Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) early this week unveiled five executive buses including three boats worth $800,000 (about Shs2.9b) funded by Competitive & Enterprise Development Project of World Bank (CEDP).
The buses which have a seating capacity of 50 have leather seats, free wireless Internet, entertainment provisions including a television screen, air conditioning, among other facilities.
“They are intended to promote domestic tourism, particularly for those travelling to conservation areas including Lake Mburo, Kidepo and Murchison parks. Priority will be allocated to activities affiliated to the national parks. In addition, they will be used for any other tourism related activity but for a fee,” says Simplicious Gessa, the public relations officer, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).
According to Gessa, this move is meant to complement and bridge a gap in the transport aspect of the sector that has been relying on private operators.
“We only identified an area with a deficiency, that is, where private investors found it difficult to avail a service to accommodate a big number of people, and this is why we purchased these buses,” he says.
Uganda currently has 10 national parks, 12 wildlife reserves, 13 wildlife sanctuaries and five community wildlife areas.
Most of Uganda’s game parks are located outside the city in distant remote areas. For instance, Kidepo Valley National Park is in the semi-arid Karamoja region, Murchison Falls National Park (albertine rift valley in Northwest Uganda), Queen Elizabeth National Park (southwestern Uganda) and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, known for mostly its gorilla tracking activities is situated on the edge of the Rift Valley in southwestern Uganda, among others.
Facilities provided by private tourism players
In order to make it easier for tourists to access these areas, other tourism players including safari (tour) companies rent out vehicles including four wheel drives (land cruisers with pop-up roofs and coaster vans) that can be driven on all types of road terrains in the country.
Gerald Kasirye, one of the directors at African Safari Masters Ltd, says in order for the tourism sector to continue growing in the country, different tourism players need to ensure that the automobiles used in rendering the service are in good mechanical condition. “Respective service providers need to make sure that the vehicles are suitable for tourists. The cars should be able to traverse different landscapes with no difficulty so as to make the visit memorable for travellers,” Kasirye says.
Lack of proper means of travel inconveniences tourists. A case in point is Christopher Musoke, a businessman who says he used his personal car to drive his family of five to one of the national parks in the country in 2014.
“The road leading to the park was murram and covered with dust, which kept entering the car. Then, there were the potholes that I had to keep dodging as I drove,” he says, adding, “by the time we left after a four-day stay at the park, the car was in a sorry state with scratches plastered all over it and black smoke emerging from the engine.”
On why he did not hire a vehicle from one of the tour companies, Musoke says those he approached charged him high fees.
“They were charging me a lot of money for renting the car. One of the companies charged me Shs200, 000 for hiring their car for one day, which amount also included the driver’s fees,” he says, “and they insisted on giving me the driver as a guide for my trip.” Another company charged him about Shs290,000 to hire the car for a day, excluding the driver’s fees.
“I could not afford any of that and found it cheaper to drive my own car to the park,” he says.
Tour operators unhappy about buses
A number of service providers in the private sector are not keen on the idea of UWA introducing the automobiles on the market.
Francis Mugoga, the chief executive officer at Explore Africa Safaris and Tourism Institute of East Africa, says tour operators have enough vehicles to handle any number of tourists in the country.
“In case the numbers turn out big, tourists have the option of mobilising their own transport means,” he says.
According to Mugoga, tour company vehicles have a capacity of accessing all the road terrains.
“What we want though is government to work on the road infrastructure so that we do not waste a lot of time on bad roads and also cause bondage to our elderly tourists.”
Some of the key tourism roads such as Katunguru-Kihihi, Kabale-Buhoma via Ruhija,Kisoro-Nkuringo, Rukungiri-Buhoma via Kihihi are in a sorry state, despite the ongoing feasibility studies.
According to the Annual Tourism Sector Performance Report Financial Year 2016/17, the government is seeking for funds to work on Kotido-Moroto and Kotido- Kaboong roads in Kidepo, the construction work of 48.3km of Rukungiri-Kihihi is expected to start in January 2018, and the Kisoro-Nkuringo-Rubuguri-Muko road is expected to be completed by June 2018.
“Their intention is not to boost the tourism sector but rather compete with the private sector. UWA’s mandate is clear. It is not to involve in doing business but rather conserve national parks for generations,” Mugoga says, adding, “It is wrong for the association to waste taxpayers’ money to purchase buses to compete with the private tour operators who are paying taxes and spending resources to boost the tourism sector.”
Meanwhile, Godfrey Kiwanda, the state minister for Tourism, says automobiles such as the recently acquired executive buses of UWA will play a great role in attracting more people to visit tourism destinations at a lesser cost.
“These buses will enable tourists have organised trips and easily split the travelling costs. But also, it is more fun as tourists have enough room to network and exchange contacts,” Kiwanda says.
In the financial year 2015/2016, the 7th annual tourism sector performance report indicates that tourism contributed about Shs7.3b to Gross Domestic Product (GDP); an increase from Shs6.3b in 2014/15.
During the launch, Dr Andrew Seguya, the executive director of UWA, noted that the buses are an integral part of UWA’s strategy to grow and improve tourism. Seguya urged Ugandans to take advantage of the buses to explore the national parks.
How the buses will operate
Regarding the prices, Stephen Sanyi Masaba, the business development and marketing manager, UWA, says the buses are now running on the road and there are different rates for clients.
“There is the dry hire where an organisation or individual can book the bus not just to visit the national parks but for performing any tourism related activities. They can pay Shs800,000 for a day,” Masaba says.
He adds that there are other packages as well. For instance, clients interested in visiting Lake Mburo National Park for one night can book the bus at Shs300,000.
To visit either Murchison Falls National Park or Queen Elizabeth National Park for two nights, it will cost a client Shs400,000. Then, a visit to Kidepo Valley National Park for three nights is Shs500,000.
The buses are part of various community awareness and tourism promotion campaigns intended to boost domestic tourism as the country gears to hit four million tourists annually from the current 1.4 million.
The bus staff
There is a driver, conductor and guide for the buses. UWA caters for them and fuel expenses.
The mode of payment
Bookings can be made at the reservations office, headquarters of UWA in Kamwokya. Online booking is not yet available. The bus services which are already operating are accorded on a first come, first serve basis.
The routes and schedules
UWA priotises on availing the buses interested in visiting popular national parks mostly located in savannah areas (grassland regions with scattered trees). A case in point, there is a bus designated for Murchison Falls National Park, one for Kidepo Valley National Park, one for Queen Elizabeth National Park as well as for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The buses will be availed depending on the date and time clients want to make a particular trip.
When any of the buses are not in use, they will be available for clients who may not necessarily want to visit national parks but for any other tourism affiliated activity.
Facilities to expect on the bus
• Free public Internet access (WIFI)
• Charging system for phones.
• Comfortable leather seats with enough legroom and luggage space.
• A communication system that enables either the driver or guide interact easily with clients.
• A television set, which is part of the entertainment system.
• A high technology interpretation system for the passengers.
-Additional reporting by Stephen Wandera