Under normal circumstances, July often marks the beginning of a peak season with an increase in international tourist arrivals.
Specioza Kawarach, a tourism consultant, says in the month of July, tour guides bid their families goodbye and head to the field for three months of work. Hoteliers too would be adjusting to four hours of sleep and working for nearly 20 hours. Ranger guides and porters would be bracing themselves for a busy season.
Around this time, tourists usually fill up the Entebbe departure waiting area to fly out to Bwindi National Park. Tour vans and coasters would also fill up the airport waiting to pick up arrivals.
The sight of land cruisers driving through Bwaise traffic as they head to Murchison Falls are common around this season. All these moments belong in the past, at least for July 2020.
As a result of coronavirus, that will not be the case this year. At the moment, there are still restrictions on international travel and the closure of borders and Entebbe International Airport.
After nearly four months of people staying home as part of efforts to curb the coronavirus disease, President Museveni recently eased the lockdown and gave a green light to domestic tourism.
Local travellers more than ever before need recommendations for safer, accessible, and affordable getaways that will offer the relief they are yearning for.
National parks opened
In a public statement from Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), officials announced the opening of savannah parks for tourism following consultations with various stakeholders. UWA has put in place standard operating procedures for the containment of the possible spread of Covid-19 in protected areas.
Primate parks, however, remain closed to the public until further notice. The primate parks include Mt Mgahinga, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Kibale forest. In a recent domestic tourism study, statistics show that the number of domestic tourists in Uganda’s wildlife protected areas has consistently been higher than the proportion of foreign inbound tourists visiting protected areas since 2006.
A whooping 58 per cent of tourists visited Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth and Lake Mburo national parks. It is, however, important to note that 30 per cent of these local visitors are students from schools in Uganda.
UWEC to open this month
As few tourist sites take baby steps towards reopening to domestic tourist sites, others are still in their final phase of preparation.
Among these is Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre (UWEC), which announced plans of reopening this month. “We are working on new systems to ensure standard operating procedures. We finalised the relevant risk assessments and plans are underway to ensure safety of visitors, animals and staff when we open. We need to keep UWEC a virus free destination,” UWEC management announced last week.
The wildlife centre’s framework for reopening is guided by the Ministry of Health, World Health Organisation, Pan African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA) and World Association of Zoos and Aquaria(WAAZA).
It is a sigh of relief that hotels throughout the country are slowly reopening businesses. Proprietors of lodging facilities within the parks are welcoming guests.
Officials from Gorilla Tours and Nature Lodges Uganda could not hide their excitement about expecting its first batch of guests at Eagles Nest Camp on the periphery of Lake Mburo since March 20.
It also announced that Travellers Rest hotel Kisoro is now open to those who can access Kisoro, a border district. Now that bars and night clubs remain closed, leisure seekers have accommodation facilities as an option.
Dynamics of domestic tourists
A study conducted on Uganda domestic tourism indicates that more than 71 per cent of the tourists travelled less than 20 kilometres from areas of their usual residence.
But only 13.1 per cent travelled more than 61 kilometres for tourism purposes. Domestic tourists spent an average of Shs 100,000 while on their trips.
At least 36 per cent was spent on food and drinks, 26 per cent covered transport costs, 18 per cent on accommodation, and others tourist expenses included shopping, entrance fees, guides and massage.
Among domestic tourists, 19 per cent spent more than Shs100,000 on outings. Almost half of these tourists travelled for leisure, business and education purposes. They were mainly working class, who spent an average of Shs400,000 on their trips and travelled more than 107km away from their usual residence.
More than 80 per cent of their expenditure was spent on food, drinks, transport and accommodation. These tourists earned an average of Shs1 million as net income per month.
Domestic tourists in Uganda travel away from home for the following reasons in order of importance; to visit a place they have not visited before, to enjoy quality time with their companion(s), to relax physically, to visit friends and relatives, to find thrills and excitement, to experience new and different lifestyles, among others.
Considering that most of the tourists are youths who have attained some level of education and have some disposable income, these travel motivations are not surprising.
The view of relaxing physically reflects need for active leisure activities while enjoying company of friends suggests that many Ugandans would love to take travel as a social activity. Based on this, the following options come in handy.
Lake Mburo National Park
Besides being the smallest of Uganda’s savannah national parks inspired by ancient precambrian metamorphic rocks, every single part of it is alive with variety, interest and colour.
It contains an extensive area of wetland and harbours several species of mammals including zebras, impalas, elands, topi, giraffes and buffaloes.
The bird population comprises of the rare shoebill, harrier hawk, and green pigeon. The sculptured landscape with rolling grassy hills and idyllic lakeshores has a varied mosaic of habitats.
A three day experience is recommended in this savannah park located in Kiruhura District, an area renown for Ankole long horned cattle. There is a variety of accommodation facilities.
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary
Situated 176km on the Kampala-Gulu highway is Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, a home of 30 southern white rhinos at the moment. On foot, rhino trekking takes two hours as well as guided nature walks.
This enables tourists to experience the geography, fauna and flora of the sanctuary. Receiving domestic tourists will be a lifeline for the sanctuary, so that they can pay and feed the rangers. The sanctuary has lost income over the last three months and needs about Shs5.6m ($1500) to cover the cost of reopening according to a recent statement from management.
The sanctuary reintroduces rhinos in Uganda after the ongoing breeding. At the sanctuary, there is a fundraising initiative of Rhino Fund which aimed at adopting a rhino.
This contributes to the sanctuary’s annual income. The large mammals had become extinct in Uganda by 1980 as a result of poaching and wars, which left many of them killed both for meat and their horns. Besides rhinos, the sanctuary is also home to more than 300 bird species.
Adventure on the Nile
The longest river in the world estimated at 4,258 Km remains an iconic landmark. Located in Jinja, River Nile is where the celebrated Mahatma Gandhi chose his ashes to be scattered, a wish he made before he died. To adventure enthusiasts who yearn for an adrenaline rush, white water rafting should be on their bucket list.
Tourist operators on the Nile are open to business and have carried out several assessments on how to work with the high flows of the Nile.
The managing director of Raft Uganda, Dennis Ntege, says they assessed the SOP guidelines and are committed to offer unforgettable experiences. In the last two weeks, Ntege has hosted four groups of domestic tourists.
High water levels
Ntege says River Nile has witnessed increasing water levels in the Lake Victoria basin, which require raft operators to run different lines from the past, to ensure maximum safety of clients and staff.
UWA has advised tourists visiting Murchison Falls National Park to stay north of the river and access the park through Kichumbanyobo, Bugungu and Mubako gates.
Stunning scenery at Murchison
Murchison Falls National Park remains the largest national park in Uganda, offering some of the most spectacular scenery in the country.
The home to the Big 4 which include the lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo is named after the breathtaking water falls on the Great River Nile which in 1864. A British explorer, Sir Samuel Baker chose to christen Murchison, in honour of the distinguished President of the royal geographical society.
The park’s tourism hub is Paraa, which means home of the hippo in the Luo language. All the park’s access roads converge here as the northern and southern banks are linked by a passenger ferry.
Elsewhere in the region, Tanzania opened its tourism activities both for charter flights and scheduled flights at the beginning of this this month.