Last week, on Thursday, Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) old guards officially handed over office to the new guards in a ceremony hosted at Sheraton Hotel. While sitting at the back with fellow tour operators, I listened to different speeches.
Some speeches were good, others just okay but looks like no one wanted to mention our challenges and potential solutions. Like I have always said, tourism is not well understood and it is fairly a new area for us all Ugandans, including myself. I am still a student of tourism and when I travel outside Uganda, I try to learn from people in mature tourism markets such as Kenya, South Africa, Egypt, Botswana etc. It is difficult to find competent and knowledgeable people with ability to transform tourism fast enough. The creation of professionals takes time and it is easier in mature markets.
I tell many Ugandan operators that we are all still very small even when compared to those performing well in Kenya. In Kenya, you have very many tour operators whose annual turnover is above $50m (Shs187b). One Kenyan tour operator recently told me: “Wekesa, this year we did not do very well; we only turned over $68m (Shs254.4b).” That guy has as many tour cars as half of all Ugandan tour operators combined. In Uganda, you will find a person who turns over just $120,000 (Shs449m) annually will spend much of his or her time making people to think he has arrived. You do not need much for people to think you have arrived in Uganda.
It is very true that Uganda has massive potential and has achieved some steps and the future looks even brighter. Recently, I was telling a friend that Uganda has not started tourism at all and he seemed so shocked about that statement.
I told him to drive to the shores of Lake Victoria here in Kampala and see for himself how empty, as there aren’t any serious tourism activities such as sport fishing, sundowners, sailing to a larger extend among others. Every Ugandan must get angry about an empty Lake Victoria because this lake alone can create hundreds of thousands of jobs through transport and tourism and being next to Uganda’s capital should make us ashamed of ourselves.
That lake is the world’s largest tropical lake and at the same time the world’s second fresh water lake. I tell many Ugandans that it is in a poor country where you find the rich living in Kololo and the poor living on the shores of a fresh water lake. The above is just an example of how Uganda has not utilised its potential in tourism and I didn’t even mention the many islands on that same lake.
The future looks brighter mainly because government and the general public seems more interested in the sector.
That said, what has been my personal observation over the many years I have been in tourism? What has been Uganda tourism board’s challenge over the last 20 years?
Tourism boards spur tourism business growth. The biggest constraint has been poor financing of the whole tourism sector but that is changing as we see very improved financing.
In fact, if the money given by finance now is well utilised, Uganda’s tourism could create more meaningful opportunities than any other sector in Uganda. Research on Uganda’s tourism potential shows that we could earn up to $12b (Shs44.9t) annually if we matched the right monies and competent teams at the UTB.
Good marketing could spur demand and hence investment would follow; people do not invest out of emotions, they must see opportunities. The other challenge of UTB has been the quality of its board members. You will find a board with two or three people who have actual investments in tourism; the majority will be representing different interests. Our challenge lies in balancing tribe, gender, ministries etc. Such boards do not need people who have nothing to lose.
The other challenge has been the attitude of those employed at UTB. There has been more internal fights than I have seen anywhere else which affects performance. At tourism exhibitions abroad, staff often arrived late and left early yet other countries had very committed government people.
In the last 20 years, I have seen all tourism exhibitions abroad organised last minute including paying for the stand. Countries that succeed at these tourism fairs prepare for them at least six months in advance. When we tried to do a tourism fair here in Uganda, everything was last minute. We need to borrow a leaf from Magical Kenya or Karibu in Tanzania that have stood the test of time.
Kenya spends a whole year marketing the Magical Kenya brand and has brought a lot of opportunities to them. It has become an important fair for us as Ugandan operators to attend.
Why did ours fail? Even things such as Martyr’s Day on 3 June, you will only see people run around last minute. Why should Namugongo not attract people every week? The other challenge has been a weak private sector. We have not been strong enough to demand better from the tourism government agencies. Since tourism is attracting big boys now, we shall see people demanding more because of the investments they put up.
The other challenge was the cold wars between agencies- Uganda Wildlife Authority and UTB. They fight over mandates; whose mandate became whose mandate. That said, should the above be addressed, Uganda’s tourism will win for all of us and I would like to congratulate the new team led by Lilly Ajarova.
The writer is an investment expert and ceo at Great Lake safaris and Uganda lodges