A cross-section of tour operators have cried out to government to clean up the Covid-19 testing mess at Entebbe International Airport, saying it is costing the country 90 per cent of tourist booking cancellations.
In a press conference at Sheraton Kampala Hotel on Thursday, the tour operators urged the government to remove the Covid-19 test for arriving tourists who have been vaccinated and tested negative from their home countries.
The complaints come hot on the heels of the high charges for the Covid test at the airport.
There have also been complaints over fake positive Covid results that are used for extortion purposes, the poor conditions at the testing venue and criticisms that those that handle the process have no interpersonal relations etiquette.
Mr Amos Wekesa, the proprietor of Great Lakes Safaris and Uganda Lodges, cited an incident on August 23.
He said passengers on Uganda Airlines who arrived from Nairobi, Kenya on that day, were ferried to the testing venue, samples taken, but were all given positive results.
He said the passengers protested that they had just been tested negative in Kenya.
Mr Wekesa said when they were tested at an alternative lab, all the results were negative.
“These people had gone through the inconvenience of paying $65 dollars, and no one refunded their money. This paints a negative image of the country. The amount of information online about how badly we are handling tourists is shocking. And the decision makers tend not to know what is actually on ground. And that is our biggest challenge. As we speak now, 90 per cent of tourists are cancelling bookings for Uganda and are opting to go elsewhere,” he said.
While Uganda insists on the test on arrival, other countries in the region are offering easier conditions.
For instance, in Kenya, when a traveller has taken the Covid jab and has also tested negative before flying to Kenya, he or she is given an all-clear to enter the country.
“Globally, when a person is fully vaccinated and also tests negative 72 hours before leaving the home country, most destination countries don’t ask for another test. This not the case in Uganda,” Mr Boniface Byabakama, a tour operator and vice chairperson of Uganda Hotel Owners Association, said.
Despite the tour operators’ worry that the PCR test on arrival is counterproductive, Cabinet has now added another bother to the list, namely that fee for the test has to be paid through a bank at the airport.
This, the hospitality sector players say will create more delay and stress for the traveller.
“The quality of people handling the testing, the quality of people handling the airport is causing major challenges for travellers. And no tourist wants to deal with challenges on arrival,” Mr Wekesa said.
In a September 15 statement released by Cabinet, the Ministry of Health is taking up the testing, removing the task from private labs.
The ministry spokesperson, Mr Emmanuel Ainebyoona, said this will improve handling of travellers at the airport. But the tour operators believe a test on arrival at the reduced cost of $30 (about Shs105,000) is still not competitive, and may not stop the mass cancellation of bookings.
Government takes over Covid testing for travelers
Dr Chris Baryomunsi, the Information minister, in a September 15 statement said the position to take over the implementation of mandatory testing was reached during a Cabinet meeting on Monday.
“…All travellers entering the borders, including Entebbe International Airport, would undergo a mandatory sample removal for testing Covid-19….the PCR tests for all arriving passengers shall be carried out by government and not the private laboratories,” he said.
Dr Baryomunsi said Cabinet also agreed that “passengers will pay a recovery cost of $30 (Shs105,935) instead of $65 (Shs229,527).”
He said the current practice where tourists are given favours will be maintained. “…passengers with Tourist Visas will have their samples taken but will be permitted to proceed to their respective hotels as they await the processing of their results,” he added.
The decision was made a day after an inter-ministerial team led by Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja assessed the preparedness at the designated testing facilities at Penial Hotel Beach Entebbe.
Up to six private companies including Test and Fly, Case Hospital, Medipal, Safari Lab, Same Day Lab, and City Medical Lab had installed their equipment.
Ms Nabbanja had said they noted serious inefficiencies in Covid-19 testing such as delays and issues of poor implementation of Covid-19 preventive measures.
Dr Richard Mugahi, the assistant commissioner for health services at the Ministry of Health, yesterday said the decision had nothing to do with the integrity of the private laboratories.
He said a specific venue had been gazetted at Entebbe airport for the government to install the equipment.
Dr Richard Lukandwa, the medical director for Medipal International Hospital, said: “Government decision goes against their previous directive that Covid testing will be done by private facilities. It has been very expensive to set up equipment.”