Saturday October 13 2018

How Uganda can use the equator to boost tourism

Pupils of Sir Apollo Kaggwa Primary School at

Pupils of Sir Apollo Kaggwa Primary School at the Equator during one of their study trips. File photo 

By Eric Ntalumbwa

Uganda’s landmark monument at Kikorongo, Kasese District in the western part of the country caused a great stir on social media when a vehicle crashed it.

The social media buzz continued when another monument in an odd shape was raised, with many calling for its demolition.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) Deputy Director of Field Operations, Mr Charles Tumwesigye, reveals that a truck driver from Bwera a few months ago crashed into the equator monument at Kikorongo, Kasese District and wrecked it.
Police tracked and arrested the driver a few days later, who promised to fix the damaged monument.

Without any supervision, he brought masons and they reconstructed it, but with no professionalism and ended up erecting an ‘egg-shape’ ring quite different from the original.
Tumwesigye says, when he saw the pictures of the structure trending, he directed the Queen Elizabeth National Park management to put it down because it was giving both the park and Uganda in general, a bad image.
“I could not stand such a poorly done structure of touristic importance in the park,” Tumwesigye relates.

Tourism value
Geographically pivotal, the Uganda Equator offers unique opportunities to local and international visitors to experience a moment of a lifetime.
The most popular iconic ring with a hive of activity which spellbinds tourists is the one situated in Kayabwe, Mpigi District along Kampala-Masaka road, about 72km from Kampala.

Over the years, it has become a sought-after stopover for travellers heading to protected areas such as Lake Mburo, Queen Elizabeth, and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest national parks.
The monument zone offers great shopping bargains for visitors interested in souvenirs, and hand made products. The area has craft shops, restaurants, NGO projects, cafes, clean restroom facilities, and art galleries.
Trevor Matsiko of Team International for Guides and Tourists has been operating near the landmark for close to two years. He says the place attracts varying numbers of tourists depending on the season. It has more international tourists during peak season (June to September and December to early February) and low seasons (April, May and November). The equator has a higher number for Ugandan travellers during Easter and Christmas season.
“Apart from the monument, there is no reason for visitors to go to the Kayabwe area because it is the most iconic attraction which has boosted tourism,” he emphasises.

Matsiko says the community has benefited through employment as a result of the emerging shops.
“The standards of living have improved. For one to purchase a piece of land, a plot of 50 by 100ft ranges between Shs8m and 10m. And comparably, from the monument area to the town of Kayabwe, land is cheaper. The ring has tourism value for Mawokota County,” he explains.

Every March 17, the equator at Kayabwe turns green in commemoration of St Patrick’s Day, which is celebrated around the world. The tourism fraternity led by Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), in partnership with the Embassy of Ireland in Uganda and the Irish Society in Uganda, gathers to light the Equator monument up in commemoration of Ireland’s National Day.

The week-long celebration has grown by leaps and bounds since 2015.
Uganda participates in the Tourism Ireland’s Global Greening Initiative, an event that sees more than 200 famous landmarks and iconic sites across the world go green for St Patrick’s Day.
The initiative has over the years attracted Sydney Opera House in Australia, Sky Tower in Auckland, New Zealand, the Empire State Building in New York, City Hall in London, the Pyramids in Egypt, the Colosseum in Rome, the Great Wall of China, Niagara Falls in Canada and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.
According to Mr John Ssempebwa, the deputy chief at Uganda Tourism Board, the Equator monument was chosen as it marks the middle of the earth and gateway to Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga, home of the mountain gorillas.
“Ireland is one of our core target markets, and over five million Irish got to know about the Equator greening this year.

This equator celebration is an opportunity to inform them that Uganda lies along the equator which provides favourable climate year round, and because of the weather, we have rich fauna and flora. Most Irish love coffee, but have never touched a coffee plant, and yet in a one-kilometre radius from the equator are four types of coffee. The road from the equator leads us to the gorillas, a major attraction,” he explains.
Tourists are awed by the geographical encounter and some post reviews on Trip Advisor, a travel site with more than 600 million unbiased traveller reviews.
Much as there is a string of activities, tourists like Arun Loyalka form Mumbai, India refer to the ring as a kind of gimmick. He says, “All you get is the satisfaction of actually stepping on the equator. Otherwise there is nothing to it.”

The right look
Besides the equator marker at Kikorongo and Kayabwe, there is another monument on Lwaji Island on Lake Victoria, about 20 minutes from Aero beach in Entebbe. In 2012, Cornelius Kodet Lorika, the proprietor of the beach set up an equator monument on 1.025 acres of the sub-continental rocky land.
As the beach management awaits official communication from Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) because of the island’s proximity to the fly zone of the airport, Kodet has bought a 40-seater passenger boat to ferry tourists, developed a docking area and he hopes to put up a restaurant on the island. The marker is a potential for developing marine tourism on the world’s second largest freshwater lake.
Meanwhile, Matsiko says as part of the business community at the Kayabwe marker, benefits are only derived half a day, and not full day due to lack of residential facilities for guests who can spend the night. He thinks the solution is lighting the marker at night and an improved road connection from Kisubi, Entebbe to Mpigi.
“With a good road network, tourism operators would build accommodation facilities at the Equator zone targeting the inflow of tourists who land at Entebbe airport with safaris to western Uganda,” he explains.
Matsiko expresses his worry about future developments because the land ownership near the monument is private.
“If government owned the land and shared a plan for investments, then potential investors would develop the area,” he explains.
He further reveals that rent for a stall is about Shs200,000 per month. Earlier this year while presiding over the St Patrick’s Day celebrations at Kayabwe, the Minister of State for Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities (MTWA), Godfrey Kiwanda, noted with concern the lack of a story at the equator.
“The ministry has a proposal to design a story that speaks about the equator and the other major attractions in Uganda such as mountain gorillas, and Mountain Rwenzori.”
He also proposed the raising of signposts two kilometres before and after the site to alert potential tourists about the existence of the monument.
Who is in charge?
UWA’s Tumwesigye says the story about the monument such as the one at Kikorongo is interesting, although no one seems to take responsibility for it following the recent incident when it was destroyed.
“As a monument, it falls under the museums, but the department claims it does not know who erected it in the first place,” he reveals.
His investigation reveals that it has always been maintained by Uganda National Roads Authority (Unra) with support from Ministry of Works and Transport during road rehabilitation.
Tumwesigye further reveals that UWA is trying to come up with a better design of the Kikorongo monument that will be shared with stakeholders.
“When they agree on the designs, we shall find the budget or partner with the private sector like Hima Cement that has picked interest in constructing a new monument. That may take some time, but fortunately we have started the budgeting process for 2019/20 and could plan for it. UWA will take the lead on this because the monument is in Queen Elizabeth National Park, and not necessarily because it is our responsibility,” he explains.
The Commissioner of Museums and Monuments, Ms Rose Mwanja Nkaale, acknowledges that the equator falls in her docket and reveals that the MTWA permanent secretary has called for a stakeholder meeting including private players who can come on board and do better work on it.
“We have brought on board the department of geology, because the imaginary lines are not static, they keep moving. In Indonesia and Ecuador, the lines shifted due to global movement. We need to hear from geologists, and assess whether it is worth erecting permanent structures if every 50 years the marks have shifted,” she explains.
She further reveals plans to develop a better stop over, and monuments considering the fact that most were put up by the colonial government in the 1950s.
While the planning continues, there is no denying that the equator is one of our untapped tourist attractions.