Just four years ago, the town of Nkuringo had no teachers for its school during the rainy season because impassable roads made it difficult for them to travel and people relied only on thin tracts of land on the mountain side for their livelihoods. But since the habituation of groups of gorillas in the area, tourism has started to flourish and has brought benefits to the wider community – developing a new, thriving economy.
This isolated Ugandan town near the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo – high in the mountains of Bwindi National Park – now boasts a boutique hotel called ‘Clouds Lodge’. Built in 2008, it’s 100 per cent owned by the community and most of its 43 employees come from the surrounding area. Maniralliza Yona supplies the hotel with eggs giving his family a little extra income to pay for clothing and food. Locals are profiting from the influx of visitors by hosing nature walks in the forest and providing entertainment for guests (to name just a couple).
Colleta Amanya runs the Nkuringo Conservation and Development Foundation which was set up in 2008 to manage the profits from sustainable tourism-related activities.
Colleta says that the profits from the hotel and income from gorilla tracking permits have been ploughed back into a diverse range of enterprises. Seedlings are grown in a tea nursery and given to local farmers. Eight per cent of any profits made from the tea go back to the foundation. It also owns one of the many craft shops that have sprung up across in the area (which is 2,600 meters above sea level). The sales of locally made wood carved gorillas, t-shirts and baskets help provide an income for artisans.
A sponsorship scheme pays for the poorest children and several orphans to go to school. The foundation is also meeting the costs of training two nurses who will eventually work in the community. A more ambitious plan to build the town its very own health centre is already taking shape and the foundations have been laid.
Some teachers live over ten miles away and have to cross bumpy, mountainous tracks to get to the school. Funds from the foundation have helped build a house for them to stay in during the rainy season. Now the school can remain open whatever the weather.
Foundation director Colleta said: “So much has already been achieved but our vision is that by 2020 we will have seen an even bigger improvement in the livelihoods of the people in the area. We want to have a doctor based here and good schools and good roads and really give this area the boost it needs.”
Other businesses are springing up all over the area. Restaurants, bars and all types of accommodation help service the growing number of tourists. At Clouds Lodge tourist numbers have grown from 445 in 2008 to 1199 in 2012.
In such a short space of time the benefits eco-tourism have brought to this place show what could be developed over the border in Virunga National Park without having to resort to oil exploration.