The tourism industry, which is one of Uganda’s top forex earner, is engulfed in a web of disputes which have culminated into threats of strikes and other expressions of disharmony.
It all started more than six months ago when Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) moved to introduce a system which would avail online gorilla permits for public viewing and purchasing.
The tour operators came out strongly against the move and since then, both parties have been entangled in a series of accusations and counter accusations.
UWA claims they have been making annual losses of about Shs20 billion due to what they call “under-selling” of gorilla permits and they believe that the new system will not only help make it easier for tourists to purchase the permits, but it will also double the sales.
“In today’s world, the most convenient and effective way of doing business is online,” said Dr Andrew Seguya, the Executive Director UWA.
“I don’t understand why a tour operator would prefer running up and down looking for gorilla permits when actually they can easily get one on the internet. Gorilla permits online also means that a tourist anywhere in the world can be able to see and buy the permit any time even if it is bedtime in Uganda,” Dr Seguya said.
The tour operators, on the other hand, argue that the system gives no protection to the indigenous businesses and therefore it’s unfeasible for the Uganda tour operators.
“If tourists can see and access the permits online, it means tour operators in Uganda will become unwanted and therefore redundant,” argued Herbert Byaruhanga, the president Uganda Tourism Association (UTA).
“UWA has never made a loss on gorilla permits like they claim. We sell more than 100 per cent during peak seasons but we all know every business has low and peak seasons. That can’t change regardless,” Byaruhanga said.
He added: “The gorilla permit is the bait on a package a tour operator gives a tourist so we cannot just watch as someone tries to jeopardise our business. UWA should stick to conservation. We have been using our little resources as private sector to market this country. Is this is how they repay us?”
The cold war turned hot a few weeks ago when two newspapers ran a story suggesting that Dr Seguya had accused the minister of Tourism, Ms Maria Mutagamba, of conniving with tour operators to fail the online gorilla scheme. Consequently, tour operators converged at their offices in Kololo last week and responded with fury.
They even carried placards, some with provocative statements directed at Dr Seguya and threatened to hit the streets if necessary.
There have also been accusations that Dr Seguya has personal interest in the gorilla permit scheme, something he has vehemently denied.
In fact, there was a meeting at the Uganda Museum where one of the tour operators said he has proof that Dr Seguya overruled the decision of the contracts committee at UWA to re-instate a company which had been rejected in the bid to supply the online system.
In response, Dr Seguya warned the tour operator of the legal consequences if he continues to falsely accuse him.
UWA and business
The operators claim UWA is now run as a business and not as a conservation body hence neglecting their core obligation of “Conserving for Generations”. UWA has since purchased two professional tour vehicles to do night drives in game parks – something the tour operators haven’t been doing.
UWA also plans to introduce buses for group local tourists at budget packages, another area the tour operators have also neglected.
The UWA law allows the conservation body to also do marketing and conduct business. In fact, UWA has a department for business development and marketing.
“You can’t mix conservation with marketing, that is why we have UTB to do the marketing,” says Amos Wekesa, the CEO Great Lakes Safaris.
“Mixing the two is like sending a reporter to also collect adverts. how do you expect that reporter to practice journalism ethically with no compromise?” Wekesa asked.
Minister Mutagamba has attempted to break the impasse on several occasions and thinks her latest attempt will be a success.
“We have now resolved that gorilla permits go online but be made available to only tour operators in Uganda,” Ms Mutagamba said.
“That war is over now. But we shall be evaluating the process monthly to see the turn out and we shall make sure that both sides work in harmony,” the minister added.
This agreement is said to have been reached at the beginning of last week.
but a day later, Association Of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) held a press conference still disgruntled.
The question from AUTO is why Dr Seguya is keen on pushing online gorilla permits system through while UWA wonders why tour operators are fighting tooth and nail against the system which should make their work easier.
The bigger question remains whether such disagreements are good for the country’s evolving tourism sector.
UTB chairperson calls to resolve the issues
The Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) chairperson, Mr James Tumusiime, acknowledged there is a battle for survival but expressed his concerns about it spilling over.
“If a market is silent, it is worrying,” said Tumusiime. “A healthy market like Owino has to be buzzing, and I am happy to hear some voices speak out in the industry.
However, we should harmonise the current talk in our market and instead of noise, we come out with music,” Tumusiime said.
Yet, beyond the impasse, we cannot get away from the big picture of the government being the elephant in the room. Tourism, being the biggest forex exchange earner, it is pertinent government intervenes to ensure a quick resolution.