A few years ago, Mr Dickson Kateshumbwa, the director of Parkview Safari Lodge and Gorilla Heights Lodge, borrowed Shs5b to expand his hospitality business.
All was going according to plan until March. As Mr Kateshumbwa planned to reopen his tourism business after the heavy reinvestment, coronavirus hit Uganda, sinking him further in debt.
Government closed the airspace and borders, locking out tourists. Millions of foreign tourist bookings were cancelled and the hospitality business activities collapsed.
“We were planning for reopening after getting a grace period for construction. Then Covid-19 hit. So we have a Shs5b loss with no income. We cancelled more than Shs2 billion bookings for the lodge,” Mr Kateshumbwa told Daily Monitor last Friday during a European Union (EU) delegates’ tour of Queen Elizabeth National Park in Kanungu District to assess the impact of Covid-19 on Uganda’s tourism sector.
Other businesses such as transportation and tour guiding, among others, that thrived on tourism suffered the same fate.
Drop in tourists
In 2018/19 financial year, the sector accounted for 7.7 per cent of the country’s GDP and 6.7 per cent of total national employment after creating 667,600 jobs.
Dr Margaret Driciru, the principal warden of Queen Elizabeth National Park, said tourist numbers had been growing at an annual average of 10 per cent since 2002 until December last year.
“International visitors and tourists here have been growing until December 2019 on the onset of Covid-19 pandemic. We had registered a total tourist arrival of 77,995 and 47.3 per cent of these comprise international foreign arrivals, but from April to June this year, the number dropped to zero,” Dr Driciru said as EU handover a ranger outpost in the park.
During the visit, the EU delegation could hardly see any lions in the park.
A tour guide said the lions must have been scared away by the roaring engines of the motorcade.
“The lions could be moving far because of the convoy. It has been a while since we last received many numbers. They have started coming back but in few numbers. I used to guide tourists three times a day but sometimes, there is none,” Ms Harriet Kanyere, a tour guide, said.
A resident neighbouring the park, who preferred anonymity, said he used to earn from nature walks and bicycle tours as a guide but that source of income has been lost due to the pandemic.
Dr Driciru said the reduced tourist arrivals to the park will make it hard for wildlife protection since tourism has been the main financier of conservation activities in the country.
The Kazinga Channel, which usually attracts tourists for boat cruises, is also deserted. The channel connects Lake Edward and Lake George. The boats lie idle on the shores of Lake Edward.
According to World Tourism Organisation, the globe has suffered a drastic decline in the number of tourist arrivals in the first quarter of the financial year.
Before Covid-19, at least 67 million tourists had visited various destinations around the world, but this dropped by 22 per cent (about 14.7 million), causing a loss of $80b (about Shs295 trillion) exports globally.
The pandemic has also led to increased poaching in national parks.
Many tour guides in Queen Elizabeth park said poachers have intensified their activities because of the inadequate surveillance by game rangers.
Dr Driciru said during the lockdown, more than 10 animals were being killed in every 100km patrolled. Previously, it used to be below nine.
“We realised that for every 100km the rangers were patrolling, poaching rate had increased beyond 10 animals and it was less before,” Dr Driciru said. The head of EU delegation to Uganda, ambassador Attilio Pacifici, said it was now more crucial to conserve and protect Uganda’s wildlife resource.
“Tourism is 90 per cent natural resources-based, thanks to Uganda’s unique and rich biodiversity. Wildlife, which is the main tourist attraction in Uganda, exists because of a wide variety of habitats most of which are unfortunately under threat even in the protected areas,” Mr Pacifici said.
The ranger outpost was created to reduce poaching in the national parks, safeguard visiting tourists and promote tourism investments.
The hotel sector was also disrupted.
“One of the things that happened as early as February is massive cancellations. We had a calendar of big conferences, big events. In one month, more than $6m (Shs22b) was lost from only five major hotels,” Ms Jeanne Byamugisha, the executive director of Uganda Hotel Owners Association, said.
She added that the country could lose $1.6b (Shs5.9 trillion) this year.
“We envision that by December, the hotels are going to lose in excess of about $700m (Shs2.5 trillion).
In the first three weeks, the five top hotels lost at least $5m (Shs18b). This was by the time we closed in March because of cancellation of events,” Ms Byamugisha said.
The Belgian ambassador to Uganda, Mr Rudi Veestraeten, told journalists after the interaction between EU delegates and hotel and lodge owners at Mountains of the Moon Hotel in Fort Portal Town at the weekend that the country’s tourism needs a new master plan.
“There is a need to do something instead of sitting back and waiting for the crisis to end. It needs an active approach, polishing the pearl, making it shine. You need to actively cherish it and do something for people to see it,” ambassador Veestraeten said.
Uganda earned about Shs5.9 trillion from tourism in 2018/2019 financial year, making the sector the country’s leading foreign currency earner.
However, 99 per cent of the more than 400,000 people employed in the hotel sector have been sent home due to the pandemic which reduced occupancy from 58 per cent to 5 per cent.
“By the time the year started, many lodges were already booked until 2021 and 2022. All that completely went down. The hotels make money from occupancy and for a hotel to break even, it must be operating at 40 per cent occupancy. For us, any hotel that is operating at 5 per cent occupancy is not making money,” Ms Byamugisha said.
Hotel owners note that it might take five years for the sector to recover. They appealed to the government for a clear roadmap on when the airport will reopen.
“For tourism-based business, we have advanced bookings. Our partners abroad are looking at the likely date airports will be opened for them to reschedule their bookings,” Mr Amos Wekesa, the managing director of Great Lakes Safaris Limited, said.
Mr Massimiliano Mazzanti, the Italian ambassador to Uganda, said at certain point, Uganda has to reopen the airport to revive the economy. He proposed tax holidays for tourism operators.
He also lauded the country for its efforts in fighting Covid-19.
Mr Jules Armand Aniambossou, the French ambassador to Uganda, called for aggressive tourism, innovative thinking and aggressive marketing to revive the sector.
“That does not mean to go on television or in the country and talk about beautiful parks. It is a strategy that should be done by the private sector and other stakeholders to showcase Uganda. Who knows that in this country you have so beautiful areas?” ambassador Aniambossou said.
“On social media, we saw difficulties with police; that is not good for the country to market. To showcase Uganda is not only tourism. The issue is political, social, security and safety,” he added.