Donna Mwesigwa, a safari guide, covers a distance of 20 Kilometres from her residence at Gayaza to Nansana, where she supervises attendants at her mother’s supermarket.
Every weekend, she drives for five hours to Rukungiri District in south western Uganda to monitor the productivity of the family livestock and poultry farm.
This follows government strict measures to limit the spread of Covid-19 pandemic by closing border points which grounded planes and hindered arrival of inbound tourists.
“We have diverted into other jobs to earn a living. Some of my colleagues secured deals to distribute government consignments of masks and mosquito nets across the country.
But others are temporarily in their villages waiting for business to normalise,” Mwesigwa says.
Having been a tour guide for many years, she says tour guiding sustained her family, unlike today. She says the pandemic has taught her perhaps the greatest lesson in life, which is to diversify her sources of income and also the value of quality time she has had to spend with her family.
On the other hand, David Baluku, a driver guide managing Kifaru Expeditions in Uganda, has established a food store in Kampala, where he sells agricultural produce such maize flour.
In his guiding experience since 2006, he says this is so far the biggest financial blow that has brought tourism to its knees.
“It caught us unaware and has rendered stakeholders jobless. Covid-19 has had a lasting negative impact more than the ADF rebels that threatened tourism in Kasese District,” says Baluku.
Some of the tour guides I managed to talk to revealed that vehicles belonging to tour guides are currently parked and are rotting away in garages.
Peak season lost
Before the pandemic, tour guides looked forward to the month of August. This is the busiest season and for tour guides and many spend some time in the field and earn big from tourists.
In the tourism sector, there are two categories of guides; those attached to specific tour companies as staff and majority who offer freelance services.
James Mwere, the chairperson of Tour Guides Forum Uganda (TGFU), says 80 per cent of the guides who fall under the freelance group have suffered enormous financial implications, because without a trip, they cannot earn.
He says there is a handful of tour operators in Uganda who can pay members a monthly salary. “A basic salary ranges between Shs700,000 to Shs1m and an addition of allowance when they lead tourists in the field,” he says.
Mwere, who has been in this business for 10 years, says a 12 to 14-day safari during a peak season, a general guide earns on average Shs183,600 approximately $50 per day.
If one owns a customised five-seater land cruiser, it is hired at Shs257,000 (or between $70-$100 per day). A seven-seater safari Land Cruiser popularly known as a stretch, fetches about Shs367,300 per day. Bird guides on the other hand receives Shs293,850 per day as allowance.
Losses since January
The tourism sector began to feel the Covid-19 pressures in January 2020 when bookings dwindled and tourism businesses including hotels, tour operators registered cancellations.
Many tour guides had no assignments and were rendered redundant. “More than 95 per cent of the tour guides have not registered a trip in the last six months,” says Mwere.
The effect has trickled down to their families and Mwere says plans are underway to establish a Sacco for all members.
He says more than ever before, financial literacy will be prioritised and members will be encouraged and supported to invest in sustainable projects to generate income.
For the last seven years, birding has been a source of livelihood for Uganda Women Birders Club vice chair Proscovia Nanyombi. She has lost two birding safaris which were scheduled for June and July and she has no hope for her forthcoming trips even in the remaining months of the year.
“In total, I expected to work for 37 days. My plans have now been thwarted,” she say.
However, her worry as a leader is about her female colleagues, who are still apprentices. Her club has 60 members who were optimistic about developing tourism careers.
Unfortunately, most of them have been demoralised.
Uganda Safari Guides Association (USAGA) members missed skilling opportunities in May and June to keep them abreast with the demands in the global tourism market.
Johnny Kamugisha, the chairman of USAGA, says previously, their members attended international travel markets to attract birding enthusiasts to Uganda, and on different occasions they have sent some members for capacity building beyond borders.
“This year, the Africa Birding Expo is likely not to happen. Similarly, we have missed the British Birding Fair, the African Birding Fair in South Africa, and Asian Birding Fair. We miss to miss an opportunity to network, sell and promote tourism,” he says.
Stakeholders want the airport to reopen
Tourism stakeholders including tourist guides have implored government to reopen Entebbe International Airport to resuscitate their businesses.
“Civil Aviation Authority and Ministry of Works and Transport should fast-track the passenger and facility management standard operating procedures(SOPs) to facilitate the reopening of the airport.”
Mwere adds that government should set an interim tentative date for the reopening of the airport to enable travellers who had deferred their bookings, to include Uganda on their itinerary for travel in the near future. “More than70 per cent of the tourism business goes through Entebbe International Airport,” Kamugisha says.
Request for grants
The impact of Covid-19 on the individuals whose livelihoods depend on tourists is likely to be more devastating. With the border points still closed, more than 200 members are appealing to government to support them with a grant to a tune of Shs 700m.
Tamale Joseph, the vice chairperson of the Uganda Tour Guides Cooperative Society Ltd (UTGCSL), a Sacco says they are part of a sector value chain that contributes nearly 10 per cent to the country’s GDP.
Speed up the licences
In Europe and countries in Africa that value professionalism, unqualified guiding is not permitted by law. When booking a tour guide, it is the right of a tourist to ask for proof that one holds a licence. An individual who personally provides any guiding services to a tourist for remuneration requires a tourist guide licence.
In Singapore, any person wanting to be a licensed tourist guide has to undergo the skills tourist guide course approved by training providers and pass all relevant assessments before they issue out a tourists guide licence.
Unfortunately, Uganda has been slow in the process of assessing and licensing guides as proper stakeholders of the industry. James Mwere faults Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities which had previously assumed the role of Uganda Tourism Board (UTB).
He says there is still a delay which has made the guides lose money. Often when the sector discusses pressing needs, tour operators and hoteliers are prioritised because they are licensed and recognised as direct tax payers.
“We missed out on the stimulus package from government yet about 1000 of us have not been earning for close to six months. Neither the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities nor Uganda Tourism Board have a comprehensive database for the tour guides in the country.”
Refresher courses needed
Joseph Tamale, a board member of TGFU, says before the guides get assessed, government through Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) needs to offer guides refresher courses to gain professional standards.
He says the guiding course unit should also be developed in tourism and training institutes with emphasis on the latest trends and international languages such as German, Dutch, French spoken by majority of tourists from major tourist source markets.
Refresher courses are specifically designed to refresh tour guides with updated tourism information. Different tourism related topics are often covered to equip learners with current trends.
Uganda is predominantly a wildlife based destination with a vast vegetation cover that harbours wildlife including birds. Unfortunately, Covid-19 forced quite a number of people to travel from urban centres to rural settings, which has created pressures on natural resources such as forests, swamps and lakes.
When the government eased the national lockdown, Proscovia Nanyombi and her colleagues visited a few habitats for birds and found people cultivating in forests near Mpigi, which is a threat to wildlife.
Bentique Nigwomugisha who is currently on a wildlife familiarisation trip with colleagues around Kibale National Park, says communities bordering the park have cleared the vegetation cover for subsistence farming, which may result into human-wildlife conflicts in the Tooro sub-region.
If I was to bird watch in Entebbe, I would definitely go to…
It is extensive marsh stretching through a long narrow bay, fringed with papyrus towards the main body of Lake Victoria in Mpigi District. It forms part of Waiya Bay south west of Nakiwogo Bay. This bird area is one of the best marshy areas along the northern shores of Lake Victoria, closest place to Kampala where Shoebills are regularly seen.
This was recently declared a Ramsar site and is home to more than 100 species of birds. The commonly seen birds include the Papyrus Yellow Warbler, the Papyrus Gonolek, the Greater Cormorant, Gull billed Tern. During winter, others like the Grey-headed gull, Slender-billed gull and White-winged black terns migrate from Europe in their thousands, making a visit to this place a thrilling adventure.
Entebbe Botanical Gardens
Located on the northern shores of Lake Victoria, this is where you will find colobus monkeys. The gardens are an opportunity for birding enthusiasts. Palm Nut Vulture and African Grey Parrot are resident naturally, there are loads of exotic plants and trees.