Uganda could be top destination in Africa

We have limitless products to offer. Finally, government agencies should play their respective roles to have all this achieved

The chairperson of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators, Barbra A. Vanhelleputte during the interview. Below, the Crested Crane is one of more than 1000 bird species in Uganda. PHOTO BY GODFREY LUGAAJU.  

BY Godfrey Lugaaju

IN SUMMARY

  • Potential: The Association of Uganda Tour Operators works to promote a common understanding of tourism business in the country.
  • The Chairperson of the assocaition, Barbra A. Vanhelleputte, spoke to Godfrey Lugaaju about the trends in the travel business, industry challenges, marketing strategies and investment opportunities in the sector.

There are many tourist destinations in the world. Why would one choose Uganda?
Uganda has such abundance that we do not know how to handle it. We are on the Equator and our weather is perfect all year round. We have savanna, rainforests, rivers and lakes, mountains, the source of the Nile, more than half of the world’s mountain gorillas and several other globally coveted flora and fauna species. Our country is stable and beautiful, with attractive Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage Sites.
The economy has an easily convertible currency and we were recently voted among the countries with the friendliest people in the world. Uganda has more than 1,000 recorded unique bird species. From every angle, Uganda has supportive people.

What are the challenges in making the travel industry more sustainable?
There is need for practical skills in the tourism industry. Institutions are giving more theoretical training than practical skills and this means the sector needs to be supported to grow. Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) is also challenged by unregulated quack operators in the business.
We do not have tour operator licences which are supposed to be issued by Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), but they have not been issued in a long time. The high cost of finance where we lack an actual finance sector to support the tourism industry, also retards our work.

Are there any incentives given by government to local tour companies?
Yes, government has given us incentives for example tax exemption on customised safari vehicles, especially when a company is an AUTO member. However, this is not fully utilised in our case because importing a customised car is expensive. We end up utilising cheaper options within the country such as hiring safari cars.
For the past two years, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has been open has to discounting the gorilla permit, allowing us to market internationally for many more people to visit Uganda.

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How are you dealing with the challenges that impede the development of tourism in Uganda?
It has been tough for our members to take up the incentives because it (importing customised vehicles) is too much to bear as there are many demands attached to it. With regard to skilling, the association has opted to train our members, coaching and mentorship programmes. We are lobbying government to regulate the sector through UTB to curb the fraudulent tour operators. We need laws that can give urgent remedies to these problems.

Where are the best investment opportunities in tourism in the country?
There are opportunities in accommodation; especially high-end (accomodation). Also in the meetings, incentives, conferences and events segment of tourism, basically, events organisers and sports tourism. We need an improved finance sector and need the government to make ICT, electricity and other important social amenities accessible in remote areas. The skills gap is still wide and needs to be narrowed down through setting up institutions to train people in various skills and languages. The domestic aviation sector also requires work. We need more players in the industry to avoid the long drives tourists are subjected to.
What have been the achievements of AUTO over the years ?
We have seen a more united industry. Government now consults us a lot and we work with UTB and UWA. We now sign memoranda of understanding with UWA unlike before when they were less involved.
We have been able to train our members on the different markets and on how best to package themselves and their tours to tap into the market and to appeal to the ever-changing and highly competitive global travel.
AUTO has a clear path of where we have been, where we want to go and how to get there; we launched our five-year strategic plan earlier this year. We have also been saving and are now planning to acquire our own premises. We also have an innovation called the AUTO Cells where the secretariat visits members’ offices to assess the functioning of tour operators, identify their challenges, and devise mitigation measures.
The association also has representation on the Presidential Investors Round Table (PIRT) where we have a direct voice to the President which helps us lobby quickly for things such as the removal of Value Added Tax (VAT) on upcountry lodges and tour operators’ packages. We have a binding code of conduct in place and we are also able to account fully to our members because of the clear structures including operational manuals, board committees, audited accounts, and a vibrant and functional secretariat.

Where do you see Uganda as a tourist destination 10 years from now?
We have brilliant baseline surveys and reports written for Uganda’s tourism industry but many of these have not been implemented.
If implemented, we believe Uganda has the potential to become the number one tourist destination in Africa. We have limitless products to offer. Finally, government agencies should play their respective roles to have all this achieved.

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