Forest and at Nkunga crater and sacred lake (photo 17). These sites have been designated as ecotourism development areas though waste disposal practices present a negative view of this possibility. The Nkunga site ecotourism project had been started in 2001 as a collaborative ecotourism project between local people and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Though the failure of the project to grow into successful ecotourism has been hampered by many other local issues such as political interests and leadership woes, the tendency by Meru Municipal Council to dispose waste near the lake has frustrated the hope of developing a good ecotourism site (Kariuki 2005). At Imenti forest, improper waste disposal techniques like dumping of rubbish in the forest have discouraged visitors to consider these areas as a pristine and calm tourist destination (Ibui 2007).

Photo 17. Dumping site next to Lake Nkunga sacred lake and an ecotourism site (Joseph Kariuki. Muriithi)

Photo 17. Dumping site next to Lake Nkunga sacred lake and an ecotourism site (Joseph Kariuki. Muriithi)

18The second waste management challenge relates to waste within the mountain that is generated by tourists especially along the access trail and around the accommodation huts. Waste management practices within the mountain contradict sustainable tourism development as littering with all types of wastes pollutes the mountain hiking experience. Plastic bags and garbage waste that tourists and their guides carry are the major landscape pollutants, especially during the two peak tourism seasons of December-February and June-August. Food remains and wrappings from tourists and their guides constitute the biggest source of mountain litter, air and water polluters within the mountain. It is estimated that in one clean-up exercise each of the three main climbing routes on the mountain generates about 1,300 kg of waste.

19The main problem related to the question of waste within the mountain is the issues of management. Realization by the stakeholders that pollution of the trails may affect visitation and the tourism experience has in the past led to a search for interventions to address the problem. The first management initiative has been the establishment of a regulatory mechanism especially to curb littering. This involves giving out pamphlets with rules targeted at visitors to observe. This measure targets both the tourists and their guides especially focusing on the need to stop them from littering. For the guides, they have to be accredited by the KWS. They are required to be approved by the KWS and that they seek a certificate of good conduct from the Kenya police before they are registered to practice as guides in the mountain area. To be accredited as a guide presupposes being able to have good conduct in observing regulations such as those on waste and feeding of animals in the park.

20Sanctioning is the other proposed management mechanism to address the issue of waste in the mountain. This involves a suggestion that they ask tourists to pay Ksh 500 (USD 6) each for a gunny bag or a plastic bag to put their waste into with a promise of a full refund if the bagful of litter is returned at the park entrance gate at the end of the mountain expedition. Failure to return the bags leads to forfeiture of the money. The KWS has also started a litter disposal practice at the gate entrances of the three main hiking routes where litter so collected is disposed of by burning or decomposing in deep pits.

21The other mechanism relates to awareness creation and education of tourists and their guides. The awareness particularly focuses on instilling mountain conservation values and attitudes amongst guides, porters and tourists. While this takes places at the park gates for the tourist and their guides, targeting the community is done during meetings when community tourism and conservation groups are interacting with KWS officials on various issues. Public awareness and education is extended to more stakeholders during the annual Mount Kenya cleaning day, when stakeholders meet to clean the mountain especially by collecting litter. There are also other wider efforts and attempts to involve local people in environmental work including waste management on the mountain. Community groups drawn mainly from the membership of the various tour guides who derive livelihoods from the mountain through tourism help mobilize other people for the annual clean up exercises, especially after the high tourism seasons. In the past, there has been collaboration with various interest groups like local hotels, organizations like the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and local conservation and tourism collaboration business groups like the Mount Kenya Biodiversity Conservation Group and the Mount Kenya and the Aberdare association of operators. The Kenya Wildlife Service, the official park managers coordinate the clean-up exercises.

22Climate change is the other environmental challenge to tourism development in Mount Kenya. Tourism can both be a victim of climate change as well as a contributor to climate change (Simpson et al., 2008; Kruk et al. 2007). For mountain areas like Mount Kenya, tourism relationships with climate change apply more to the aspect of being a victim of climate change, rather than to being a contributor to climate change, though the latter also applies but to a lesser extent. The victim aspect is particularly grave due to the fragility of the mountain and vulnerability of resources on which tourism is dependent.

23Already, the effects of climate change are clearly visible in the mountain. The glacier caps at the tops of the mountain that have over the years formed the key tourist attraction have been receding fast. The recession of the glaciers will continue to cause the mountain to lose its allure and appeal amongst afro-alpine tourists. More indirectly, the loss of glaciers will have a major impact on the mountain resources that support tourism activities. This is particularly linked to the crucial role that the mountain plays in providing fresh water to people and surrounding areas around the mountain. The upper afro-alpine mountain catchment protected by the national park and the forest reserve are key sources of fresh water and sites of biodiversity that are crucial for tourism. Indeed, the continued loss of glaciers affects touristic activities such as trout fishing especially around the crater lakes like Lake Rutundu. Fluctuating water volumes in the crater lakes at different times disrupt the ability of fish in the crater lakes to adapt to the changing environments. Trout fishing in crater lakes has recently been one of the emerging tourist activities taking place on the mountain and also in the adjacent settlement areas.

24Glacier recession water implications compromise the state biodiversity and the integrity of the mountain ecosystem by threatening both wild and plant species. This is especially through reduced rainfall that threatens food shortages, especially through droughts, for large mammals like elephants, buffalos and rhino that depend on mountain forests and vegetation. The wild animals on Mount Kenya are an important tourist attraction. As a result of reduced food for the wildlife, more human-wildlife conflicts, especially in areas adjacent to forest reserves, have intensified over the years further threatening the wildlife due to the harm meted out on them by local people. The food situation of wildlife in the protected areas has further been complicated by the frequent fires that have been occurring on the mountain. The fires have threatened the existence of alpine vegetation that has had difficulty in regenerating. This has caused wildlife to move further downstream to settled areas exacerbating human-wildlife conflicts. These conflicts are very frequent occurrences in the Sagana, Hombe, Naro Moru and Gathiuru forest areas and other areas around the mountain.

25Trail erosion, especially due to overuse, presents the other ecological challenge to the mountain due to overreliance on the three access paths toward the summit of the mountain. These three traditional hiking or walking routes of Naru Moru, Sirimon and Chogoria have put considerable stress on the fragile mountain ecosystem. As a result, proposals have been put forward to open up new routes to hike the mountain as a way to ease pressure on these existing ones. Already, two routes that have been underutilized previously for mountain expeditions are being revived at Kamweti in Kirinyaga, in the Burguret area near Nanyuki town and other new routes on the Meru town side have also been proposed for exploration.

Social economic challenges

26Increasing population around the mountain region has consequences on the ability of the available economic activities and opportunities to meet the livelihood and other needs of local mountain people. As a result, mountain tourism is not able to meet the expectation of local people who look upon it as a source of income. This is complicated by the fact that young people, especially those who come from near the three hiking routes, continue to seek opportunities in the tourism sector after they complete their high school education. However, people who are already working in the sector as guides and porters have to look for other agricultural based income generating activities to supplement the meagre incomes from tourism. Furthermore, the unreliability of tourism as a sustainable livelihood option is frustrated by the seasonality of the activities in the mountain area. Mountain tourism has two annual peak periods from June to August and December to February. This means that for almost half of the year, the people dependent on tourism income have little or no work to do. This forces them to get into other alternative ways of earning money, such as crop farming, a scenario that presents mountain tourism as a socioeconomic sector unable to support the livelihood interests of its tourist hosts in sustainable ways.

27The large number of porters and guides who seek to eke out a living from tourism continues to constrain and reduce the average income generated by the individual guide or porter. So, as more and more people join the small tourism industry, incomes from the sub-sector get reduced continuously.

28Though a small population of people living around the mountain directly rely on tourism, tourism remains an important economic activity in the area. By 2010, there were more than 2,000 guides around the mountain, but only 500 with official recognition from the KWS through accreditation. Even during the peak tourism seasons, average incomes from tourism are insufficient to meet household livelihood needs as it ranges from Ksh 250 (USD 3) for a porter and Ksh 500 (USD 6) for guides. This has forced guides and porters to supplement tourism incomes with on-farm related activities and trading in farm commodities.

29One way of increasing tourism activities in the mountain is by developing and marketing new tourism products. The proposed county governments in the respective parts of the mountain have to look for ways of diversifying tourism products and marketing them to provide new income streams from tourism. This is because devolved governance arrangements through the counties behoves each county to focus on developing their own tourism models and products. This locality specific tourism development strategy is however not entirely new, as even past planning efforts made districts prepare development plans based on specific geographical settings and resource availability. In terms of tourism development planning, most districts around Mount Kenya relied on conventional mountain hiking with targets being made of the importance of improvements to mountaineering services rather than developing alternative products and services. However, a look at the fairly recent development plans for districts since 2003 suggests attempts to develop locality specific tourism products that offer comparative advantage to the district, thus paving the way for alternative types of tourism such as ecotourism, cultural tourism and historical heritage based tourism among others (GOK 2003, GOK 2008a, GOK 2008b, GOK 2008c, GOK 2008d).

30The other challenge facing mountain tourism is the lack of requisite capacity and skills to enable local people to get involved in tourist activities and be competitive and relevant to a modern tourism industry. Given that most workers acting as guides and porters are made up of high school graduates, they do not have adequate skills to help them work with their clients. Some of the most important skills lacking amongst the workers include language skills and tourism product knowledge. Language skills are particularly important to cater for various European tourists who are the regular visitors to the mountain. Also lacking are management and marketing skills which are extremely important for community run enterprises. This explains why community based tourism project enterprises have not been very successful beyond the initial support they got for their implementation. For instance, a project started to help local people to do a tourism accommodation business at Naru Moro failed mainly due to mismanagement. Furthermore, the need to market tourist products also calls for marketing skills especially if the enterprises have to be self-supporting tourism businesses. As things stand now, most local people rely on clients outsourced from neighbouring successful businesses like hotels and lodges. This means their portering and guiding services are outsourced to them at low fees because the well established tourism businesses have to retain a profit from this service.

31To address some of these challenges, a few efforts have been undertaken. For instance, in relation to training needs for guides and porters, training programmes on the basics of their work have been given in the past. Naru Moro Porters and Guides have received training in mountain guiding and porting from the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). They have also benefited from collaborative efforts especially from tour operators like Base Camp Explorer, an international company specializing in ecotourism, who have offered tour guiding training as well as linking with local communities in tourism marketing activities for Mount Kenya.

32Recently, other local organisations who are not working in the tourism sector have joined in capacity building efforts for local tourism. A local savings and credit co-operative (SACCO) society, the Taifa Sacco based in Nyeri town, has been involved in training local guides and porters in investing the meagre incomes they earn from tourism. This is through getting them involved in saving and credit schemes and rotating savings and credit associations (ROSCAS). As a result, the porters and guiding self help groups from the three hiking routes (Naru Moro, Sirimon, Chogoria) have been trained in various savings and investments options as well as in other areas related to the tourism business like customer care and handling.

Alternative tourism forms as opportunities for tourism development in Mount Kenya

33The predominant form of tourism in Mount Kenya has been mountaineering, especially through the three access routes to the summit. Until the end of the 1990s, mountaineering presented the only chance for local people to participate in tourism activities as guides and porters. For the better part of the history of mountain tourism in Kenya, tourist activities have been predominant and skewed on the exploitation of the mountain’s natural resource heritage. The cultural and historical heritage of the mountain has, in comparative terms, drawn less interest among tourism products as well as visitors to the mountain, but it presents enormous opportunities. However, even nature based tourism products have not been sufficiently exploited. In other words, though other nature based tourism alternatives such as ecotourism have been introduced, their full potential remains underexploited given the natural resources endowment of the mountain and its surrounding tourist sites. Attempts by tourism stakeholders around the mountain to address most of the challenges described above call for exhaustive diversification of the tourism potential presented by the natural and cultural heritage of the area.

34Since the early 2000s, tourism around Mount Kenya has been seeking new dynamics and realities by adapting to the changes that have been occurring in the mountain area as well as in the broader global tourism sector. This is mainly by practising new tourism forms such as ecotourism (tourism aimed at supporting conservation efforts of both fauna and flora while also promoting local development), cultural tourism, and community based tourism that have emerged over the same period and by trying to see how they apply and help in solving some of the challenges faced at the local level. There have been attempts to localize these new tourism types to local level circumstances, especially because they address different challenges facing the mountain. This has also meant diversifying tourism products reflective not only of the resource endowments (both natural and cultural) around the mountain, but also the emergent new types of tourism. The alternative tourism types have been acknowledged by government in policy as important in diversifying tourism activities and economic opportunities especially those that target rural people (GOK 2006, GOK 2005). All have been deemed as viable in mountain areas as complimentary tourism activities to mountaineering and as a basis for sustainable exploitation of existing natural and cultural resources. Their development has exploited the comparative advantage of tourism resources endowment on each side of the mountain.

Potential and significance of cultural tourism resources in eastern Mount Kenya

35Even with an emphasis on tourism product diversification, planners and tourism practitioners on eastern Mount Kenya seem to place more emphasis on cultural tourism products. There is official acknowledgement that on this side of the mountain, tourism is generally poorly developed since the dominant tourism activities around the mountain have been concentrated on the western side (GOK 2003). Tourism facilities like hotels are hardly enough or of the required standards for serious tourism business. District development plans for the Meru, Tharaka Nithi and Embu districts over the last planning decade in this area underline the importance of developing cultural tourism (GOK 2008b, GOK 2008c, GOK 2008d). Even with the establishment of devolved county governments, the cultural tourism development emphasis seems likely to continue. This is especially due to the opportunity presented by the rich cultural heritage such as traditional songs and dances as well as traditional institutions such the Njuri Ncheke, the Meru council of elders that are still very relevant to local people’s lives. Hence, there is suggestion of developing a network of tourism centres around the institution of the Njuri Ncheke across the entire Meru region (GOK 2003, GOK 2008a, GOK 2008b, GOK 2008c, GOK 2008d).

36Even in the past, the most visible tourism attraction in this area has been culture based with the Meru Museum being the most popular destination that has mainly exploited cultural aspects of the region to offer education tours in Meru town. For a long time, the most important tourism destination on the eastern side of Mount Kenya has been the Chogoria Mountain hiking route. Interestingly, the two attractions or tourism localities (the Meru museum and Chogoria hiking route) have attracted two contrasting types of tourists with the museum attracting mainly local tourists with an educational motive for tourism and the Chogoria mountain hiking route largely serving overseas tourists with alpine interests.

37Recent planning targets for tourism products in eastern Mount Kenya have emphasized optimisation of the rich cultural traditions of the area. The cultural based attractions targeted to drive the tourism industry are the hitherto underexploited cultural resources such as the institution of Njuri Ncheke and its properties, like buildings. Njuri Ncheke assets such as halls, meeting venues and unique architectural designs where local disputes within Meru are resolved have been suggested to be incorporated in available tourism attractions (GOK 2008a). These halls and venues spread throughout the Meru districts of Ntonyiri, Igembe, Tigania and Imenti have become particularly important. Surrounding forests near the halls are planned to be included as part of arboretums to act as ecotourism attractions. The halls and venues are supposed to be transformed into cultural shrines and museums where Njuri Ncheke activities are explained to tourists. On the other hand, arboretums are targeted to be transformed into biodiversity community conservation areas that serve as sacred forests (GOK 2008a, GOK, 2003). These centres are also targeted as cultural and biodiversity conservation areas through the Museum and National Monuments Act.

38There has also been mapping of other nature and culture based products and centres or sites for developing places for cultural visits. One such centre is the Gaatia area of Imenti South, with the aim of promoting the Kimeru cultural heritage through theatre workshops and equipping dance performers with the right skills and training (GOK 2008b). Planners in eastern Mount Kenya have been working on a policy for cultural and grassroots tourism revival. This approach also seeks to exploit community cultural tourism alternatives such as the famed Meru traditional songs and dances. Cultural tourism products development is also an important focus on the lower eastern part of the mountain that covers the Embu area (TBTMP 2007).

39Other efforts have been directed at other cultural tourism products equally with ecotourism potential. This is mainly in attractions such as conservation of indigenous tree species like the Muuru tree or Meru Oak (Vitex keniensis) in Imenti forest due to the cultural and conservation values attached to it. This has been combined with exploration for existing ecotourism value from various religious sites such as sacred groves and caves that dot the Meru area especially in the Imenti forest. The conservation of the forest that is populated with the Meru Oak is particularly important due to the threat posed by commercial exploitation of the tree species arising from its highly demanded and valued timber. In this case, ecotourism can be an important incentive to conserve the forest, notwithstanding the challenge posed by municipal waste management in the area in the past.

40Cultural heritage is continuously being diversified to accommodate various elements related to cultural, natural and historical heritage in various destinations especially under the auspices of the National Museums of Kenya branch at Meru, which together with other stakeholders performs important roles of research into these new concepts and applying them in tourism development. In this regard, even historical sites that have for long been neglected and assigned no particular touristic value have recently been undergoing gazettement under the National Museums of Kenya Act. They are important sites of historical and cultural heritage amenable to tourism exploitation (Kariuki 2006).

41The most innovative tourism product developed to date from this eastern side of the mountain is agri-tourism, also called Kilimo Talii (Huijmans 2007). The concept seeks to introduce and open doors for use of agricultural practices like tea farming as part of the ecotourism experience where excursions to tea plantations become exploited for tourism. This has been tried in the south Imenti and Nithi areas of Meru. This tourism diversification strategy seeks to enable communities to take part in exploitation of cultural or village tourism through initiatives such as educational trips to tea farms. This idea can also work well in other sites in Embu, Kirinyaga and parts of Nyeri where tea growing next to the mountain is a major agricultural activity.

42In spite of the dominance of culture based attractions characterizing the eastern side of the mountain, nature based attractions also exist. However, they have not presented a very great tourism promise especially when compared to the western side of the mountain. Mountain trekking forms one of the oldest tourism activities especially on the Chogoria trekking route. It is however not a preferred route to approach the ascent to the mountain summit when compared with the two other Naru Moro and Sirimon routes. Indeed, most visitors prefer to approach the ascent of the mountain either from the Naru Moro or Sirimon route. The place where the tourists begin their mountain ascent is important because it determines the ways local people benefit from the tourists by providing their services as porters and guides. Over the years, the Naru Moro and Sirimon routes have provided the bulk of these tourism services. New camp sites have also been suggested and existing ones proposed for improvement. As a way of further developing experiences in mountain hiking in terms of additional summit access routes, more routes have been proposed in the development plans of a number of counties (Kirinyaga, Chogoria sides). This is born of the fact that the Naru Moro route has over the years established itself as a base for climbing Mount Kenya hence its popularity with tourists.

43Stakeholder partnerships have been seen as important in the new tourism development initiatives as they enable serious investments in a sector that is capital intensive such as construction of facilities like hotels, cottages, etc. Past experiments with alternative nature based products have however not produced very encouraging outcomes as the lessons from the Nkunga sacred lake ecotourism projects reveal. At Lake Nkunga near Meru town, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) sponsored project had in 2001 been started as a community ecotourism project. The initial idea was to develop nature trails, water sport and picnic sites at the Crater Lake in which even local people would tour while at the same time promoting the conservation objectives of the area. However, the project has not been a success as different aspects ranging from local leadership problems to political issues made the project fail.

Diverse opportunities for alternative tourism products in western Mount Kenya

44The western side of Mount Kenya can be regarded as the main tourism hub for the mountain. In comparative terms, it offers the touristic life of the mountain especially given the diversity of actors and tourism activities. Even in terms of the mainstream mountaineering activity, the two hiking routes of Naru Moro and Sirimon are the most attractive and popular for most tourists. The popularity of the western side also means that it has the most developed tourist infrastructure facilities including accommodations. It also offers better opportunities for the development of alternative tourism forms.

45The western Mount Kenya tourism development area includes mountain areas covered by the counties of Laikipia, Nyeri and Kirinyaga. However, most tourism activities take place in the Nyeri and Laikipia sections of the mountain. Tourism activities in these neighbouring counties contribute to more than half of all tourism activities around the mountain. They also present the greatest diversification of tourism initiatives that include nature based and high-end tourist products such as aerial helicopter trips around the mountain and fishing in the crater lakes. Consequently, the two counties actually have some of the best developed tourism infrastructures and facilities across the mountain. Beside diverse tourism products, the counties have the largest share of tourism practitioners in terms of personnel working in the mountain tourism sector and the most underdeveloped alternative tourism resource as elaborated below.

Nature based ecotourism

46Ecotourism is the most known typology of all the alternative forms of tourism in Mount Kenya. It has been defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the wellbeing of local people” (Western 1993: 18). Perhaps the environmental conservation and local people wellbeing linkage makes it more popular with stakeholders than other types of alternative tourism. Despite its popularity however, there is not much to show for it in terms of outstanding and successful case studies of projects especially among local people in the Mount Kenya area. The only exception is the Il Ngwesi conservancy and eco-lodge which is a unique case of a community managed tourism enterprise that has been able to be run by the community profitably since it was started in the late 1990s. However, its success has been attributed to the strong management and technical business support from the private sector through its close knit connections and linkages with the Lewa conservancy (Honey, 2008: 332- 333). The poor performance of ecotourism projects development in this area explains why, even from a national perspective, Mount Kenya remains a periphery ecotourism destination.

47Ecotourism as a practice in the area therefore remains in its infancy and has thus hardly registered significant impacts. For most of the mountain areas as a tourist destination, ecotourism has been undeveloped and its potential unexploited as a form of recreation. Despite its huge potential due to diversity of attractions such as forest reserves, wildlife, birdlife, rich historical and cultural heritage and the mountain climbing for which it is better known, the mountain remains an ecotourism periphery compared to the better established destinations such as Amboseli National Park and the Maasai Mara National Reserve areas. But the natural resource endowment coupled with recognition of the rich cultural and historical heritage still serves to indicate the Mount Kenya area has strong potential for ecotourism in the future.

48There are also efforts diversifying tourism into other nature based tourist types with NGOs such as Nature Kenya promoting bird watching as an important tourist activity. Mount Kenya has been classified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) due to the many bird species, thus making bird watching a viable tourism activity. On this side, efforts to transform the landscape for nature based ecotourism purposes is strongly promoted by Nature Kenya through the Mount Kenya Eco-Resource Centre at Naru Moro where it collaborates with tour operators and community groups such as the Mount Kenya Biodiversity Group and other development agencies in the area in activities like tree planting.

High-end tourism

49A key feature of tourism in Mount Kenya is the people running various segments of the sector. Tourism business is clearly differentiated depending on the level of investment and the nature of business run. With the western side of the mountain demonstrating a combination of tourism initiatives with these characteristics, a distinction between the best thriving tourism initiatives, especially those that target natural attractions, and the ones run by small scale operators is important.

50In Laikipia county areas, the kind of tourism practiced is largely conservancy based tourism. This is tourism run in privately owned ranches and largely target personalized tourist packages for tourists sourced directly from Europe. In some parts of Nyeri, some small scale inclusive tourism facilities offering high-end tourism are also found. Like the conservancies in Laikipia, they also target high-end tourists who are also offered outdoor sporting activities like sport and trout fishing in rivers originating from Mount Kenya, as well as in the various crater lakes of the mountain. These are serviced by unique tourism infrastructure like an airstrip near Nanyuki for trips around the mountain and other attractions and facilities that offer high life ecotourist services.

Community based tourism.

51Tourism activities driven by local people and operated at the local level have also been emerging on the western side of the mountain. As a local people driven initiative, this type of tourism is characterized by involvement of local people in tourism activities such as tour guides and porters as well as village “homestays”. “Homestays” have over the years been popularized by the Green Belt Movement, especially through a foreign student exchange programme in which foreign students coming to do their field studies in rural central Kenya are integrated in the cultural and conservation work of the areas they visit. It has entailed students staying in villages and taking part in environmental work like tree planting in public places, indigenous tree seeds collection and even tree nurseries preparation. They take part in local cultural activities such as home keeping and social events like weddings.

52The other dimension of community based tourism has entailed exploiting the local cultural and historical heritage to develop tourist products. For instance, in the Nyeri area, the many Mau Mau caves and sites used by freedom fighters during Kenya’s war of independence have been gazetted by the government through the National Museum as sites for cultural and historical heritage. They serve as important locations for learning local area history and culture and they target both local and overseas tourists. Therefore, community based tourism has assumed a mixture of cultural, historical and social dimensions in which local people are involved and interact with tourists.


53Mount Kenya as a tourism destination is not the most popular of the destinations in the country. Most tourists who have visited the mountain have mainly targeted mountain hiking, the tourist activity that accounts for more than half of visitors to the area. However, the area is endowed with enormous potential for other resources that can attract many more visitors if well harnessed, packaged and marketed.

54From a general perspective, the unexploited potential of the mountain is spatially presented with the eastern side of the mountain mainly focusing on exploitation of cultural and historical heritage, and the western side predominantly being associated with natural heritage attractions. However, this analysis does not mean that both sides of the mountain do not have potential to exploit the different types of heritage the mountain is endowed with. Both sides have these endowments even if they have not been fully and properly exploited.

55Some of the changes taking place locally, nationally, globally and even naturally have affected tourism performance in the Mount Kenya area. For instance, governance changes have in the past impacted on the conservation status of the natural resources which tourism depends on. The centralized governance arrangements of the 1990s negatively impacted on forest resources and ultimately affected the mountain environment that forms part of mountain tourism attraction. However, governance changes through a more decentralized arrangement as well as the legal and policy frameworks have facilitated participation of various actors and opened the door for more tourism opportunities, especially in the underdeveloped alternative forms of tourism. This can be hastened if county governments strive to consider tourism as an additional critical way of increasing income generation opportunities for the counties in the coming years.

56Socioeconomic and environmental changes in the mountain have also influenced how tourism is developing on the mountain. These changes also serve as challenges that affect the realization of sustainable tourism that benefit the future of the mountain environment, the tourists and local people. It therefore behoves concerned authorities to manage these changes properly if mountain tourism in the area is to continue benefiting the various stakeholders; local people, tourists and management authorities.

57In all, if the full tourism potential of Mount Kenya is exploited, tourism can be an influential driver of regional development and conservation by attracting more visitors and more local people benefiting. This will however depend on how relevant authorities manage the change factors and challenges affecting the mountain. Perhaps, with the devolution of government to the counties, new mechanisms for sustainable mountain tourism development will be found.



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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 48. Mt Kenya, mountain and national Park
Fichier image/jpeg, 50k
Titre Photo 17. Dumping site next to Lake Nkunga sacred lake and an ecotourism site (Joseph Kariuki. Muriithi)
Fichier image/jpeg, 33k


Dr. and Senior Lecturer, Department of Environmental Studies and Community Development, Kenyatta University, Nairobi (Kenya),
His works focuses on conservation tourism, certification and ecotourism in Kenya, particularly the question of the eco-rating scheme within the Kenya ecotourism sector? Recently he works on « urban green developments »

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