Tourism’s best days are on the way, Tour operators say

Mountain hiking is a becoming a popular tourism product. PHOTOS/NET

What you need to know:

With diversified tourism products, more people exploring tourist attractions in Uganda as well as improved infrastructure, tour operators say they are headed for profitable days ahead.

This week, Uganda joined the rest of the world to commemorate World Tourism Day for the 44th time. As one of the World’s biggest tourism destinations, the country has reason to keep the industry booming after all the numbers involved are worth it.

According to the Uganda Investment Authority, the numbers are estimated to have reached 1.5 million per year, contributing 7.7 percent to GDP. The local tourism sector has suffered a number of hiccups as it continues to scale greater heights, turning into the economy’s cash cow.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic effects on tourism, the sector kept operating. But how far can it go in future and what can be done to push the sector into overdrive? What does the future look like for the Tourism sector in Uganda?

Denis Mukungu, the director at Eastern Travelogue is optimistic things are destined to get better because of a number of factors. Mukungu earns from tourism, a topic he talks about with passion.  “The country is quickly becoming a hotspot for tourists from all over the world and there has been a growth in domestic tourism. With infrastructure in recent years, new hotels and restaurants opening up across the country, it is easier for tourists to find accommodation near popular attractions such as Lake Bunyonyi or Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Guests do not have to drive long distances to local hotels or restaurants located near these attractions” explains Mukungu, highlighting the importance of infrastructure to the tourism sector.

The pandemic had positives

A stable political atmosphere and better infrastructure are the most important things for the sector to reach its maximum potential, according to Joel Wakanyasi, who runs a tour and travel franchise-Kempten Safaris. He believes the industry will grow given that tourists, both local and foreign, have lots of options to choose from.

“Tourism has been diversified and many products have reduced overreliance on our unique selling point which was the gorilla tourism.  We have more adventurous activities, culture and festivals as part of our unique products,” he says.

He says the pandemic was not entirely bad for the sector given that it came with some positives such as more Ugandans embracing local tourism because they could not leave the country with travel restrictions in place.

Hassan Kisambira is the team lead at Sunny Outdoors, which is an outdoor gear, clothing, equipment, and sporting goods store in Uganda. He is also a hiker who organises trips for different adventures around the country.  His projection is that Ugandans will have a major role to play in the industry, unlike in the past where international tourists have been the cornerstone.

 “The future for the tourism sector will be more centred on Ugandans, East Africans and Africans. The tourism sector will diversify further from traditional Safaris to adventure tourism. Activities such as cycling, running, mountain hiking, sports and extreme sports events will become more popular,” he opines.

Tourism is not a foreign thing

Olive Kweberaho, founder of Team Kuzunga, is another tourist local agent, who takes people to different tourist attractions across the country. She is happy that the norm that tourists should come from outside Africa, is being changed by the day.

“For a country that used to look at tourism as a foreign thing, we are on the right track. Growing up in Jinja, people used to say tourists are whites. And I wanted to change that. Right from campus days, I started organising trips for my friends to visit different places around the country. No one will change this perception but us,’’ she says.

During her first days in business, Kweberaho was bothered that many Ugandans had never been to the source of the Nile, yet it was within walking distance. This fueled her desire to change the perception the locals had about tourism and Team Kuzunga has been at it since then.

What are the expectations?

Kweberaho expects stakeholders in the tourism sector to come up with customised packages to attract local tourists. She has already taken a huge step towards that direction by meeting key figures in the hospitality business.

 She is organising low budget trips with camping to reduce accommodation costs. “There is so much you can do with the money you save on accommodation during a trip. You get to explore more and do extra activities,” she says. Now that more people are getting interested in visiting different sites, Kisambira expects more domestic tourists who have explored most of the tourist attractions in Uganda to transition from sightseeing and get involved in cultural exploration and adventure activities both on land and water. On the other hand, Mukungu believes improved infrastructure and investment in tourism will boost employment opportunities in the economy.

What is going to change?

Wakanyasi recognises that change begins with him as a key stakeholder. “We are bringing more sustainable and inclusive products on the market. There is also a need to skill our labour force in hospitality on how to handle clients and give better experiences through the customer journey map. There are also so many new culture products we are unveiling,” he says.

Putting communities at the centre of tourism development

Stakeholders believe there is need to engage people in different aspects of tourism in order to grow the industry. “We are working with communities to understand their needs, desires and aspirations in tourism. This data will help us to create products that people want and will pay for,” Mukungu says.

 Mukungu says his tour company provides training programmes to equip locals with skills needed to thrive in a tourism business. He says partnering with local governments and tourism offices to develop programmes that make sure the community get a fair share of the revenues collected will go a long way in boosting the sector. Kwerebaho wants communities neighbouring different tourist attractions to be actively involved in tourism operations. “For example, if you run a resort in a place such as Kabale District, you will need food.

There are many farmers you can buy food from. Buy matooke, chicken, and many other products from them.

If you are constructing a hotel, buy timber from the community and hire locals to build. Support people in your area of operatiion,” she says.

Kisambira also agrees that for any tourism products offered in an area, locals should be involved and benefit through employment and community development programmes.

Uganda Wildlife Authority currently shares 20 percent of its annual park revenue with the people surrounding national parks and wildlife reserves.

Conserving the environment

There have been several programmes aimed at conserving the environment and wildlife. These include educational programmes for tourists on how to protect the environment while touring national parks. “Sustainability guidelines have been given to all operators in the sector,” says Kisambira.

He is optimistic that once guidelines on environment are taken seriously by all stakeholders, tourism growth is sustainable without posing a threat to the environment.

Operators are increasing in number, more people are picking interest in wearing the tourist hat, better infrastructure is being put in place and the numbers do not lie. It is safe to say the Pearl of Africa’s best days in tourism are yet to come.