2016 has been a mixed bag for the tourism sector in Uganda. Whereas there has been growth in the industry, a number of challenges continue to dog the sector which is the country’s top foreign income earner.

Uganda’s tourism sector’s contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the 2014/15 financial year increased to Shs6.3 billion up from Shs5.6 billion the previous year.

State minister for Tourism, Godfrey Kiwanda, observes that it has been a tough year for tour operators, mainly because of the tough economic times and also because the operators have not looked beyond foreign tourists in attracting business.

“It is high time tour companies started considering domestic tourism. They can earn the dollars but during low and high seasons, they can fall back on local tourists. There is an opportunity they are ignoring. If they continue looking only at earning from foreign tourists, more of them will close shop,” the minister argues.

He says that tourism operators are still pricing and packaging their products to suit and target foreign tourists which affects them when foreign tourism is low. He observes that if operators in the sector continue charging exorbitantly, they will put off the local Ugandan who would have wanted to travel.
However, in an earlier interview, Eric Ntalo, the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust spokesperson, observed that tour companies do not promote domestic tourism because the income base of many Ugandans is limited.

“The cheapest tour package they offer costs Shs300,000 yet running a tour company comes with such costs as transportation, lodging, and overhead. To meet these costs, tour companies would rather have one foreign tourist paying $500 for a tour, than two Ugandans paying Shs600,000,” he was quoted saying in an interview.

Reduction on taxes
Tour operators have thus been petitioning the government to scrap value added tax (VAT) on upcountry lodges since operators spend a lot on maintaining roads to the tourist sites and on improving communication services in the sites.

Their wish may come true as in November during the 5th Presidential Investors’ Round Table at State House Entebbe where deliberations focused on tourism and the business environment in the country, President Museveni said taxes on export services, such as tourism, should be removed to attract more investors in the country akin to coffee taxes in 1987.

Fruitful initiatives
Lilly Ajarova, the director of Ngamba, observes that 2016 was a year of recovery after Ebola in West Africa and the presidential election right at the beginning of the year. When the political dust settled, tour companies and individuals started working on their ideas.

David Gonahasa, the director at roundbob.com, interested some 250 domestic tourists to partake of the #CocktailsInTheWild, to visit game parks.

Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) undertook a domestic tourism promotion drive dubbed Tulambule Uganda, a local tourism initiative aimed at encouraging locals to explore and experience the beauty of the country.

Private initiates such as Uganda Travel Month campaign by Pearl Guide, the Ondaba Initiative, KoiKoi Instagram were also mobilising Ugandans to explore on a budget.

According to Vincent Mugaba, the UTB spokesperson, the body also worked with the Church and Uganda, Muslim Supreme Council to develop the Uganda Martyrs Trail in a move to encourage faith tourism on a national and international scale.

UTB’s deputy chief executive officer, John Ssempebwa, produced and premiered a movie, Final Flames of the Uganda Martyrs.

Turning to the country’s tourism marketing body, UTB, he said more needs to be done and called on it to be more vigilant than it is at the moment.
“It is the festive season and I expect that UTB should have partnered with tour operators in a campaign to promote the brand Uganda to Ugandans during this Christmas season but none of this is visible on our streets. Ugandans should be excited to explore their country,” he argued.

UTB’s mandate is to promote and popularise Uganda as a viable holiday destination both locally and internationally in order to increase the contribution of tourism earnings and GDP, improve Uganda’s competitiveness as an international tourism destination and increase Uganda’s share of Africa’s and World tourism market.

Sempebwa ruled out internal strife and inabilities as part of the reason for the body’s inadequacy but implored its administrators to put in more effort and rise to opportunities to market the country’s tourism potential which, as he noted, has not been fully realised.

During a workshop in November by UTB and Uganda Tourism Association in which four tourism products estimated to cost Shs1,108,800,000, were validated, some of the challenges pointed out included:
“Overreliance on wildlife products, limited access routes, inadequate meeting, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions (MICE) venues, exclusionism policy, unplanned development, untapped tourism potentials, limited skills in tourism product innovation and creativity and competing economic interest.”

These products are Namugongo Shrine, Uganda National Museum Indigenous dinner, Uganda Rwenzori Cultural Trail and Interpretation Capacity Building for Birding.

Mixed feelings
Pundits have lashed out at the tourism sector leaders for lacking a clear strategy that can be followed.

Amos Wekesa, the director of Great Lakes Safaris, argues that a strategy would bring the country results. This ultimately affects the number of arrivals at the country’s main airport -Entebbe International Airport.

Currently, Uganda registers 1.3 million people, a figure the minister describes as low.

“We are looking at becoming a middle-income-status country by 2020 and I have challenged my ministry to achieve more by the end of 2017. I would like to increase our arrivals by 700 so that we can attract 2 million visitors by the end of next years and 4 million visitors by 2020,” he disclosed.

Whereas these efforts and more did not go unnoticed, Wekesa points to the economic pinch which has had adverse effects on tourism business, forcing some tour companies to close shop.

Simon Kaheru, an experience facilitator at Shiyaya Tours & Travel, says it is unfortunate that there is still a lot of highly visible ugly politicking taking front page positions and a great amount of inefficiency that gets in the way of the tourism sector to flourish.
Godfrey Lule’s thoughts are in the same line. He observes that the sector has been and still is in a rocking chair. “Any avid follower of the trends of tourism development will tell you that we have seen it all and the key players are working on impulse. I am stating this not on a pessimist side but the realists side.”

“Most figures are skewed and biased depending on the audiences they are to serve and you can actually validate this from the fact that what comes near accurate is ignored to keep the audiences happy.

Immigration department today captures little information, especially in regards to the needs of the visitors and who actually is a visitor/tourist,” Lule argues.

The recent turmoil in Kasese District has directly affected tourism because of the insecurity associated with the events in the sub-region, something Gonahasa singles out as an ugly turn of events that have made it very difficult to sell that part of the country.
But as key players in the matter seek solutions to return normalcy to the south western district, Ajarova suggests that going forward; media campaigns to improve domestic tourism should be developed through schools and districts.

“If the tourism dollar will be put to the right hands or in the right hole for growth, this would lead to the best transformation of the communities and the economy.

There are enormous ways of social investment and tourism offers the platform. Let us embrace it with responsibility and patriotically as Ugandans, all Ugandans from Karamoja to Kabale and the stretch of land mass in between,” Lule advocates.

Optimism for 2017
This could be realised in 2017 given the general observation that the forecast is a better year based on the interest that government is beginning to show in the industry and with the hope that the budget for the sector will be greatly increased as the President pledged.

Ajarova observes that the interest by local investors putting investments in tourism, better international promotion of the country both internationally and nationally, diversified tourism products -wildlife, culture, photography, religious, sports, health, education, among others are part of the large focus.

“I think our prospects in tourism will improve next year because there is an increased understanding among Ugandans of how tourism works, in general. Also, we are doing more -individually and also in some government offices -to promote Uganda as a tourism destination, and our efforts are being noticed,” Kaheru ponders.

He adds that the effectiveness of these promotion efforts is seen more in the spontaneous word of mouth follow-up comments made on social media and in official media platforms and it gives hope that things will certainly improve.

For Lule though, the future should start with dialogue with all the stakeholders, reconciliation of needs and consolidation of achievements.

He argues, “Uganda has a good will of more than 50 years, and we celebrate this in form of our independence. So, in regards to tourism we need to see the tourism dollar making meaning to the wanainchi (common man), the planet and the even the tourist by getting their money’s worth.”

Way forward
However, Ajarova also adds that there is still need to have a clear brand for the country. “Right now different slogans are being used; Pearl of Africa, Uganda gifted by nature, Your Uganda, among others. These do not give a clear picture of what the country stands for,” Ngamba’s director argues.

“There is also still need to improve the quality of services, capacity of human resource, hygiene, plastic wastes, minimising costs of production through efficient operations (recycling, energy saving, maintenance of facilities, among others), better protection and conservation of the natural resources and cultures,” she further observes.

According to Lule, to avert the challenges in the tourism sector, conversations and dialogue are key. “We need feedback and this feedback should be consolidated to make good. We should focus our efforts on increasing the positive work on the ground,” he adds.

“If someone proposes Tulambule for instance, let us not act out of impulse but rather out of responsibility. The project is so good, but needs to have the buy-in of all the stakeholders so that the key architects are not worked up while trying to move over these walls,” the tourism enthusiast adds.

His plan is to up efforts of promoting the country, first at regional level and then international in order to achieve the increase in the number of arrivals.

Figures provided by East African Tourism Platform, a private sector body for tourism in the region, states that following the success story of Kenya where 56 per cent of tourism is domestic, Uganda and Rwanda have started implementing strategies.

Part of Kenya’s success story is rooted in its campaign dubbed Tembea Kenya, interpreted for ‘travel Kenya’ and Rwanda subsequently launched Tembera Urwanda, for ‘Visit Rwanda’ and Uganda launched Tulambule Uganda, for let’s travel, explore Uganda.

Offering affordable tour packages and concessionary hotel rates is the one of the recommendations the minister suggests to cater for domestic tourism needs.

Kiwanda points out that in the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising which was characterised with demonstrations, riots, non-violent civil resistance and strikes that were splashed by international media, the hotel sector has turned to locals for substance.

“Hotels in Egypt have offered concessions to locals who visit and stay in hotels for almost free. All they cater for are meals,” he adds.
According to Jean Byamugisha, the executive director at Uganda Hotel Owners’ Association (UHOA), says hotels continue to grapple with low occupancy rates.

She explains that for a hotel to break even, it must operate at 40 per cent occupancy.
“Currently, only Kampala hotels are operating at an average of 57 per cent occupancy while out of Kampala average occupancy stands at about 28 per cent. For the lodges in the national parks, the occupancy is as low as 17 per cent. This means that only hotels in Kampala (and not all of them) are breaking even),” she adds.

Minister Kiwanda says better budgeting for the 13 regional clusters will empower them to attract tourists and in effect give business to hotels and provide employment opportunities to locals in the respective regions.
In a nutshell, 2016 has had its highs and lows in the tourism sector and certainly many opportunities that await exploitation.