Uganda is such a beauty, with enviable flora and fauna showcased at different spots and corners of its boundaries. It is home to the biggest population of the prized Mountain Gorilla, the primate chimpanzees, beautiful weather, source of the mighty River Nile, Africa's largest fresh water body- Lake Victoria, lush greenery, landscapes, vast wildlife, birding experiences, cultural showcase, culinary adventure, an enviable nightlife and much more.
But, with all this splendour, most of the world is yet to know about Uganda. A more serious marketing strategy could work to the advantage of the Pearl of Africa. At the Uganda stand during the Magical Kenya Travel Expo, the region's biggest tourism expo, now in its eighth year, tourism operators were able to tell and show at least 200 buyers from 27 countries, that Uganda is a lot more than its dark past, identified with fallen statesman Idi Amin.
"Some of the people who have visited our stall are ignorant about Uganda. Some of the tourism agents have asked us if Idi Amin is still around. Some still have stories about our dark past so we are telling them that that is part of our history but it is behind us and that we have a stable country and a diverse tourism product," explains Chris Wanda, a tour operator with Primate Expeditions.
He says Uganda needs all the showcasing it can get because it is under marketed and under exploited. "We have a diverse product. We have only been selling the primates, that is, the chimpanzees and gorillas but we have Mountain Rwenzori, the Victoria Nile, name it," he adds.
"We are selling exclusive chimpanzee experience. We encourage people to come to Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary to see how chimpanzees interact with each other," says Martha Nansamba, Marketing Manager, Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary.
The interest in primates is still a big seller and her team was busy, marketing two new products; chimpanzee monitoring at the water edges where visitors can view chimpanzees that are not yet integrated with the big group in the forest.
"We are opening up a wildlife hub starting in January, next year, where we will take visitors to see otters as they come from the land and into the waters. There will be a lot to learn about the life of otters," she adds.
For an overnight stay, tourists pay US$166 (Shs436,000), which is inclusive of meals. Transportation is charged differently at a rate of US$125 (Shs475,000), sharing a boat and US$250 to exclusive travellers. To track the chimpanzees, a tourist pays US$100 (about Shs380,000). The fee includes monitoring the primates, taking a sunset cruise on Lake Victoria and visiting the communities on Ngamba island.
The unsung attractions
To Benedict Ntale, Vice Chairperson of Association of Tour Operators (AUTO), it is prime time to promote other tourism products Uganda has to offer, in addition to chimpanzees and gorillas.
"People who have visited the Uganda tourism stall don't have a clear idea of what other attractions the country has to offer in terms of tourism so there is a lot of explanation and marketing to do. We have shown them maps, short clips of videos and are answering a number of questions, ranging from the security of Uganda to the nature and state of roads, accommodation, insurance companies and general conception of the country," Ntale, also Managing Director, Ape Treks, further explains.
"This is my third time attending the Magical Kenya Travel Expo and each time I have attended, I have received good business. This year, I was quite picky on the kind of appointments that I wanted. Thanks to their matching system, I got quality hosted buyers. I have been busy," Ngamba's Nansamba further explains.
Eddy Kirya is a board member of Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), the body charged with marketing destination Uganda. He says it is time Uganda takes advantage of online platforms to reach out to the rest of the world. "Our tracking prices are still very friendly and affordable.
There is a lot of inquiry about birds because we are birding destination, with over 1, 000 bird species in Uganda. The adventure product, of white water rafting and hiking," explains Eddy Kirya, board member of Uganda Tourism Board (UTB)," he adds.
Lessons from Kenya
Magical Kenya is a platform local tour operators appreciate for linking them with international hosted buyers and agents to create sustainable business relationships.
"Kenya has taken great strides in their aviation sector, for example their recent launch of a one-way direct flight from Nairobi to New York. As Uganda, we need to position ourselves very close because if tourists are flying directly to USA, it means we can tap into that because we are only 45 minutes away from Kenya," observes Kirya.
For this and more, he says Uganda can learn from Kenya as a more established tourism destination. His observation of investment in organising its travel expo is one lesson Uganda can pick in order to improve on the outcome of the Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo (POATE).
To this end, Ngamba's marketer, Nansamba, says POATE needs to revise its strategy by moving away from the model of doing business-to-consumer and to Kenya's model of doing business-to-business.
For now, she finds no reason to attend another edition of Uganda's expo. "There is no value. Ugandans will come and appreciate products but they don't buy in. They prefer products that are out of the country, like if a Kenya exhibited, they will choose to go to the coast than come and visit us," she explains.
Jemimah Walugembe, Managing Director of Sights Travel, suggests to UTB to be keen on the quality of hosted buyers and agents it invited. "When we are picking hosted buyers, let us pick the right ones. It should be buyers who are going to market our tourism products and get a return on investment. Let us know the profiles of the buyers and how serious they are. I have interacted with some serious buyers at Magical Kenya Travel Expo."
Ntale observes that Kenya sees to it that different continents are represented at the expo, so one is sure to find hosted buyers from South America, Asia, Africa and South West Pacific at the annual expo.
"They invest to bring them to Kenya. They fund their air tickets, receive them and take them around Kenya to experience the product they are lobbied to sell," he adds. Wanda advises that, in selecting hosted buyers, Uganda needs to also study and invite hosted buyers from its traditional source markets as well as emerging source markets for example the Scandinavian countries and China so that it grows tourism partners that will boost its arrival statistics which currently stand at 1.3 million visitors. The opportunities are therefore many.