It’s a Saturday morning and professional, local and recreation marathoners are running along the Masai Mara plains with the hills and wildlife creating a beautiful backdrop.
Among the athletes is Bob Boyle, an American from California, who is in Kenya for the first time and taking part in the Kenya Airways Masai Mara Marathon.
Bob, an avid runner, decided to combine his first holiday to Africa with his passion for running. Along with his wife and another couple, they travelled to Kenya a few days after the Westgate attack, and opted to first explore the northern circuit before landing at the Fairmont Masai Mara where they were staying.
Wearing a lime green vest, Bob took his place at the start line among some Kenyan renowned runners. He finished the half marathon, 21 kilometres, at number 63.
“It’s a totally different experience to run by the animals. To run side-by-side with some of the best runners in the world, who kept passing me but I was OK with it,” he said. “I got to combine my passion for running and my first holiday in Africa to see the beauty that Kenya offers.”
The marathon is one of the many in the country that have become popular over the years, attracting runners and spectators from across the country and beyond.
The Safaricom Lewa, UAP Ndakaini and StanChart Nairobi marathons are some of the annual events that have gained popularity among Kenyans attracting hundreds of people who donate the proceeds to charity.
These marathons have become social events boosting domestic tourism, with some international visitors also participating annually.
“We support local tourism; we travel and see the country and in the process, raise money for charity. The greatest joy is that I make a difference in someone’s life, as I do something I’m passionate about,” says Joyce Nduku, an avid runner, who works at Kemri.
Joyce, a mother of two boys, is part of the Urban Swara running club. She took up running when she turned 50 for fear of getting arthritis. Ten years later, she has run in most marathons – both half and full – across the country as well as the Chicago Marathon, six years ago, and one in Cape Town two years ago.
For her 60th birthday, she is looking forward to running one of the international elite marathons. The club members pool resources to travel to the local races.
But marathons are not the only sporting events attracting such major crowds. Rugby, football and motor sports are also gaining major attraction with keen fans travelling across the country to cheer their teams.
People are coming together and going on road trips across the country to support their favourite teams, in the process boosting domestic tourism.
The rise in prominence of the Safaricom Safari Sevens rugby tournament and the continuous success by the national team in the International Rugby Board (IRB) Sevens circuit has seen the sport gain popularity amongst Kenyans both locally and abroad.
With events now being held outside Nairobi, fans are taking road trips to Machakos, Nakuru, Kisumu and as far as Uganda for the events.
Sports tourism has also meant booming business for local businesses, especially accommodation and car hire.
The Masaku Rugby Sevens held in Machakos in July saw hoteliers and guest houses in the town record booming business due to the influx of mostly young sports enthusiasts especially from Nairobi.
The rugby fans who flocked to Kisumu in August, some for the first time, for the Dala Sevens event stretched the bed capacity in the town to its limits. Players in the hospitality industry were happy saying the event boosted the Western tourism circuit, which records low numbers of visitors due to lack of exposure.
Lake Victoria Tourism Association chief executive Antony Ochieng’ said the Dala Sevens turnout was remarkable, adding that it revealed the potential of sports activities as an attraction for domestic and international tourists to the western region.
The sea of fans wearing green shirts recently travelled to Thika, from Nairobi, to cheer Gor Mahia when the team played against Thika United. Football fans in Kenya are willing to follow their teams across the country, while rugby fans travel to Europe and the US to cheer their favourite international teams.
The Safari Rally and other motoring sports have also become major crowd pulling events, regardless of their location.
The KCB Safari Rally held throughout the year in different locations including Kajiado, Nyeri, Voi, Nakuru, Kisumu and Mombasa have gained a keen following of people who travel to see their favourite drivers in thrilling action.
In the Kenya Motor Sport Foundation (KSMF) calendar there is also the KQ East African Safari Classic, in November, and the extreme adventure Rhino Charge that pulls huge international and local crowds to different remote parts of the country.
Because of this growing trend, the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) is now focusing on tapping in on the potential of sports to grow both domestic and international tourist numbers. The body charged with marketing Kenya is looking at various sports but has a keen eye on athletics, rugby and football.
In addition, it is developing a sports tourism strategy that will look at the development of products that can attract people, as well as engage counties to help drive domestic travel.