The Ugandan tourism sector is in a major crisis. National parks and lodges have remained empty for three months, since mid-March. Worse still, there is today no perspective for a resumption of international tourism in Uganda.
If nothing happens, this crisis might loom for months and years. Many tourism companies are on the verge of bankruptcy and disappearance. The damage will take many years to repair.
Tourism needs to be on oxygen and might even require a breathing machine. Action is needed now.
Tourism is a major contributor to the economy of Uganda. We know the numbers - 1.5 million international tourists visit Uganda every year, 670,000 Ugandans are directly employed in the sector, and hundreds of thousands indirectly. President Museveni estimates the loss for the tourism sector at $1,6 billion (cfr. His speech June 1). Tourism represents 7.7 per cent of the GDP.
This loss is just gigantic. Tourism is one of the major providers of foreign currency in Uganda. In 2019, 12 per cent of the taxes earned in Uganda came from tourism. In 2020, this amount will be lost almost entirely.
Tourists fly in on commercial flights, hire guides and drivers, stay in hotels in Kampala and upcountry and generally are generous spenders. All this activities, highly beneficial to the economy of Uganda, have now come to a complete standstill. Tourism has completely collapsed.
Tourism in Uganda went from 100 per cent to 0 per cent in one week in March. Both domestic and foreign tourists stopped visiting the national parks, the hotels, the lodges and the restaurants.
Domestic tourism is very slowly picking up again in some districts away from the borders.
But most national parks are located exactly on those borders and they remain closed.
An estimated 90 per cent of tourism workers are affected by this crisis. Many national parks are still in stand-by. Communities around the parks have stopped benefiting from visitors and income.
The consequences of the tourism lockdown are dire: Silverback Rafiki was killed by poachers, many more animals in the park have suffered or are believed to have disappeared in the past three months. Many actors in Uganda know how to redress the tourism sector.
UWA, UTA, UHOA, the Ministry of Tourism with minister Tom Rwakaikara Butime at the helm, Parliament with an active Forum for Tourism created in 2019, many associations defending the interests of tourism actors all have fresh ideas.
The government, in its 2020/2021 Budget, has proposed some tax relief for tourism operators.
But no coherent and holistic strategic action has yet been defined for the country.
This sector needs such strategy. A strategy to upgrade national parks, park roads and access roads.
To better compensate communities. To better train skilled labour - guides, hotel and lodge staff, chefs, and customer relation managers.
A strategy to offer long-term incentives for investment, domestic and foreign, in the tourism sector with better tax rebates or tax holidays can make a huge difference. Other touristic destinations in Africa can show ways to increase income and impact. Conservation of national treasures such as the Murchison and the Uhuru Falls, with no compromise, is essential.
Conservation is not only about rhinoceroses, elephants and tree-climbing lions - conservation is about the whole picture.
Tourism is run by private actors. Officials can support and enable, but private actors run the daily business. The private actors are on their knees. Investment in people, infrastructures and wildlife has retrograded every day since mid-March.
We urgently need to bring all actors together and develop a common strategy for the coming years.
Uganda has so many treasures with the potential to bring tourists, economic growth, jobs and wealth during hundreds, thousands of years. Once these treasures disappear, they won’t come back. Conservation is not only about wildlife, but also about the people of Uganda.
The time is now to act.
Mr Veestraeten is the Ambassador of Belgium in Uganda
This article was co-authored by Richard Gafabusa Muhumuza, MP and co-founder of the Parliamentary Forum on Tourism.