By Geoffrey Baluku
In the 1960’s, Uganda was the main tourism destination in Eastern Africa and Tourism became one of the country’s main economic sectors.
However, the period of turmoil in the 1970’s and 80’s saw the wildlife hunted to virtual extinction in all the national parks, tourism infrastructure vandalized and looted and as a result Uganda lost its position as the number one to neighboring countries like Kenya who consolidated their position and enforced the safari brand that to date they are known world over for – safari!
In the mid eighties the current government took over power and started the long arduous and painful process of restoring peace, the economy which has evidently moved in a crawling manner though tourism now seems to have a flicker of hope and optimism.
Uganda has been said to be a blank page because very little is known of this beautiful country out there implying there is urgent need for the government to mobilize the stake holders and create a conducive environment for them to formulate synergies between each other.
In Uganda, tourism’s direct contribution to GDP in 2012 was estimated at roughly US$834 million. This represented 4% of total Ugandan GDP while globally, tourism generates about 10% of total world GDP and employs over 10% of the global workforce.
The tourism sector continues to be a strong and growing contributor to the national economy, investment, both direct foreign as well as domestic, and employment, particularly in rural areas where few other jobs are available, but also in urban centres. It contributes nearly 26% of Uganda’s total exports earnings. The hospitality sub sector alone employs country-wide an estimated 65,000 people with the related transport sector accounting for another 20,000 jobs.
Secondary and tertiary employment in other sectors providing support services and supplies to the tourism sector add further to this share.
In the strategic plan for Uganda 2004 – 2008 and more recently in the review of Uganda’s Tourism Master Plan, a lot of talk was and continues to be made on Uganda’s potential and it seems to be the case that this word has always been used in the vaguest of ways especially when there is no specific manner to describe an activity in detail. However, there is no doubt that tourism in Uganda is on the rise as indicated by available statistics from Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) from 2007 to 2012.
Tourism compared to other export sectors is unique in that consumption takes place in Uganda resulting in a higher added value within the country. Expenditure of the tourists gives rise to six major economic impacts that include the Gross National Product (GNP); foreign exchequer earnings and the Balance of Payment; Employment; government revenue; regional distribution of income and investment.
As a result tourism plays a key role in the enhancement of the economic and social well being of Uganda and its people through foreign exchange earnings, the creation of jobs and consumption of Ugandan goods and services. At the same time a successful tourism industry contributes to the preservation of Uganda’s physical and aesthetic environment thus preserving the culture and unique heritage.
Uganda boasts of one of the largest variety of natural resources on the African continent which range from fresh water bodies like lakes and rivers, Loft Mountains, forests, numerous flora and fauna found in our protected areas. Distinctively, Uganda as a tourist destination has a variety of game stock that habit that un spoilt lush and green beauty which is endowed with numerous outstanding attractions based on its lakes, rivers, forests and ecology, ice capped mountains of the Rwenzori.
This country continues to outshine other East African countries with its vast range of bird species and most of all it is the home to over 50% of the world remaining mountain gorillas at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Africa review recently also noted Uganda’s tourism growth is the fastest growing in Africa.
What is at Stake – Regarding Tourism in Uganda
Tourism has not developed as expected despite the country’s potential and tourism attractions. The strength of Uganda’s Tourism industry is in its unspoilt wilderness attractions such the Mountain Gorillas, the rich cultures and special combination of nature and culture. In the past Uganda’s tourism sector has had challenges related to insecurity in some parts of the country, however this has been solved and Uganda is now generally a peaceful destination though there remains the biggest challenge of improving Uganda’s image internationally.
To date many Ugandans get surprised by the questions they are asked when they are attending International tourism exhibitions. The people out there still think of Uganda as the country of Idi Amin; to many people dying of HIV Aids, war; corruption etc. The recent walk to work, women with sauce pans, traders sit down, taxi operators strike, students strike and the falling shilling are a pointer to something going wrong. The aforementioned call for the government to re think its approach and listen to voices of reason as there could be “enough justification” for the demonstrations.
The above scenario just serves to show that Uganda has not rolled out its PR machinery and this is at stake for Uganda – improving its image. In the case of Rwanda, it is a younger Tourist destination but it has now surpassed Uganda in as far as marketing Rwanda as the “only place” to see mountain gorillas in Africa.
Rwanda recognizes that they don’t have much by way of tourism but they acknowledge that their strength lies in their ability to creatively market so they are capitalizing on it.
At the beginning of 2008, Kenya was thrown into a tumultuous time for nearly three months and this disrupted Kenya’s Tourism industry to an extent that there were reported up to 91% cancellations and this affected tourist arrivals as well as the Kenyan economy.
However, the Kenya PR machinery was at work providing updates on the situation and this provided a counter effect on all the media reports that tended to concentrate on only the negative things about the prevailing situation at the time.
After the civil unrest ended the Political machinery set to work to make promotions on the country, road shows and familiarization trips were sponsored for the big agents in UK and USA. More funds were allocated to the marketing budget so as to revamp the efforts of promoting the destination. This had a great effect of quick starting the recovery of Kenya’s Tourism and economy.
Uganda has usually not responded whenever we have had negative publicity about whatever is happening here. It has been said that nothing on the planet is new. Everything has always existed before but it is just redressed and then re packaged as if it is new!
Uganda needs to turn to the drawing table and make comparative studies to review the strategies adopted by Uganda in the 1960,s and modify them to position itself in the international Tourism market now. Uganda is competing against new destinations and new products so it is relevant that the products Uganda puts out are of quality and typically unique to Uganda.
The World Tourism Organization reports a global growth in Tourism and it actually is the fastest growing sector of most economies. In Uganda Tourism had a growth rate of 21% from 1995 – 2012 with exception of the year 2009 when the world experienced a credit crunch.
Tourism promotion and marketing has been very limited not only because of insufficient fund allocation but also human resource personnel and misplaced priorities for the government of Uganda’s line departments like Uganda Tourism Board, Uganda Wildlife Authority among others.
Uganda has always relied on hand outs from donors even though now it is positioning itself to be self reliant as per 2013 / 2014 budget. Now is the time to change focus and use Tourism which has the potential to bring in Forex. With appropriate personnel and marketing; tourism may once again become the leading country wide economic sector with even stronger economic impact than Agriculture and industry in respect of foreign earnings.
The potential has already been demonstrated when a few years ago government formulated the ten year tourism master plan and the private sector responded positively by investing in and putting up new facilities in various locations in Uganda. This has continued to be the case but a number of problems still plague the sector and have inhibited its development.
Certain of these problems have been drastic and caused many facilities to go into liquidation consequently preventing tourism from realizing its potential. However, there is optimism in the sector now and we begin to see tourism development and investment by the private sector who have gained confidence in the sector’s abilities. Stake holders see the opportunity to accomplish what they would not have accomplished fifteen years ago.
Among the numerous products that Uganda has are; Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Kisoro, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Kibale Forest, Rwenzori Mountains, Lake Bunyonyi, Semliki etc. The Albertine area is the largest and most popular tourism region of Uganda. Existing Activities: include bird watching, game drives, Mountain Climbing, water based activities on Kazinga Channel, Chimpanzee tracking, gorilla trekking, fishing on Lakes George and Edward, salt mines, community groups, the pygmies etc.
What is needed to Improve Uganda Tourism?
Uganda Tourism Night has a project proposal on sanitation facilities along the tourist circuits. However, due to the capital intensive nature of the project and yet it has no direct benefit to Uganda Tourism Night, we are seeking funding from government, NGO’s that can fund this on a purely commercial basis.
Training of community guides, organized community groups that can provide equipment for rental to tourists who wish to partake of an activity in the area, home stay experiences, development of marketing materials, maps, build good roads, improve condition of airstrips/ airfields and introduce cheaper scheduled flights to the park areas so as to shorten the long driving distances to our parks.
There is also need to reinstate the national carrier for Uganda to provide direct flights, convenient and affordable travel fares from source markets and also to urgently up grade Kasese airfield to international airport status thus implement the decision to enable tourists arrive there directly.
Improve visibility by putting signage on the roads, position tourist police along the road side to allow tourists to report any misbehavior by tour operators like those leaving them on the road side stranded.
Night game drives in all parks plus bush camping and more circuits in the Murchison Falls National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park areas.
Simplify merchant (Visa & Master cards) banking to increase the tourist spend. Reduce the risk of losing cash and the inconvenience of carrying large wards of money.
There is also need for additional access points on the Rwenzori. Additional activities and a business development plan for Rwenzori.
Interest information and resource centre, restaurants, house boats, boat rides, additional walks, toilets along the circuits.
Policy Guidelines and Action Steps to achieve the Tourism Needs
There is need for Continuous hands on training of existing and new tour guides as well as hospitality staff.
In addition to encouraging the local media and NGO’s to become partners in the tourism awareness process, we can also encourage building among the previously neglected small and medium tourism enterprises and emerging entrepreneurs.
Updates on the security situation through provision of information to visitors will help improve their safety and security. In line with this, a section for Tourism Police under Uganda Police that was created needs to be adequately facilitated. This will help not only in effective prosecution for cases where tourists are involved but will also build confidence of / among the tourists.
We also need to emphasize the development of products that offer good potential for development take for instance cultural forms of tourism, cruise tourism, sports tourism, conference and incentive travel.
For infrastructure we need to maintain and upgrade existing roads in order to improve accessibility and mobility through areas like Rukungiri – Kihihi road; Ishasha road; the road to Buhoma from Kihihi; the road to Ruhijja from Kabale; the road from Muko in Kabale to Nshongi and Nkuringo; the road to Nyakalengiya; the Kyenjojo – Masindi road and some access roads/tracks in Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth National Parks.
There is need for an agent review of the government’s financial contribution to tourism as well as the process of determining such contribution which will in the end lead to a creation of a dedicated tourism development fund that will help provide funds for tourism enterprises and local community activities not catered for by existing state financing agencies. Such a fund should be subject to regular auditing and scrutiny.
Investors that come up with products that help to diversify the tourism product take for instance cruise boats on Lake Victoria should be supported and encouraged. These investors (especially those with joint partnerships with Ugandans) should not only be protected but they should also be able to transfer skills and technology to Ugandans.
Representation by the tour operators on the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) has been achieved as the Association of Uganda Tour Operators has representatives now. However, at the Export Promotion Board, Uganda Investment Authority, Civil Aviation Authority and Kampala Capital City Authority the tour operators lack representation.
To compete with other destinations, the private sector MUST be supported by significant government spending in marketing the country. This is not happening in Uganda.
Other East African neighbors including Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda spend significantly more on promoting themselves as a tourism destination and consequently boast far higher tourist earnings. Kenya’s tourism marketing budget for the 2011/2012 financial year was set at Kenya Sh1.4 billion as compared Uganda’s Sh 600 million. The last budget reading 2013/ 2014 is even more sickening from the Ugandan side.
We have an incredible tourism product but the world will not find out about us without a serious Government of Uganda commitment to promote Uganda. Currently Uganda has too many tourism line segments / government departments doing the same thing in the name of promoting/marketing tourism. Among these are Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, Uganda Export Promotion Board, Uganda Wildlife Authority, Uganda Tourism Board, Civil Aviation Authority etc that all have budgets and departments for promotion and marketing. This continues to pose a danger of diluting the marketing and promotional efforts at the international level with the consequent wastage of valuable resources. A solution to this would be the merging of tourism into a Uganda Tourism Authority with directorates for marketing, human resource, wildlife management etc.
International marketing should be the responsibility of Uganda Tourism Board though marketing and promotion plans need to be developed jointly not only with the afore mentioned but also with the private sector such as the tour operators, hoteliers and local communities. More resources should be devoted to the marketing and promotion of tourism particularly on the international front where per capita income is greatest.
The continued elimination of tourism promotion by the Ugandan government has caused severe loss of the market share, visitor dollars, and tax revenues that could take years to recoup. However, as our Members of Parliament face difficult choices, many are coming to understand the power of tourism marketing as a revenue generator, just as marketing is recognized as the engine driving sales and profits in the private sector.
Uganda must operate like Apple, Nike, Coca Cola and similar businesses that have followed the marketing path to success. Substantial cuts to destination marketing programs are counterproductive and will have long-term negative economic consequences. The afore mentioned companies did not just create outstanding products and assume the world would beat a path to their door. They understood the critical need to market their products in an effective way that created consumer demand. It is a fact marketing will generate more tax revenue by driving substantial increases in visitation and spending in local communities.
Also the successful development of any tourism destination is dependent on reliable and in many cases affordable air transportation. Uganda is un fortunate not to have its own national carrier. This makes Uganda rely on other commercial airlines whose main objectives are to maximize profit and manage yield. If we are to get more tourists coming to Uganda, it is important that we not only get our own national carrier but also to build strategic alliances with other global players.
In line with the themes adopted by the ruling NRM Party in Uganda such as poverty alleviation and prosperity for all, I wish to say that Government of Uganda needs to expeditiously avail funds to market Uganda internationally. Tourism creates jobs, both through direct employment within the tourism industry and indirectly in sectors such as retail and transportation. When these people spend their salaries on goods and services, it leads to what is known as the “multiplier effect,” creating more jobs. The tourism industry also provides opportunities for small-scale business enterprises, which is especially important in rural communities, and generates extra tax revenues.
A viable solution to solve the funding gap would be to operationalise the Tourism Levy. I don’t know whom to blame but I think this goes down to weaknesses at our mother ministry of Tourism. Why do I say so? In April 2008, the President passed the Tourism Act which to date has never been implemented. What we are witnessing is conferences/ meetings/ workshops all discussing the same issues. .