“Go, tell Mwanga I have purchased the road to Uganda with my blood”. These were the last words of 38-year-old Bishop James Hannington to the soldiers who persecuted him in Kyando, present day Mayuge District, on October 29, 1885 after being held for eight days in captivity.
Hannington became the first Christian martyr in Uganda, followed by the persecution of 45 Christian martyrs on the orders of Kabaka Danieri Basammula-Ekkere Mwanga II Mukasa.
The Buganda king was determined to curb the Christian influence and regain the customary powers and authorities over his subjects. This became the Namugongo Holocaust, which is annually commemorated on June 3 as Martyrs Day.
Uganda Martyrs strategy
For the last four decades, Uganda Martyrs Namugongo has been growing consistently as one of the faith-based and cultural tourism sites. Pilgrims travel to Namugongo by foot from as far as Nairobi, Kigali, Bujumbura and Mwanza, whereas others fly in from India, Brazil, and Nigeria to honour the martyrs. On June 3, 2014, His Excellency President Museveni pledged to support the construction and rehabilitation of infrastructure at the shrines under the redevelopment programme aimed at turning the shrines into a world class tourist site.
The project was embarked on at the beginning of July 2015, and is expected to end in June 2020. However, the works have been executed at slow pace due to delayed availability and release of funds as committed by the government.
As Uganda hopes to double tourism earnings from the current $1.5b to $2.7b by 2020, efforts to increase 10,000 religious tourists among the current 1.32 million tourists are hanging in balance.
The permanent secretary Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities, Doreen Katusiime, is optimistic that construction will be completed as promised by the government and then the Church will take over for their sustainability.
“Our intention is to develop Namugongo into a tourist site, so that beyond Martyrs Day, people can continue visiting the place,” she says.
Katusiime is, however, concerned about the perception of the religious leaders who are hesitant to turn the sites into tourist attractions.
“We have to work with faith leaders to accept it as a tourist site. Their argument is that since it is a religious shrine, people should not pay to access it, yet if we make it a tourism site, it will be able to sustain itself, because government cannot invest money in the site all the time,” she says.
Katusiime admits that the tourist facilities at Namugongo are incomplete, but all efforts are underway to have the project complete since the church claims it does not have the financial capacity to complete the works. She adds that there are people in Nigeria who were named after the Uganda Martyrs, and would wish to visit, but works need to be completed.
The Annual Performance Report 2016-2017 of Uganda Tourism Board shows that more than 3 million pilgrims attended the 2017 Uganda Martyrs Day. Prior to this, Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) introduced the Martyrs trail characterised by the annual martyrs walk in 2014 to expand options for tourists.
“The trail is Uganda’s exclusive faith-based tourism product that takes you through different places where the first Christian missionaries passed and preached from, and where some of the Uganda Martyrs were killed before their bodies were taken to be burnt at Namugongo. This walk is also meant to sustain communities along the trail to benefit through the tourism value chain,” says John Ssempebwa, the UTB deputy chief executive officer.
Four years later, the industry has not popularised the trail on their tourist itineraries. Much as 85 per cent of local tour operators display information about the Uganda Martyrs on their websites, majority do not promote the trail.
Nicholas Mulimira, a tour operator at Breeze Safaris, says there is a limitation in the promotion of faith-based tourism due to lack of information. “Apart from knowing about the Uganda Martyrs, I need a comprehensive training from the marketing body about the religious product. What are the major faith-based source markets, and how do we meet their demands? We need to invest more effort in religious tourism,” Mulimira says.
Global perspective on religious tourism
To gain some real-world insight on the state of spiritual tourism, there are destinations that continue on religious growth trajectories. Unlike other forms of tourism, religious tourism is uninfluenced by global economic shifts because the tourists are devoted and loyal. Leisure and holiday activities occur as supplementary opportunities within the need for religious travel.
According to United Nations World Tourism Organisation, faith-based tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of the travel industry. About 300 million tourists are estimated to visit the world’s major religious sites each year, which is approximately a quarter of all international tourist arrivals. Some 600 million national and international religious voyages are undertaken annually.
Trends in spiritual tourism
According to the World Religious Travel Association, $18b is reaped annually by the religious tourism industry, 25 per cent of American tourists are interested in a “spiritual holiday”, and North American religious tourists contribute an estimated $10b.
Ugandans have actively embarked on travelling to Jordan, Israel, and Rome. This is attributed to effective marketing strategy, experiential tourism and target media promotions influenced by church leaders.
Tina Nyange, a 35-year-old devoted Christian has never visited the martyrs shrine and she cites lack of publicity.
“There is need for aggressive marketing and awareness of Uganda Martyrs as a relevant tourism product throughout the year. It has never occurred to me that the shrines have facilities that generate revenue, except on June 3. I even do not know how much it costs to access both the Anglican and Catholic shrine. Personally, I am impressed by the promotions done by our church leaders at least every Sunday about a pilgrimage to Israel. The holy cities relate well with the Bible stories,” she explains.
Challenges and opportunities
Namugongo as a major faith destination has low level of investment on tourist facilities to accommodate a large group of religious tourists who can economically benefit the community.
Spacey Kawarach of Marasa, says the absence of decent lodging and tourist facilities is an obstacle for tour operators to bring international religious tourists for a longer stay.
“Tour operators end up selling Namugongo Martyrs shrine as a half day package. However, I suggest that the respective faith institutions invest in standard guest houses and other tourism facilities. They should get involved to that level for attracting visitors throughout the year,” Kawarach says.
Unless fully exploited, the Martyrs shrine will remain an annual local calendar event.
“Anglicans, Catholics and Muslims have come up with plans to complete the sites. And much as we are using them while incomplete, there is a lot that we need to accomplish to attract visitors all year-round. The Anglican museum is incomplete; we want to have an information centre, restaurants and emergency centres. There is a master plan for Namugongo, what is lacking is the funding, but we are hopeful,” Katusiime explains.