By Geoffrey Baluku
Gorilla tourism in Uganda is primarily taking place in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park while in Rwanda and DRC share the virungas. It is important to note that over 70% of the revenues from tourism in Uganda come from Gorilla trekking. This continuous flow of tourists to go Gorilla trekking has been through a concerted effort from various players in the industry that include mainly the Association of Ugandan tour operators, hoteliers to mention but a few. However, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) who are expected to be the custodians of all National parks are planning to not only increase the rate of Gorilla Trekking but alo to put the Gorilla Permits online.
Rwanda announced that gorilla permits price would rise from $500 to $750 as of June 1, 2012 which was later implemented. As Rwanda has in the past few years sold nearly 100% of its gorilla permits, they felt that the market would bear the price increase. After the increase was implemented in Rwanda, Uganda Wildlife Authority the custodians of Uganda’s National Parks including the famous Bwindi Forest and Mgahinga National Parks have also been tempted into endorsing a price increase from US$500 to US$600.
Recognising Rwanda’s strong competitive advantage with the high end market, it would be advisable for Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) to refrain from raising its prices. This will in turn give Uganda a competitive advantage with more price sensitive segments of the market, including many Free Independent Travelers, budget tourists, foreign residents, and domestic tourists.
Furthermore, UWA may be able to increase the percentage of permits sold and therefore overall revenue by offering not just promotional but low season rates. This would appeal to the market groups mentioned above. UWA experimented with this strategy last year but was not entirely successful, largely because the plan was not announced far enough in advance. If announced at least six months in advance, the results will likely be better.
During a World Bank presentation to the Ugandan Tourism Stakeholders last year at Protea Hotel, we were informed by the consultant that Gorilla Permits will be going online for sale. However, when we contacted the Uganda Wildife Authority Executive Director then, he assured us that the Gorilla Permits would not be going online. He reiterated the same while we were in London for the World Travel Market. Testimony to this is this youtube link: However, the rumour of trying to put the gorilla permits online continued till Wednesday 17th July 2013 when our Executive Committee was called for an impromptu meeting with senior staff of Uganda Wildlife Authority who officially / verbally informed us that it was true that the Gorilla Permits will be going on line since they had already purchased the required machinery. On many occassions we have been informed by the tour operators representative on the UWA Board how they have never discussed the issue of putting the gorilla permits online. Question is did this whole process follow due deliguence and procurement rules. Was it asdvertised and if so to who and when? In whose interest is this whole online scheme targetting? Is it being done to favour foreign based or local operators?
As members of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators through a position paper presented to UWA management, we categorically objected to this proposed online scheme by UWA as the proponents of the proposal have / did not take into consideration the business interests of local Ugandan Registered Tour Operators. It is important to be mindful that Ugandan Registered Tour Operators pay Taxes here, employ Ugandans, their revenue has no leakage among others. So putting the permits online will discourage investment in tour operations.
In a situation that UWA adamantly continues with this scheme in disregard of the local operators interests, we recommend that the online system be only accessed by registered local tour operators and preferably members of AUTO.
Uganda Wildlife Authority needs to know that tourist demands are constantly changing as demand for new destinations and products are increasing. Having been trying to advance from recession into recovery, it is critical for both UWA and AUTO to stay attuned to the trends shaping consumer sentiment and decision making. How confident are consumers about the coming year? What trends are common across the markets and where do travelers differ?
AUTO would like to look at Tourism from the Ugandan perspective in terms of raising income and revenue but also from the visiting tourists’ perspective. Anecdotal evidence shows that Uganda’s Tourism sector and particularly the private sector is working hard towards a competitive tourism industry. The sector has received growth spurts in terms of investment. The Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) understands Uganda Wildlife Authority’s (UWA’s) desire to capitalize as much as possible from Uganda’s great natural assets. At the same time, UWA must remain aware that Tourism is vulnerable to changes in economic conditions in the originating markets which cause major swings in the level of tourism in the destinations and international visitor arrival are also vulnerable to civil unrest, crime and Political Instability
Uganda is still considered by some to be a risky place to visit. The first question prospective clients always ask is, “is it safe? AUTO and UWA know that Uganda is safe but the link with Amin days is still in some people’s minds and it only takes the smallest piece of negative news from Uganda to make them think it is a dangerous place.
The point of this analysis is therefore to say that Uganda is already considered to be an expensive destination by the average tourist.
AUTO does not have a problem because people who are able to afford a good Uganda Safari always leave satisfied. However, sometimes it is easy to get a little greedy and then the market can be upset. As AUTO, we think that UWA’s proposed price increases especially for Gorilla permits is once again ill timed and may well back fire with less visitors.
In line with the themes adopted by the ruling NRM Party in Uganda such as poverty alleviation and prosperity for all, I wish to urgently urge government through its line Ministry of Tourism to help us and check some of these over ambitous excesses from Uganda Wildlife Authority.
The writer Secretary to the Board – at the Association of Uganda Tour Operators
& also owner of Uganda Tourism Portal