2015 lays foundation for better tourism sector

Vice president Edward Ssekandi (seated 2nd R) and other tourism officials enjoy a performance by gorilla mascots during the Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo at Kampala Serena Hotel late last year. Photo by Dominic Bukenya

What you need to know:

Bright future. Last year had some tourism events that are expected to have a positive impact on the growth of the industry this year.

2015 has been a mixed bag for the tourism sector, and duly leaves both good and bad memories. The last quarter has seen events that leave good projections for 2016.
The visit by the Barcelona legends is something that leaves a lasting impression because they visited Uganda’s prized tourism treasure - the mountain gorillas, tracking them in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, and creating a buzz on social media as they tweeted their experiences.

Amos Wekesa, a tour operator, says the legends continue to play an ambassadorial role. After tracking gorillas, the legends were on a football pitch with Uganda Cranes’ veteran players.
Much as the latter were victors, former Barcelona favourite Patrick Kluivert scored an amazing goal that became the talk of football fans locally and world over.

“The goal created a lot of interest in Uganda and yet there is going to be television time by the legends next week on global channels. We are already receiving many inquiries for this year,” Wekesa reveals.
Uganda Tourism Association president-elect Boniface Byamukama is optimistic that events such as the legends game are steps in the right direction to market Uganda as a good tourist destination.

The Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo
Uganda played host to international tour operators at the Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo at which they exhibited their different destination. The expo was at the height of familiarisation trips at which hosted buyers were taken around to appreciate the beauty of the Pearl of Africa. They visited Zziwa Rhino Sanctuary, Murchison Falls National Park, Kidepo National Park, Karimojong communities, the Source of the Nile, where they went bungee jumping and white water rafting. They also sampled Kampala’s nightlife.

One of the expo organisers, Geoffrey Baluku, explains that the idea behind the expo was to showcase what Uganda has to offer and chat about how scenic and gifted the country is.
Byamukama and Wekesa cite Pope Francis’ visit in November as another event that sold Uganda to the world and local tourism, something Intrepid, an adventure travel company, picked on. Whereas this created some good buzz, Wekesa says a lot could have been done better to maximise the pontiff’s visit.

“Look at social media, for example, Twitter. Kenya had 3.5 billion impressions and Uganda had only 560,000 impressions. Kenya made much more out of his visit because every tour company was encouraged to talk about the visit. We spent about Shs120b but none of that was money put aside towards publicising the Pope’s visit to Uganda,” he argues.

He cites the challenge of the Catholic Church not knowing that we needed to use the visit to earn a living. Intrepid, in its story, recommends Uganda as one of the places to visit in 2016. It reminds the world that Uganda should not only be known for its mountain gorillas but its hippo-filled rivers, abundant birdlife, serene lakes and villages filled with enthusiastic locals, who consistently capture the attention, imagination and hearts of travellers worldwide.

Kamengo, a Crater Lake in Queen Elizabeth National Park, was voted the second most beautiful Crater Lake in the world.
“Uganda also won the best exhibitor in South Africa Indaba Tourism Exhibition and in Magical Kenya. We also held successful events such as Miss Tourism and tourism is now leading foreign exchange earner,” Byamukama adds.

Baluku suggests that it is high time Uganda started looking at the bigger picture where Uganda Tourism Board and East African Tourism Platform can work together since the objective of the latter is to sell East Africa as a single tourism destination.
On the whole, Wekesa summarises 2015 as a year that has been tough for those in the tourism business. This is particularly because there were after-effects of the challenges of 2014, for example the Ebola break-out in West Africa, and a shaming fact that some international tourists still consider Africa as a single country.

And then conventional and social media carrying stories that Entebbe Airport was a target for attacks by terrorists, in addition to the inter-tribal fights in the Rwenzori region, events that were again picked up by international media.
Visa fees were increased from $50 (Shs167,000) to $100 (Shs334,000), which makes it the highest in the region. Wekesa also roots for the re-organisation of the tourism sector, citing the fact that there are too many power centres especially on the government side.

“We need a competent and knowledgeable leader who is given resources which will be attached to the numbers that are coming into the country. We need to move our number from 1.3m arrivals to about 2m in two years and we hope one million of those are tourists. If each of these tourists can spend an average of $2, 000 (Shs6.7m), it is a step in the right direction,” he argues.
Baluku agrees, adding that the sector needs to capitalise on the positives in order to increase traffic of tourists coming into the country, and thereon make a meaningful and real trickledown effect across the tourism value chain.

Byamukama highlights increased taxation as a factor that has affected the sector and that inflation in the economy made it expensive to finance capital-intensive investments.
“When Value Added Tax (VAT) was re-introduced in the budget of 2015/16, we (tour operators) lost bookings worth $6m (Shs20b). This was a big set back that affected our projections. There was low hotel occupancy to up a rate of 30 per cent,” UTA’s president adds.
Byamukama says he looks forward to the revival of a national carrier - Uganda Airlines, in the sky. He argues that there is no country in the world that has developed tourism without a national carrier.

“We also expect an increase of the marketing funding to UTB to enable it access new markets and also attract international brand hotels to invest in the country. We need to think of ways to increase tourists’ arrival to at least two million tourists,” he adds.
UTB currently has a budget of Shs11.5b, which caters for everything, from salaries to administration costs and marketing. Byamukama suggests that the budget is grown to about $20m (Shs67b) cater for marketing.

“Marketing is an expensive venture. We need to engage public relations companies abroad to market our tourism products in source markets. Space in daily newspapers or other media out there is very expensive,” he argues.
Rwanda has a marketing budget for its tourism of up to $10m (Shs33.5b) yet it largely markets one product - mountain gorillas, while Kenya invests $25m (Shs83.7b) into marketing.

Government urged
Byamukama and Wekesa call on government to consider investing in the tourism sector, and stop paying lip-service to its potential. They hinge their arguments on the fact that tourism is as important as the oil and gas sector and health sectors.
Byamukama expects efforts to combat poaching of wildlife and invest in conservation to increase as well as development of new tourism products such as religious or faith-based tourism, boat cruises and water sports on Lake Victoria, culture tourism and agro tourism.

Wekesa beckons 2016 as a year in which tourism as the lowest hanging fruit can thrive even better.
However, observes that this can be if there are peaceful elections come next year, adding that tourism thrives in a stable environment.