Arts tourism sector crippled by Covid-19

Saturday October 17 2020

Revellers from all over the world attending the last Nyege Nyege festival in Jinja last year. The festival attracts more than 20,000 people. The festival was cancelled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

By Gabriel Buule

Many Ugandan participants in the arts and cultural tourism sector are currently unemployed or underemployed and unsure of their future. The sector that mostly depends on high volumes of people convening at the same time to attend concerts plays and exhibitions, among others, has obviously been hit hard by the new social distancing rules. What is even worse, as the world continues to grapple with the ever changing virus, the resumption of the arts activities as we knew them continues to be a distant dream.

In the meantime, concert venues closed, theatre doors slammed shut and World Heritage sites closed in Uganda. The stakeholders in this multibillion shilling industry are now wondering how it will all end as they watch their businesses disappear under losses. It is important to acknowledge that the arts are not just a welcome enhancement to life in this region, but a meaningful economic force, with Uganda earning $1.6b (about Shs5. 8 trillion) in the in the 2018/2019 financial year.

Mariah Namukasa is a crafts shop owner at Buganda Road Crafts Market and National theatre Craft Village in Kampala. She says that since the lockdown was instituted in March, she can hardly find clients for her shop. Namukasa says that most of her clients have been foreign nationals and a few Ugandans living in the diaspora who have been supporting her business. The closure of airports meant that she had to rely on local clientele, which is not enough.

On a good day, Namukasa who could make at least Shs 370,000 in sales from one of her shops sometimes spends a day without getting even one client. She has since been forced to close the National theatre Craft Village shop because she could no longer afford the rent and Kampala Capital City Authority licence valued at Shs210, 000.

Just like Namukasa many craft shops around Kampala are currently struggling and some have closed business due to absence of clientele.

Recently, batik artist and a member of  The National Arts and Cultural Crafts Association of Uganda (NACCAU), Mr Nuwa Wamala Nyanzi, raised concern that  NACCAU which has since 2003 paid more than Shs1b to the Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC), risks not doing so due to bad business caused by the Covid-19 outbreak.


As of now, tourism is the number one source of foreign exchange in Uganda barely constituting 7.7 percent of the country’s GDP and employs close to 700,000 people.

Revenue lost

Godfrey Musinguzi is the proprietor of Uganda cinema night a routine platform for Ugandan Films at the National Theatre. Musinguzi estimates that by December 2020 he would have lost Shs30m in revenue while the government owned National Theatre auditorium, which houses his shows, will lose Shs1.8m per show for the 10 shows he has called off.

He further notes that with shows called off, Uganda revenue authority will be losing about 18 per cent revenue per show and the Uganda Media Council will also be losing Shs150000 per film in classification fees. Robert Musiitwa , the public relations manager of the UNCC  says that on average, the National Theatre Auditorium loses nearly Shs20 million each month with the exception of the craft Village, Parking , Nommo Gallery and other commercial spaces.

“Most art stalls at the National Theatre are locked, the Nommo Gallery is currently at halt and basically nothing is taking place but we are talking to the Gender ministry to help us head to the resumption” he notes

In June, President Museveni revealed that the country will lose $1.6 billion a year in earnings from tourism as visitors stay away due to the impact of the coronavirus.

The president’s estimate means that, Uganda’s revenue loss will be equal to the Shs5. 8 trillion the same money Uganda made in tourism for the 2018/2019 financial year.

In a similar manner, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projected that Uganda’s tourism earnings were expected to fall to 54 per cent in the 2019/20 (July-June) fiscal year, and decline by 52 per cent in the next year.

According to the Uganda GDP Annual Growth Rate 2009-2020 Forecast published by Trading Economics the Uganda economy plunged 6 percent from a year ago in quarter two of 2020, following a downwardly revised 1 per cent growth in the previous period.

It was the sharpest economic contraction since the third quarter of 2014, as the full impact of Covid-19 pandemic was felt. The services sector shrank 6.5 percent, reversing a 1.7 percent growth in quarter one, led by accommodation and food services (45.5 percent vs. 3.2 percent); arts, entertainment and recreation (-84.9 percent vs. 0.6 percent).

The big losers

Nyege Nyege is the biggest international festival in Uganda that attracts a mammoth of crowd from all over the world.  Characterised by entertainment and the irresistible urge to dance, the festival is one of the arts event fuelling both local and international tourism in Uganda.

Derek Debru the co-founder and organiser of Nyege  Nyege, reveals that all-over the world, cultural tourism and music is the fastest growing segment in tourism business but since it is a people centred trade that sells experience the sector is facing a serious challenge.

Debru notes that only this year, the festival expected to attract at least 20,000 attendees, with 2,500 Kenyans and 5,000 non East Africans.

With the tickets priced at $60 (Shs 223,661) for internationals and $41 (Shs 150,000) for East African citizens, the organisers will be losing millions in ticket sales with government losing 18 percent in VAT on returns in festival attendance.

The biggest beneficiaries are the people of Jinja who usually get benefits through services and parallel tourism activities like rafting the on the source of the Nile, Bungee jumping among others.

In a similar vein, the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts opted to call off the four-day festival that is held at Lunkulu Island which is located off the shores of Lake Victoria in Mukono and Buikwe district.

The festival that is known for attracting both local and international tourists will see a vast loss of revenue following a no show for musicians and other art forms.

Andrew Jedidiah Ssebagala , the productions manager of Uganda National Cultural Centre, explains that between March and July when everything came to a standstill, The National Theatre had been booked up and all the 16 booked artistic events where called off.

New avenue but no revenue

Most events are going online with many going for free which means that revenue continues to be lost. Arts manager and the proprietor of Karizm Business, Ms Dorothy Nabunjo, reckons it is impossible for government to trace online remittances and most events have chosen to be free.

The biggest dance festival, The Batalo Dance Festival that attracts revellers across the region, went online at no cost and Nyege Nyege will opt for a hybrid digital festival.

Many film premieres, festivals are currently called off and so are the concerts with a few opting to keep up with the audience online.

Possible solutions

By September 2020, government Okayed the resumption of both local and international travel as borders and airports opened for tourists.

Much as some festivals and other arts events have been called off, some are creating solutions amidst crisis.

Nyege Nyege  festival has temporary created an online space curated by Jepchumba founder of African Digital Art, hosting 25 collectives who will present live music, dj sets, secret raves, dance battles and cyphers, performances and happenings, talks, rituals, a digital gallery, love and a lots of hope.

This will enable artistes, especially visual artistes to make online sales in the created digital gallery.

Apparently, most art spaces in the country including, Xenson Art Space, Afriart among many are embracing the digital exhibitions in order to stay afloat. Nabunjo notes that at Xenson Art space, the idea is to interest foreign buyers to buy online and locals to attend the gallery activities.

Musinguzi reveals that the film sector is also being forced to do online streams but at the end of the day this mostly benefits the app owners.

What can be done?

Robert Musiitwa notes that art is basically a social driven activity that involves physical presences of people to make sense out of it; He however notes that the Uganda National Cultural Centre is in talks with government to consider reopening arts.

“We drafted a couple of standard operating procedures with suggestions of 50 per cent audience, social distancing at events among many. We expect resumption if government considers our proposals” he adds.

Nabunjo reckons that stakeholders should find ways of preserving this sector which not only employs millions of Ugandans but also generates additional spending for other sectors such as transport and hotels, among others.


UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) projects a 60-80 per cent decline in international arrivals for 2020 (in comparison to a four per cent decrease in international arrivals following the 2008 economic crisis).

Many intangible cultural practices have been disrupted, which not only has an impact on the culture life of communities but also has consequences for those working in the performing arts and traditional crafts that operate largely in the informal sector.

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.

Missed opportunities

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. 

Habitats destroyed

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.  


Using technology to make money…

Virtual gigs

Some established artistes and bands have since embraced livestreaming and provide online alternatives to gigs and tours that have now been cancelled due to lockdowns. Livestreaming concerts has historically been used to complement or advertise existing live events. This shift in performance practice has logistical, financial, and artistic implications. Financially, artists will have to determine how they monetise these performances. 


Several models already exist to do so, each with unique features. Platforms such as YouTube allow artists to livestream performances and upload other videos, with income being generated through advert revenue. The amount of profit relies heavily on the amount of advertising and number of viewers – videos under ten minutes make, on average, about $2.00 (Shs7,455) for every 1,000 views.

Stressed sector

Hoping for the best

Someday, our art galleries will once again open for art lovers and throngs of revelers will attend concerts. But for now, artiste and the tourism sector continue to experience loss of revenues due to this debilitating, isolating historical moment.