The emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic altered different sectors. Some have recovered while others are still finding their feet. The tourism industry was not spared either. It was pegged back with no activity for months.
Tourist attractions were closed, people could not travel which led to massive losses. “We stopped working for more than four months. I had to lay off five employees because I could not pay their wages,” says Immaculate Kemigisha Wampamba, the managing director of Terrace Uganda Safaris and Tours Limited.
The grounding of flights from different parts of the world made things even worse. Local travel operators were left feeling the pinch. “Foreign tourists stopped coming in and even after the lockdown was lifted, they still fear to travel. Our major market was USA and UK but these two have been hit so badly by the pandemic,” says Kemigisha.
The local operators have for some time been surviving on domestic tourism. When the lockdown was eased, the domestic market became the main source of income for the tourism industry.
“From 2018, we had embarked on a rigorous campaign aimed at increasing the number domestic tourists and group travel. So that line of business resumed immediately after lockdown. Most people needed a getaway from this lockdown stress and so we got many people on board,” says Kemigisha.
There is also a group of Ugandans who prefer touring international destinations and when borders closed, they only had one option of supporting local tourism, something that worked in favour of tour operators.
The pandemic was a reminder that domestic tourism cannot be ignored any longer. It is growing and more stakeholders are giving it attention, thus creating more awareness about the tourist attractions in Uganda.
The tourism industry in Uganda has exponentially grown over the years with more foreigners and locals picking interest. The growth was expected to hit even greater heights until the pandemic happened.
“The year 2020 was meant to be a great year considering that we had so many bookings. We were excited to showcase Uganda,” says Richard Asiimwe Kacururu, a team leader at K Safaris.
He likened the development to climbing a mountain only to miss a step and fall down to its base unexpectedly. It felt like a bad dream for K Safaris as a company until they noticed it was a reality they had to deal with.
You do not need a lot to travel
“When government gave a green light for operations to resume, we were like a herd of buffalos raising heads to smell an enemy. We were like animals released from a cage,” recalls.
Asiimwe believes that the local travellers’ market has always existed with a lot of travellers that needed to explore even with a limping economy.
The pandemic has made one thing clear. That Ugandans do not need millions of shillings to explore tourist destinations around the country.
While local tour operators rendered good safari experiences for the international market, the desired goal was to do the same for the locals. Travel experiences today are accompanied with professional photography, affordable packages, parties in the wild, fashion, food and creative safari experiences based on the market.
“Our journey has not been smooth, but we are getting there. The Ugandan travel culture is steadily improving, with more information on different tour packages on the market and exposure of destinations. For us, Covid-19 was a blessing in disguise. It opened our eyes to the untapped domestic market.
We are grateful to those that have trusted us with their families, friends, celebrations and overcoming fears as we keep growing together,” says Asiimwe.
Precious Gumisiriza, a travel enthusiast, shares the same sentiments with Asiimwe and Kemigisha. They all agree that the pandemic made locals come to appreciate domestic tourism. For many Ugandans, before the pandemic, travelling meant going out of the country and many would save up to go to Mombasa, Zanzibar or Dar es Salaam.
Some have been subjected to high accommodation bills and poor service delivery to local tourists in their own country.
“We regarded foreigners as tourists and in most hotels and lodges, they are given special treatment.
A potential local tourist would rather save some money and go to another country where he be will be given the treatment that he deserves. People work so hard and it is only fair that they get their money’s worth,” explains Gumisiriza.
The effects of the coronavirus forced most hotels and lodges to lower the accommodation rates since there were no foreign tourists flying in.
Customer service has also greatly improved in most facilities, which works in favour of domestic tourism. With the travel restrictions, many people had no option but to explore tourist destinations in the country.
From the beautiful game parks, the forests, culture among many others, there is a lot to discover. “We have so many hidden gems. Many Ugandans are starting to add tourism on their lists of priorities. My only prayer is that service providers maintain customer service exhibited during the post lockdown period. I also wish to see pocket-friendly travel packages on the market,” he adds.
Hard to cope during lockdown
Brain Byekwaso has traversed the country and neighbouring countries all in the name of quenching his wanderlust. “I have travelled to places I cannot even recall yet there is still more to discover in Uganda,” he says.
During the total lockdown, Byekwaso found it difficult to cope with the restrictions and could not wait for normalcy to be restored.
Exploring new attractions
But he used the time he spent at home to read about tourist attractions, especially those he had not visited. “By the time lockdown was eased, I had a long list of places I wanted to visit. I had missed travelling and everything it comes with it,” he recounts.
On a random day, as Byekwaso scrolled through Twitter posts, he landed on a poster inviting people to go for tubing on River Nile and without hesitation, he made a booking.
“It was a memorable experience. It was time to let it all out because we had been indoors for long. There was a joke of the President locking us up again and we had no idea how long it would take. This was the motivation I needed to hop onto all affordable tour packages,” he says.
Tour companies have increased
He is one of the few that had embraced local tourism before and he testifies that the number of tourists have grown. It is not just about local tourists, even the number of local tour companies has also increased.
Joel Wakana runs Kempten Safaris, one of the fastest growing tour companies. With a group of friends, Wakana has mastered the art of blending tourism with a touch of party in the wild.
Like everyone else in the industry, the early stages in the Covid-19 fight were tough. “In the beginning, it was tough but gave us an opportunity to concentrate on ways of wooing Ugandans to embrace tourism,” he says.
Identify more tourist attractions
It is the same song every local operator has on their lips. The increase in demand and local travellers has forced companies like Kempten to visit tourist attractions that were never on their plans.
In the past, tourism meant going to game parks for many folks. But this has since changed, thanks to Covid-19. “We used to do a lot of game parks before. We could not do them because they were far and risked breaking the curfew law. So we resorted to nearby attractions we had ignored before,” says Wakana. It kept local operators looking out for every site around.
Digital marketing consultant and Tulambule Uganda Group co-founder, Cyril Kojo recalls how hard it was for tour operators some years back to attract clients.
According to Kojo, the statement “Ugandans do not love travelling” was very common to most tours and travel operators when it came to domestic tourism. “But I refused to dance to this tune because I have always believed that if there are people who are proud of their country, they are Ugandans,” he says.
The tourism dream
The pandemic saw him move closer to his dream of seeing Ugandans embracing tourism. It forced players in the sector to go back on the drawing board and come up with strategies to keep the industry afloat.
In the end, there is a new wave of tourists travelling across the country like never before.
“I am sure I speak for many when I say what we have seen should continue and be given more support. A country is its own people and it’s only when Ugandans are appreciating and sharing what their country has to offer that other people can also be interested in visiting destinations within the country,”Kojo explains.
Future lies in the hands of Ugandans
After all is said and done, the pandemic gave local tourism a chance to press the reset button and those who adjusted are reaping the benefits.
More tour and travel companies have been formed to fill a gap that was created with the surge in the number of domestic tourists and these are gains that need to be celebrated. At the end of the day, the future of tourism lies in the hands of Ugandans.