In a drive to diversify tourism products, enhance domestic tourism and public management of tourism resources at local councils, government, through the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities (MTWA) clustered geographical areas in 2014.
The clusters were intially under the supervision of Uganda Tourism Board (UTB). The initial clusters included Acholi, Buganda, Busoga, Eastern Entrepreneuship Network (EETN), Bunyoro, Greater Ankole Tourism Network (GANTONE).
Others included Kigezi, Lango, Rwenzori, Ssese Island Tourism Development Association (SITDA) for Ssese Islands, West Nile Tourism Network, Rwenzori, Karamoja, and Tooro.
More clusters such as Teso emerged as a result of Miss Tourism Uganda, a significant activity that was embraced by clusters and sub-regions.
Role of clusters
Tourism clusters is a local strategy for combating regional disparities and social inequality. For instance, Ankole does not depend only on Lake Mburo National Park for tourism, but also services offered by hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, modes of transports, tour guides and hospitality institutes in the sub-region, among others.
In 2014, UTB tasked all cluster stakeholders to lay strategies of ehnancing tourism. The marketing agency provided tourism training and facilitated the clusters to formulate governance structures.
UTB pledged to extend support towards product development, adequately profile every cluster’s most unique, relevant tourism products, promote, market and and publicise tourism products.
Former UTB deputy chief executive officer, John Ssempebwa and curator of Ssemagulu Royal Museum, says: “We cateogorised Uganda into clusters because every cluster has a unique heritage and a product to sell. We gave them technical support to lobby for resources through their Members of Parliament, identify and develop products through research, documentation, profiling, monuments, signage and product launches.”
He adds: “Site development would include construction of cultural villages and tourist stopovers managed by local communities.”
Ssempebwa says he submitted a paper and initial budget for 13 clusters to the UTB board which was approved. “ Miss Tourism Uganda as a key activity among clusters, had its own budget,” he stresses.
Gerald Iga, the vice president of West Nile Tourism Network, says the proposals that were made remained on paper and appeals to government to fulfil its promises.
Iga says: “During a training of cluster leaders in 2015, we were made to draw budgets on the projects to be undertaken such as signage and development of tourist sites in West Nile, documentation for tourism marketing and website development.”
He adds: “Upon completion, UTB has never fulfilled its promises and stakeholders have been demoralised.” Iga says most of the cluster leaders, especially in West Nile abandoned the project, adding that the cluster programme is dysfunctional.
He appealed to UTB to engage stakeholders in decision-making rather than plan in Kampala and implement activities in West Nile.
He further urged tour operators, hoteliers and tourism stakeholders in the sub-region to re-organise, form synergies, have a common voice and looby for support.
Josephine Gillian Oyella, a former committee member of the Lango tourism cluster, says UTB set up clusters which it barely monitors or supervises. She also decries lack of local involvement in the tourism affairs of their cluster.
“UTB hardly engages us in activities that promote the growth and development of tourism in our area. In an effort to profile attractions in our geographical set up, UTB is hiring external consultants without involving our local stakeholders who understand the area,” explains the Makerere Tourism graduate.
Gillian says besides profiling tourism sites under the Acholi and Lango tourism clusters, stakeholders need capacity building in order to manage the sites and understand their mandate in the promotion of tourism.
Susan Joyce Kikomeko, the chairperson Ssese of Islands Tourism Development Association who is also a proprietor of Ssese Islands Beach Hotel, says other than receiving invites to attend World Tourism week annually, the islanders long for strategic support and capacity building.
Kikomeko says: “ Invites for World Tourism Week are all we have received in the previous years, accompanied with a meagre facilitation to cater for meals, transport, accommodation for about four days.”
She adds: “But we need support to access our islands. We do not have a water ambulance for emergencies. More signage is needed and there is need to develop an airstrip.”
Clusters come with benefits such as identifying and mapping tourism products and services in the cluster, increasing turnover by offering joint products, protecting mutual interests, development and competitiveness in tourism promotion.
They are vital for regional development, increasing competitiveness, the productivity and local businesses.
Makerere University Tourism don, Dr Jim Ayorekire, cites lack of structures and guidelines as the limiting factor in the development of the tourism clusters.
He says: “The private sector was willing to participate because they know the benefiits of working together. But there are no guidelines, structures, targets, and framework that link clusters to government.
He adds: “Whom do the clusters report to? Who oversees the performance of the clusters? the tourism planning and management don wonders.
Ayorekire notes that much as the tourism clusters were instituted, they lack sustainable funding, which limits their performance. “Government is not giving them money. They need to find out whether the agency budgets for them, otherwise the clusters have to raise their own funds, which is a big setback.”
He, however, advises cluster leaders to seek assistance from districts because they collect money. He says: “There needs to be a way of integrating tourism clusters within the district planning, financing and development system.”
He adds: “While clusters can generate their income, some activities such as marketing and infrastructural development are too expensive to be undertaken by cluster leadership.”
Apollo Rwamparo, the founder of Bunyoro Tourism Initiative, says a tourism cluster needs to enhance the tourist product based on values of cooperation, competition, trust and networking opportunities.
He says: “We lost trust in the UTB management. They asked us to write proposals, which we submitted. However, that is where it all ended. Nothing has been done.”
“Some of us invested our own money, which they never refunded or delayed to refund. We wasted a lot of time and resources on the cluster projects that would later die a natural death,” says Bunyoro kingdom’s Second deputy prime minister and minister of tourism.
From the late 1980s to the beginning of the 21st Century, Acholi was off the tourism radar due to the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency. When the dawn of peace hovered over the sub-region, a ray of hope in tourism emerged.
Oyella, who pursued a degree in Tourism at Makerere University, returned home to work as a tour guide with extensive knowledge in the historical and cultural tourism of the area.
When an opportunity to establish the Acholi tourism cluster struck, she did not hesitate to join other stakeholders in the tourism value chain in 2015.
Tourism in Acholi
“Acholi has 55 different traditional dances and 54 unique dishes. Besides Murchison falls, visitors to the sub-region tour Guruguru hills and caves, a site where tear gas was first used in Uganda.”
“The hills had several caves which facilitated the famous Lamogi rebellion of 1911 waged against the British colonial administration, to resist gun tax and disarmament.”
“Other places of interest in Acholi that need to be profiled and developed are Keyo Musalaba, Amuru hotsprings, Agoro, Kalongo hills, Fort Patiko, and Larubi escarpment. Acholi has much more than wildlife,” says Oyella.
UTB admits there has been a gap in cluster sustainability, but strategic efforts are being undertaken to rejuvenate them.
UTB marketing officer in-charge of clusters, David Edyelu says: “We are having internal discussions to forge a way forward for cluster programmes. We feel that the model in its current state is not feasible.”
He adds that the UTB is developing policies and guidelines to inform the sustainability of clusters.
Reviewing the model
UTB chief executive officer, Lilly Ajarova, says the agency is reviewing the whole cluster model and lessons learnt so far to promote tourism across the country. She says: “As a new management team, we were not part of the initial meetings where promises were made and unfulfilled. Unfortunately, there are no records to facilitate us to follow up. UTB is trying to establish new relationships based on the framework that we have already set up.”
Ajarova adds: “Some clusters such as Kigezi and Buganda are already established and so many tourism activities are being organised in these regions.”
She explains that the needs of clusters vary from region to region. She says: “Buganda cluster is very organised and we provide significant financial support towards the annual Buganda tourism expo. But their need is product development which we are planning with them. We intend to work with other clusters to promote tourism across the country.”