A speeding two-car convoy almost ran us – a group of journalists in a minibus – off the road. It was a July mid-morning and we were slowly working our way along the 18-kilometre stretch from Chobe Safari Lodge to Karuma Bridge. The convoy was for Minister Ephraim Kamuntu.
As President Museveni’s new man in Tourism (as in Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Heritage, freshly hived from Tourism, Trade and Industry – Museveni’s ministries go back and forth in names as if the government is never sure what to do), he was on a tour of the tourism facilities in the region.
The encounter got the journalists chattering about the absurd state of Ugandan tourism. Kenya and Tanzania sink millions of dollars into marketing their animals. In Uganda, we do, well, we do nothing of the sort. Everything is left to God.
Yet we keep on the charade that we are a serious member of the family of nations and we must thus participate in every civilised concourse. We ratify treaties, sign international instruments and protocols just to be seen to be cool and civilised. We join international organisations and fail to pay our membership dues. We are engaged in the nonsense of keeping up appearances.
That is how come we insist on participating in international trade fairs, trade expos, tourism this and that. ITB Berlin? We go there. That is where you must be seen in the world of tourism. Just that while Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda (and soon South Sudan) put up a really, really good show – excellent stalls, well-packed information, winning smiles, plus lots of booze and music in the evenings – we are content with an Owino-like kiosk for a stall. So said the journalists, at least two of whom have been at ITB Berlin and got completely embarrassed being Ugandan they denied it.
Former Tourism Minister Serapio Rukundo came off looking even more ridiculous three years ago. He had no way of escaping his Ugandanness. So he braved it. He addressed the media – about Uganda’s tourism potential – at the Kenya stall (talk of regional co-operation) and fled the scene immediately afterward.
This is where Mr Kamuntu comes in. Apart from coming off decidedly unministerial when his convoy tried to drive us into a bush, he seems like a man of some cultural sophistication. He has said the proposed demolition of the Ugandan Museum to make way for a sky-kissing East African Trade Centre is under review. “We have to balance between modernisation and cultural heritage.” Encouraging noises.
But we need more from him. He needs to fix the Nommo Gallery, he needs to fix the National Theatre. As for the museum, what we have is really a natural history museum. We need a war museum, a testimony to our madness.
We need a museum of contemporary history. We also need to fix the ancient sites such as the Cwezi earthworks at Ntusi and Bigo bya Mugenyi, the rock paintings at Nyero and Dolwe, and forts like the one in Dufile and Baker’s at Patiko. There is a lot of tourism and education value (as if that needs saying) in this stuff. Diversification of exports means more than just fish, flowers, coffee and kyeyo.
Some basics first, though. There are several complaints about Ugandan tourism not having an organised and up-to-date presence on the Internet. Potential foreign tourists, apparently, do not know enough in terms of variety, facilities, quality, cost, distance, of what is on offer in Ugandan tourism. Tourism Uganda should stop slumbering and complaining forever about inadequate funding.
As a local tourist, I have no problem getting information and going wherever I want to go. But, again, I am not a fastidious foreigner ready to believe the worst about the Dark Continent.
Uganda Wildlife Authority people whisper that they practice eco-tourism in the parks, which means you cannot leave the demarcated trail and go running after a lioness and her cubs. Kenya and Tanzania, they say dismissively, practice trash tourism – a tourist is free to do almost all that he/she wants in their parks. Okay, but how many people know that UWA runs a more enlightened operation and that our giraffes are more elegant than those across the borders? Information is money.
Meanwhile, Minister Kamuntu could demonstrate serious intent by showing up at the National Theatre for this weekend’s Bayimba International Festival of the Arts. He may come away more determined, given his museum comments, that tourism is not just about animals. That deeper appreciation is what he needs to push the sector to fetch even more than the $1 billion he is targeting for 2014.
Mr Tabaire is a media consultant with the African Centre for Media Excellence.