Endowed with enduring natural diversity, great climate, rich cultures and receptive people, East Africa is one of Africa’s leading tourism destinations. Recently, US based New York Times recently ranked Tanzania and Uganda among the top 45 destinations tourists should visit in 2012.
The New York Times described Tanzania as an upscale safari destination saying: “In the last several years, tourist numbers visiting Tanzania have edged up according to the East African travel specialists Hippo Creek Safaris and Abercrombie & Kent.”
According to the New York Times, the rapid growth of Tanzania’s tourist infrastructure has been one of the other factors explaining the rapid growth in tourism numbers. Uganda, another country recognised in the region as a fast growing tourist destination, has according to the New York Times, been helped by stable and sustainable tourism, restoring the country’s luster.
Uganda is perhaps best known to tourists as the home of half of the world’s last remaining subtle creatures—mountain gorillas. Beyond the up-close gorilla encounters, Uganda is also the source of the Nile, and boasts of mountains considered among the highest in Africa — the Mountains of the Moon in Rwenzori Mountains National Park — and offers formidable white-water rapids for thrill seekers.
Kenya—the region’s leading market player, is still ahead with other regional member states even as attacks on tourists continue to threaten one of the country’s largest revenue earners.
According to recent media reports, 2011 was one of the best years for Kenya’s tourism recording a 32.8 per cent growth in earnings. International arrivals grew by 15.4 per cent representing 1.26 million arrivals in the year.
Experts observed that the growth was a great achievement given that most countries across the globe were and are still struggling to hit their tourism revenue targets. However, the country maintains that 2012 may present some challenges on the basis of slowed global growth and changing tourist priorities.
Mr Najib Balala, the Kenya Tourism minister recently warned that 2012 may be harder due to the crisis in Europe – a leading source of the country’s tourists. Recent records show that of Africa’s 6 per cent global market share, East Africa and North Africa take 1 per cent respectively, and the 4 per cent is taken up by South Africa.
Rwanda—one of the safest destinations in the region and Uganda are the only two countries in the world where mountain gorillas can be visited safely at the moment. In 2008, about 17,000 people visited the Volcanoes National Park (VNP) to see the gorillas, a large increase from the late 1980s and an impressive recovery from only 417 tourists in 1999 after the reopening of the park.
Global predictions from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) anticipate that international tourists will this year hit one-billion up from the 980 million recorded last year.
Experts in the industry say; “If UNWTO prediction is to be achieved, EAC stands to greatly benefit from the one billion international tourists expected to travel this year.
UNWTO Secretary General, Mr Taleb Rifai recently said at the ITB Travel Trade Show in Berlin-Germany that if properly planned and managed, tourism can be one of the most promising sectors for achieving a more economically, environmentally and socially sustainable future.
“Imagine how business models would be transformed if one billion people demanded sustainable practices from hotels and tour operators. Imagine how many would benefit if one billion people bought local produce or hired a local guide. These are small actions, but given the size of our sector, their impact would be huge,” he said.
Economically, existing records show that travel and tourism contribution to EAC’s GDP will grow by nearly 5 per cent per annum over the coming seven years, slightly up from 4 per cent in 2007.
East Africa attracts about 3 million visitors annually of which 1.5 million visit Kenya with the rest are shared between Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
EAC principal tourism officer, Mr Shedrack Mashauri, says that job opportunities in the tourism sector are expected to grow from 1,737,000 recorded in 2008 to about 2,160,000 jobs by at least 2018.
Assistant Spokesperson for Africa at the Commonwealth Secretariat, Mr Julius Mucunguzi advises that there are situations where promoting the region as a tourist destination would bring more value. Combining the various packages is more attractive to potential tourists who intend to visit the region, drawing on the strength what exists in each of the EAC member states—for instance, mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda, Safaris in Kenya, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
“But below that regional promotion, countries have to put in place specific niche marketing and promotion initiatives, so that once the tourist arrives in Uganda for example, there is a range of useful information about options of places to visit and see--in specific terms,” Mucunguzi explains.
Industry players’ view
However, players in the tourism sector argue that the region would perhaps be performing much better if instituted strategies are respected, for instance, marketing the region’s tourism sector as a single tourism destination.
In an interview with Prosper, Mr Amos Wekesa, the president of the Uganda Tourism Association, said: “Stakeholders in the industry in the five-member states should have goodwill to rigorously market the region as a single destination.” “We have the potential to be the market leaders in Africa,” Mr Wekesa who also owns Great Lakes Safaris said.
At the moment there is an EAC Tourism Policy designed to promote and market the region as a single destination. If the protocol comes into force, the East African Tourism and Wildlife Coordination Agency, (EATWCA) will become operational through executing projects and programmes as stipulated in the EAC Treaty under Articles 115 and 116 on Cooperation in Tourism and Wildlife Management.
The cooperation also looks into possibilities of a single tourist visa for EAC member states as a way of promoting regional tourism. Primarily, tourists visiting the EAC member countries have had to pay multiple visa fees, limiting many to single destinations, which cut back on possible revenue.
“Complicated, lengthy and overpriced entry formalities are making it extremely difficult for tourists, especially from emerging economies which are leading growth in terms of outbound markets, to travel,” Mr Rifai recently said.
The issue of multiple visas for tourists still holds the sector back because it limits the movement of tourists within the region. Apparently, tourists have to apply for several visas to visit all the member states, making it very costly and time wasting.
“As a region if we fix the issue of the single visa; it could make business sense and our clients could save,” said Ms Debbie Allen, the managing director of Access Africa Safaris.
Tourists visiting Uganda pay $50 (Shs122, 500), which means that if they intend for instance to visit other member states they have to part with about $250 (Shs612, 500).
Even then regional players are concerned over the criteria that could be used to share revenues generated if the single visa system is implemented. According to Mr Wekesa, such revenues should be ploughed into marketing the region’s tourism sector as well streamlining operational procedures.
“We need to focus at the bigger picture and make the region get an international appeal,” Mr Wekesa says. So, with all plans in place, the region is expected to liftoff the single tourist visa this year (2012) according to the Chairperson of the EAC Council of Ministers, Ms Hafsa Mosi.
“A common visa would accelerate promotion of the region as a single tourism destination,” she said. Under the proposal, the new EA tourist visa would be issued by any partner state’s embassy abroad.
“The single visa will save potential tourists time and the complication of having to move from one embassy to another to apply for different visas to travel across the East African region,” she said.
EAC having a common visa could hasten promotion of the region as a single tourism destination.
The Bill further proposes the establishment of a commission to coordinate the development of the sector in the region as well as harmonizing national policies, laws, regulations and standards concerning tourism and wildlife management.
The new body would be accountable to the EAC Council of Ministers, the policy organ of the EAC and would be based in any of the five member state as the council shall determine.
The Commission is expected to put in place a mechanism to mitigate the challenges facing the region’s tourism and wildlife industry, which include high marketing costs, fierce competition and fragility of the region’s tourism base.