“The amount of nature that is available is reducing. But the number of people looking for nature is increasing; so it is important we conserve our lakes and take advantage of them, including rivers,” tour operator and guide, Amos Wekesa, also the director of Great Lakes Safaris Limited, observes.
Three years ago, Olivier Van Pee sat his family down to tell them about the potential they could exploit in the marine industry in Uganda, on Lake Victoria - Africa’s biggest fresh water body in Africa.
His family is seasoned in the transport business under Nyanza Evergreen Waterways, running MV Vanessa and MV Nathalie active in transportation of people and cargo on Lake Victoria as well as barge/ferries operated on Lake Albert.
Wekesa’s tour company operates a 65-seater luxury MV Kazinga which plies on the Kazinga Channel that links Lake George and Lake Edward in Queen Elizabeth National Park, in western Uganda, a 32-kilometre tourism circuit rich with wildlife, namely hippos, buffaloes, elephants, bird species, fauna and flora.
At the moment, MV Kalangala offers the most affordable public transport between Entebe to Kalangala, a tourism destination popular for its 84-island archipelago in Ssese that consists of virgin and blossoming islands.
It plies the route for three hours, at Shs10,000 in the ordinary section and Shs15,000 in the VIP section. Nyanza operates MV Vanessa on the same routes, for an hour and charges Shs45,000 one way and Shs85,000 for a return journey.
Travellers are taken to Kalangala on Friday at 4pm, spend a night and on Saturday are taken on a slow cruise to islands in Ssese. For patrons’ relaxation, there is a sound system that plays music, television sets, charging ports and fridges with drinks. The return journey is on Sunday at 2p.m.
The lake is scenic with both the intrinsic and tangible value, including rich biodiversity and its fragile ecosystems.
Minister of State for Transport, Mr Aggrey Bagiire says Lake Victoria basin supports over 35 million people with its current economic activities standing at about $4b each year.
According to the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, Lake Victoria has a surface area of about 68,800 square kilometres shared between Uganda with 45 per cent of the lake, Kenya with six percent and Tanzania with 49 per cent.
Van Pee says that bringing in boats is the first step towards giving Ugandans a choice to access places like Kalangala. Nyanza is looking at opening up maritime business to Jinja.
MV Vanessa transported revellers from Entebe to the eastern town for the Nyege Nyege Festival in September last year and is hoping to do it again, if given an opportunity, under their newly acquired and insured MV Nathalie.
As he explains, they would like to retain MV Vanessa for the rotations to Kalangala and use MV Nathalie, to handle the Jinja route. Its excursion will be themed around partying and merrymaking.
“We have contacted the Ministry of Works asking for permission to navigate at night. We have all safety precautions in place. Our boats have GPS, lights, flayers, life jackets for every passenger. We shall never overload the boat. We are always in constant touch with the marine office,” the director at Nyanza further explains.
He has invested over $1m for both boats which are built in China, with engines manufactured in America. He adds that the more demand there is for the boats, the cheaper they can make the service.
“Our boats can be used for both movement of passengers and promotion of tourism as a way of enticing people to go and see beautiful places in Uganda, for example, in Kalangala which has 80 islands that are unexploited. Some of the islands have waterfalls that people don’t know about,” he explains.
To him, if Nyanza, Great Lakes, MV Kalangala and other transport operators on lakes and rivers can make movement to these islands affordable to local and international tourisms, marine tourism will grow to requisite levels.
“Lake Victoria is the world’s largest tropical water lake has ability to give us $63b if utilised for transport and marine tourism and things attached. As a country, we are poor because we don’t think about what is important for us,” Wekesa says.
Nature based experiences are what is going to drive the future of the world.
“Slowly, we are seeing people picking interest in marine tourism,” Wekesa explains.
He adds that the challenge is Ugandans are alarmist, in a way, pointing to the recent accident of MV Templar which capsized and continues to scare some travellers away from using water transport.
“This should open eyes that people have safer boats, better skippers and opportunities are immense as far as enjoyment is concerned on our water bodies. As a person, I am excited. My dream is to grow bigger in marine business,” he adds.
MV Kalangala, Vanessa and Kazinga mostly transport locals which should point to growth and appreciation of domestic tourism.
“We are seeing competition beginning to build up which is a good thing because we need more players to join marine transport. They need to follow the safety requirements from the Ministry of Works & Transport. Private players have come and government too, is building ships,” Van Pee reveals.
The ministry has plans to establish ‘Lake Victoria Tourism Circuit’ to enhance tourism and conservation around Entebbe in the next five years. So far, a beach has been set up at Uganda Wildlife Education Conservation Centre (UWEC).
A pier restaurant along the beach is near completion. The ministry is looking forward to put up a floating restaurant, a boat pier, aquarium, speed boats, bird observatory towers and well-maintained boat trails at Lutembe Ramsar site.
What happens elsewhere?
Wekesa argues that there is still a technical knowledge gap. “Marine tourism in Uganda is not a well understood by government and different players. There is the challenge of having skippers; people who understand how to drive boats on water. It is knowledge. It is not about getting on the boat and be able to push it but the ability to the technical know-how,” he explains.
He has had to hire a Ugandan who has been working on the oceans. He roots for proper skilling on marine tourism.
He adds, “The other thing is there is no mapping for safety purposes. Our lakes are not well mapped, to know which areas are safe or not. In terms of the future, Uganda has ability to have all year-round marine experiences, like kayaking, cruises on lakes, sailing.”
In Nyanza’s business prospects, is doing business sustainably, with consideration and respect of the environment so that natural resources like Lake Victoria in turn are preserved and continue to feed and sustain businesses like maritime ventures.
Van Pee also argues that domestic tourism needs to be boosted, adding, “If we have a bigger market to open up to, we do not have to rely on international tourists to run our tourism business. People are more interested in going out to explore their country.”
“In Congo, Tanzania and Kenya, they use marine infrastructure a lot more for cargo and passengers. If developed properly, it is safe and cheaper for both cargo and passenger transport. We want to open up Lake Victoria to tourists,” he observes.