Government to transform tourism

Sunday February 17 2019

Wekesa shakes hands with President Museveni.

Wekesa shakes hands with President Museveni. Courtesy photo 

By AMOS WEKESA

Honestly speaking, I hate the idea of formal meetings, formal leadership and functions that require special kind of dress code.
I do everything possible to decline invites or I just refuse to show up.
Anyway, two weeks ago I was asked to be the chairman of the Presidential Investors Round table on Tourism (PIRT); it took a bit of convincing because things of this kind take up lots of time.

No one is paid for being on that roundtable. You simply offer your time and ideas and return to your schedule. In the last round table meeting, we discussed the rebuilding of the Jinja Hospitality Training School. We also discussed roads that directly affect tourism as a whole and as a result there is a lot of attention by government on tourism roads.
We discussed the upgrading of airstrips and aerodromes and yes, there is going to be a lot of work on upgrading airstrips across the country.
Special focus will be on Pakuba, Kidepo, Kosiro, Kasese, among others. The government has set aside resources for those airstrips.
In the last week of January, Uganda hosted agents (taken around Uganda by Speke Uganda Holidays) of the two of the top tour businesses in the world and that included Thomas Cook.

Thomas Cook is the second largest tourism business in the world and handles millions of tourists travelling to different parts of the world.
I am sure many of us reading this today remember not so long ago when Gambia had political challenges, Thomas Cook airlifted thousands of tourists out of The Gambia in a single week and that shows the power of dealing with them.
When they visited recently, they wanted to know if Uganda had airstrips that can handle a minimal of 30 passengers aircrafts because they deal in the game of numbers and if they came to Uganda, tourism would never be the same.

Thomas Cook drops thousands of tourists every week into Mombasa using their sister company Condor airline and I hope to see the same happen to Uganda soon. Therefore, improving our airstrips is a very timely thing. We discussed the need for the government to hire professional public relations (PR) firms. Government has hired three firms to start with and for those who have invested seriously in this sector, the results are clear.
People are struggling to get gorilla permits; the accommodation levels in and around national parks have picked up significantly.
We all know that wishful thinking does not produce results like that. Real PR does.
Anyway, last Thursday, I wore my ‘Sunday best’ (I last dressed up like this about eight months ago I do that thrice a year) and headed to State House.

We had a fairly heated meeting but it is those heated arguments that produce some results.
On the round table, tourism has the space for giant CEOs. Together we say a few things that attract attention.
I told the politicians that in every five years, people in the tourism sector work for only three years, something I believe happens to other businesses too.
A good example was the Arua political challenge which saw most of us tour operators refund hundreds of dollars which had been made as deposits for future safaris.

That money leaves the country and it is difficult to explain this to the political class who are completely unaware of these challenges they cause. The year before elections is more or less a lost cause for tourism. Generally people fear travelling to African countries going through political campaigns and as a business you cannot wake up and throw out your employees just like that.
You have to pay salaries along with the associated taxes and that is tough for businesses. The aftermath of elections is not good either. Those of us who have invested heavily in national parks are seeing bookings coming in even for 2021, something Uganda has not experienced before and any silly political games, will kill those bookings.
The business group and the political class on the round table seemed to agree with me on this.

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I also talked about training Ugandans for hospitality and emphasised conservation as key in Uganda’s development citing clear examples unfortunately the President was not in the room at that time.
Uganda’s hospitality, especially at the high level is not managed by Ugandans and it is not because Ugandans are bad but because we do not have any hospitality school that trains Ugandans to compete at a higher level.

Creation of a world class hospitality school would see younger Ugandans take up jobs at a high level and hence reduce on forex flight due to employing non Ugandans. With a world class hospitality school, we like Kenyans would export labour for higher returns and this would include sending them across the world to work with hotels such as Hilton chain.
Hilton opens a new hotel every 16 hours and if Uganda can negotiate with them like Kenya did, we would have Ugandans join that good job space.
Baroness Linda Chalker and Evelyn Anite invited me to meet the President after the big general meetings.
I was tired and simply wanted to head home but I’m glad I stayed for a chat with the President.

The President was in a good mood and I took him through how political campaigns kill business.
I expected a backlash but he was happy that I had explained to him. I also invited him to officially open Primate Lodge Kibale and Elephant Plains to which he said, YES!
At one point I got up and wanted to leave because I know the President is a busy person but he said, ‘Wekesa, don’t leave yet,’ and we ended up taking some pictures.

The writer is an investment expert
— amos@greatlakessafaris.com

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