2014 has been a mixed bag for the tourism sector. The sector registered a share of highs, such as overtaking all sectors in the country in terms of foreign exchange earnings. This happened, despite the low investment in the sector.
On the international stage, a lot of attention has been drawn to Uganda, after President Museveni threw a spanner in the works when he declared Uganda a better tourist destination than Spain, a country that is ranked as one of the top tourist destinations in Europe. Tourism players and Ugandans have given kudos to the head of state for this.
Simon Tebyasa, the managing director Harmony Safaris Limited, observes that on top of individualised and aggressive marketing as a tourism entrepreneur, the Ugandan government has tried to market Uganda globally, which benefits young players in the sector, him inclusive.
The efforts by tourism enthusiasts and Great Lakes Safaris’ Amos Wekesa in promoting Uganda globally cannot go unnoticed. He has made international presentations all geared towards promoting Uganda and positioning it on the international radar. This is besides active social media campaigns which have drawn a lot of attention.
When CNN sought to interview Wekesa for his personal story in November, he used the opportunity to tell about the beauty of the Pearl of Africa and thereby drumming up the need for tourists to visit.
“This has brought a lot of awareness hence pushing Uganda to the ranks of one of the most desired destinations in Africa. Communities around the national parks have been sensitised to appreciate the benefits that come with tourism like schools, health facilities, source of income for the locals and other benefits that come with tourists,” Tebyasa explains.
Tourists who stay with families in the community spend money on feeding and buy items such as handcrafts at community shops, among other related activities.
While launching the Night Game Drives earlier in the year, Bunyoro King Rukirabasaija Agutamba Solomon Gafabusa Iguru I, called on Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) to tailor activities that would engage local communities in tourism as a way of finding a source of livelihood.
In the mainstream tourism sector, 2014 started off good as tour companies intensified efforts to improve their facilities and thus tourist experience. Wildplaces’ & The Uganda Safari Company’s group general manager Gary Segal says his peak was from June to August.
“We have been working hard on growing our marketing efforts and building relationships with key agents, as well as doing some refurbishments to some of our properties like Apoka Safari Lodge, Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, Semliki Safari Lodge and Pineapple Bay,” he explains.
This, he adds, was on addition to structuralising and systemising through constantly training and developing staff within the organisation to be more productive and efficient, whilst keeping the ultimate service experience and guest delight at the forefront of their day-to-day activities.
June also brought with it good news at UTB where for the first time, government increased the institution’s budget, since the 1990s, to about Shs6 billion.
John Ssempebwa, the deputy chief executive officer at Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), says the budget is still peanuts compared to what Kenya spends, which is about $40m (about Shs110 billion), but it is a step in the right direction.
Trek East Africa Safaris’ managing director Geoffrey Baluku points at the launch of the five-year strategic plan as local tourism’s biggest achievement for 2014. The Tourism Development Master Plan recognises Uganda’s exceptional range of natural and cultural tourism assets, and prescribes the measures and resources needed to unlock their unrealised potential and deliver a significant boost to the tourism economy in the next 10 years.
According to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), by 2023, the Master Plan forecasts an increase in foreign receipts to more than $1.4 billion (about Shs3.8 trillion) per annum, and the creation of more than 150,000 additional tourism jobs. The projection is based on a careful analysis of both internal and external environments of the country.
Basing on the potential of the tourism sector, the government recognised the importance of tourism to national socioeconomic development and it has identified it as a priority sector in the National Development Plan 2010-15. The Master Plan therefore serves as a guideline for development of tourism, enabling the decision makers to agree on the principles for the direction for the next 10 years.
Simon Tebyasa, the managing director Harmony Safaris Limited, also notes that community policing has been on the rise this year as the police continues to work with tour companies in making sure that tourist are safe. He adds, “One way they have tried to work with tour companies is to provide Emergency numbers to call in case of an emergency.”
Nature Uganda’s executive director Achilles Byaruhanga says Uganda has suffered some continuous challenges, for example destruction of forests in different places where communities continue to cut down trees without intervention from National Forestry Authority (NFA).
This is in addition to the Ebola outbreak as well as passing of the anti-gays Bill, which players in tourism and hospitality sector have regarded as two big blows. Garry Segal, Wildplaces’ & The Uganda Safari Company’s group general manager, says the impact of the law was real and caused a drawback in the number of bookings at the Wildplaces’ lodges, in spite of the overturning of this Bill.
At Harmony Safaris, many bookings were cancelled because the outbreak of Ebola created a lot of panic and scare hence low numbers as people who had planned to travel to Uganda and other African countries cancelled their travel arrangements.
The world’s misperceptions and concerns about the disease have dented tourism figures in East Africa in spite of Ebola being thousands of miles away. Thankfully, there are still many who understand the distances and lack of threat, and are still travelling.
“We hope for an end to it soon, not least for the people and countries in the midst of it, but also so that we can get down to the business of building tourism up again,” Segal notes.
As Great Lakes Safaris’ Amos Wekesa notes, the biggest challenge for tourism has been the conflicts among players and failure to think about the bigger picture. Therefore, minds never met to tackle challenges.
“Every effort was invested in undermining one another and to be honest, this curtailed growth of so many otherwise brilliant individuals, and those that make the most money in the industry decided to keep quiet, which means the young were not able to learn from them,” he explains.
The terrorist attacks in Kenya was another setback, as well as a reported planned attack on Entebbe Airport. To this, Simon Tebyasa, the managing director Harmony Safaris Limited, adds the heavy rainfall that destroyed roads and bridges, especially in western Uganda, which is en-route to most national parks.
Tourism players also point at the slight decline in clientele as a result of the poor global economy because the would-be clients had less to spend.
Efforts to improve the sector
Tourism enthusiast Godfrey Lule Ssemwanga underlines the need to promote domestic and regional tourism. This is something that is in its take-off stages as deputy chief executive officer at Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), John Ssempebwa observes.
He says 2014 has seen an awakening internally, and particularly due to the formation of tourism clusters in places such as Kigezi, Ankole, Buganda, Busoga, Eastern, Northern, West Nile, Toro and Bunyoro. “We have seen increased interest. For the first time, we have got interested in domestic tourism such as Imbalu, Bishop Hannington site in Kyando, among other places,” Ssempebwa explains.
To support clusters, UTB will create cluster-support guidelines. “UTB shall meet each cluster on its own to lay foundations. UTB will provide initial support such as general tourism training and selection of governance committees to ensure adequate private-public sector balance,” Ssempebwa adds.
UTB will then provide technical support towards product development; each cluster will be helped to adequately profile its most unique, most relevant tourism products, publicise them on a website linked to UTB’s website.
Product development support will include research, documentation, profiling, monuments, signage and product launches. Site development may include construction of cultural villages, construction of tourist stop-overs managed by local communities, etc.
This is in addition to efforts that have been dedicated to religious tourism, to places such as Uganda Martyrs Shrines in Namugongo under the guidance of among others, Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga and Fr Joseph Mukasa Muwonge.
Despite the hurdles in 2014, Uganda is definitely on the radar for a brighter 2015. John Ssempebwa, the deputy chief executive officer at Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) reveals that UTB is going to contract firms to market and represent Uganda in Europe and the rest of the western world.
“Marketing requires a focus on strategically selected target markets. Neither the current tourism policy nor UTB’s internal marketing strategy clearly prioritises specific market segments or products. Therefore, UTB intends to hire three competent firms to represent Uganda in the UK, US and Germany,” he explains.
By July 2015, he adds, at least 10,000 tourists from the UK, US and Germany should have interacted with the firms representing Uganda and should have visited Uganda, following the persuasive information received from the market representatives.
He adds that UTB wishes to begin its outreach to students with visits to schools in a bid to encourage schools to regularly visit national attractions and to form tourism clubs. UTB will take its message of the importance of tourism to hundreds of students at schools and universities.
Gary Segal, Wildplaces’ & The Uganda Safari Company’s group general manager, says they are focusing on domestic tourism and have fantastic East African resident rates and specials available. “One in particular is that we are going wild in December and January and offering East African residents a pay-two-nights and stay three nights offer at all of our lodges. This is unprecedented in such a peak season. We are doing it in order to promote our properties to a valuable market segment: the very people who live in, work in, and love Uganda,” he discloses.
Going forward, tourism enthusiast Godfrey Lule Ssemwanga says there is need for a new museum, or work on the old one to enrich it. He suggests that a political museum be put up, of strong figures such as former president Idi Amin.
We should also look at planting more trees and conserve forests and reserves, as well as manage habitants. There is more need for community empowerment and to develop more attractions beyond wild life, plus more media relations, promotions and education,” he adds. Geoffrey Baluku, Trek East Africa Safaris’ managing director, is looking at the need for training and capacity building as vital areas that need attention in 2015.
He suggests: “And I am hopeful in the coming year, we can have clarity of mandate between UTB and UWA. My gut feeling is that to control some of these problems tourism in Uganda should be run under an authority, that is Uganda Tourism Authority where we shall have UTB, UWA, UWEC, Ngamba, Presto and Export Promotion Board, then we can have a CEO, Director Conservation, Director Marketing, Direction Planning, etc all under the Authority.”
He points at Rwanda Development Board as a good modal for reference.
Kenya is in the final stages of doing the same.
Tour operators are optimistic that they will see some improvement in bookings in the coming year and plan to interest more locals, especially schools where students can be encouraged to take school trips at discounted rates.