Saturday September 29 2018

Digital transformation gives tourism in Uganda a global reach

Selfie: Tourists take a photo at Murchison

Selfie: Tourists take a photo at Murchison Falls. Courtesy photo 

By Eric Ntalumbwa

Digitisation is changing the way tourists manage their travel, from searching for the next trip destination, checking in at the airport, or when looking up foreign dishes on the menu. Many have welcomed and embraced the transformations because it is fast, efficient and reliable.
“I booked my Modern Coast ticket directly from my phone and paid for a seat on the bus from Kigali, which had to pick me up from Kabale to Kampala. I instantly received an SMS with my ticket number BL21576 and seat number 25. The message reminded me to report to the bus office at 9:30 pm ahead of the 10:30 pm departure. I was excited to receive a reminder on my phone with a few minutes for the bus arrival,” says Daphne, who had travelled for a three-day holiday in the southwestern side of Uganda.
Just like the global tourism industry, the Ugandan market is steadily adapting to the digital trends. There is an ease in accessibility and personalised experiences.

Embracing the trend
Tourism businesses and organisations have effectively created digital solutions to improve their sales, awareness and brand image. Most local tour operators optimise their websites to increase their performances. The companies struggle to stand out in an internet era to capture the attention of the tourist who is tech-savvy, and social.
In the same spirit, Denis Ntege, the Director, Raft Uganda, says the development of digital business has enabled his adventure business along the Nile to expand into new markets, enhance client interaction and lower costs of marketing.
“Our user-friendly website has enabled us capture the millenials because we share appealing photos, and short videos,” he adds.
E-tourism represents the digitalisation of all the processes in the tourism industry that enable business leaders to maximise their business efficiency and effectiveness.

Going social
Social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram continue to play a vital role in the communication strategy of tourism businesses. There are revelations that social media generates return on investment as a form of marketing. UTB Deputy Chief John Ssempebwa says the institution is making deliberate efforts to attract domestic tourists who are tech-savvy.
“Schools, families, celebrities and corporates are the biggest domestic market for Ugandan tourism, who also use digital technologies and these are the ones we are targeting,” he explains.
In the same vein, Martha Nansamba, marketing manager Chimpanzee Trust says her organisation has 32,000 followers, and close to 1,000 followers on Twitter. “For visibility, social media gets a plus because it is a connection point to our website which is the number one selling point.
About 30 per cent of our guests book through social media platforms. We keep an open interaction with our followers,” she adds. For membership associations such as the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO), prospective tour operators seek guidelines on how to be part of the umbrella body through social media.
“This year alone we have 60 new members. 26 of these were engaged through the association’s Facebook and Twitter. Usually what happens is people will stumble upon us online, send us an inbox, and then we avail them details of joining through an email address. The social media platforms help us communicate what we have going on, what we have planned, what our promise is to both the members and tourists. And in addition to promoting destination Uganda, they are fine avenues for sharing real-time information,” says Jonathan Ainebyoona, AUTO spokesperson.

Apps that move you
In the current smart phone environment, virtually tourism business components in accessibility, accommodation, attractions have their own apps. Users often download apps to ease service provision.
Tourists interested in visiting city sights in Kampala have Safe Boda, Taxify and Uber apps to ease their connections. These service providers take safety precautions and have low rates, hence adding value to sector business.
Edson Birungi, the director of Encounter Africa Safaris, says the e-tourism has given new companies an edge over the old ones and he thinks the old companies should not stay stuck with old fashioned ways of doing business, but rather embrace technology for smart business.

Global recognition
Local tourism and hospitality businesses continue to look for positive reviews on Trip Advisor, world’s largest travel and restaurant website company that shows restaurant reviews, accommodation bookings and other travel-related content.
Winners of the Trip Advisors Certificate of Excellence proudly display their awards and celebrate it as a mark of achievement.
Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) Public Relations Officer Simplicious Gesa, says it is great to have visitors rate the national parks highly.
“It says a lot about us as a conservation agency. It is an indication that visitors to our parks appreciate the conservation value of what they see but also enjoy the tourism experience we give them. The advisory is good for UWA because it is a recommendation to other potential visitors to come and enjoy a similar or even better experience with us. It is good for marketing parks and a country as a destination,” he explains.
This year’s World Tourism Day put up the opportunities provided to tourism, by technological advances including big data, artificial intelligence and digital platforms, on the map of sustainable development.

Digital challanges
Meanwhile, digitalisation poses a regulatory challenge since many of the activities are not presently covered by the law. Consumer protection cannot be guaranteed, nor the safety and quality of services provided. Local registered tour and travel companies lately suffer from unfair competitions from new “brief case /online offices” who have efficient websites and receive bookings yet they avoid taxes. Some of these businesses operate from neighboring countries and tourists are most likely to be conned.
“A fraternity is only strong with big membership. Also some online tour companies do not really follow ethical and or professional codes of conduct as they do business. In the event of misdoings, the whole industry gets affected,” argues Ben Ntale Oleni, Vice Chairperson AUTO.
The Internet is increasingly becoming a popular tool of disseminating tourism information, and a means by which tourists obtain information about a destination. Ntale suggests that the sector should accurately profile tourism and travel-related services, attractions and activities.
“There are many of such Tourism potential elements that are still unknown in Uganda. In fact, a locally development online database would come in handy. Digital platforms only work if they are furnished with rich and accurate information,” he explains.
He further suggests the need to step-up the online representation to have more of positive portrayal than negative ones to attract potential tourists.
“Digital transformation is chaotic because there is little or no state control/regulation as regards the information put online for global consumption. We need to encourage our people to invest more in the positivity,” he explains.
Ntale recalls a scenario when fraudsters used an online system to cheat his client.
“I recently had a guest who went to a wrong platform to apply for his online visa. He was robbed of about $120 (Shs 456,915) for a visa he never got. I addressed this with the Ministry of Tourism. The poor man had to pay again. We have shrewd Ugandans who open websites and offer online safari bookings.
After receivingfunds from guests, they close down the sites and vanish. Digital Migration has been employed to taint our image. We need to insist on having every operator fully registered and hold membership with tourism trade associations,” he elaborates.
The challenge identified is tha there is no appropriate way to determine the accuracy and reliability of the information that is accessed.
James Mwere, a safari guide points out that some tourism stakeholders discredit one another and damage their reputation using the Internet.
In a fragile industry where reputation and perception play an integral part in attracting clients, a bad review can have negative effects in tourism business.