Kampala- Uganda has not realised its targeted proceeds from tourism for several years, including last year. Some observers attribute this to the fragile security situation in the Horn of Africa, especially in Somalia where al-Shabaab militants have created an undesirable environment.

And for this reason, the holders of this school of thought say, revenue figures are likely to remain grim or even drop further in light of the ongoing political tension in the country and the resultant publicity following last month’s disputed elections.

Others blame Uganda’s declining tourism revenues on the general global economic uncertainties that have curtailed tourist arrivals.

However, critical voices placed the culpability or responsibility squarely on the administration and management of the tourism industry here in Uganda, including lack of a definite and competent strategic plan for the purpose.

Tourism receipts collected by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) from national parks, according to the latest Auditor General’s report, for example, fell by 24 per cent from Shs56b in 2013/14 to Shs42.6b in 2014. As a result, UWA posted a deficit of Shs13b compared to the surplus of Shs4b reported in 2013/14.

UWA blamed negative publicity for the decline in the number of tourists visiting the country. The negative publicity in the recent years, UWA’s public relations manager Jossy Muhangi said, mainly centred on insecurity, the Ebola factor [in West Africa] and the anti-homosexuality law, which was passed by Parliament in 2013, enacted and later struck down by court.

This year, Mr Muhangi said “we think the negative publicity has been as result of political campaigns and events happening in the country.”

Despite the government pumping billions of shillings in marketing campaigns, queries are emerging about the lack of a clear cut strategy for promoting tourism at home and abroad and the unscrupulous expenditures on unrewarding public relations promotions by the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), the agency in charge of the country’s tourism sector.

The UTB spokesperson Vincent Mugaba, argued that Uganda is not the only country facing declining tourist numbers. “Our immediate neighbours, who actually spend a lot on marketing their countries, have been equally affected to.”

“But on our part as Uganda, we have been trying, and are tapping in every opportunity possible to market our tourism.”

However, he did not point out specific undertakings that UTB is doing to redeem or promote tourism in the country.

Unscrupulous expenditures
Insiders in the tourism industry told Sunday Monitor of how UTB “blows money” without almost any regulatory mechanism to check the lavishness mainly in no-value promotional activities, which involve travelling within and outside the country without a purposeful plan.

The insiders cite the most recent example of last December’s hosting of Barcelona Football Club legends, where UTB blew away about Shs1.5 billion in an illusionary tourism promo, even though part of the money was contributed by sponsors; Great Lakes Safari, Nile Breweries, Sheraton Kampala Hotel, and UAP Insurance, among others.

From the visit of the famed football stars, UTB hoped to profit from the publicity as these stars were perceived to have a mass following in the social media and global networks.

“Imagine such icons tweeting and Facebooking about gorillas in Bwindi, pictures while at the Source of the Nile,” Mr Stephen Asiimwe, the UTB chief executive officer, was quoted telling a local newspaper.

However, a quick browse of at least five of the said Barcelona legends on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, shows none had even posted about Uganda in the recent months or so. And many of them did not even have 1,000 followers on the social media as purported.

Mr Mugaba was non-committal on discussing the matter. He said UTB committed only €uros100,000 (about Shs365m) to the project, but referred us to Mr Asiimwe for details. Mr Asiimwe could not be reached for a comment as he did not pick or return our calls to his cellular phone for several days.

The Barcelona stars’ visit was one of UTB’s initiatives to scale up earnings from tourism to $2bn (about Shs5.3 trillion) per annum. Currently, tourism is the country’s second highest foreign exchange earner, with returns of more $600 million (Shs1.6 trillion) last year.

The Barcelona stars’ visit was organised through Mr Rayco Garcia, who at one time played for the Spanish football champions. Each star, this newspaper understands, was paid undisclosed amount of money since they were not on a charity trip but UTB denied.

President Museveni had also earlier pledged Shs596m ($180,000) to facilitate the visit. According to corroborated accounts, however, more money in the excess of Shs1 billion, was pooled to facilitate this activity.

Asked how UTB would quantify the return on the investment, Mr Mugaba, said “there is no country that wouldn’t warm up to the visit of such high profile stars.”

“You see, the tourism sector works differently; tourist numbers to Uganda are currently low but a few years from now when they pick up, undoubtedly, partly will be the Barcelona stars we hosted here and no one will even remember that,” he speculated.

He counter-blamed government for contributing “very little” money on promoting its tourism. “We spend less than Shs2b yet countries like Rwanda and Kenya we compete with invest almost five times we do,” he said.

UTB’s budgetary allocation has been in the ranges of Shs5b ($3.9m) for tourism development, slightly ahead of Rwanda’s $2.9m (about Shs9.6 billion). Tanzania spends slightly less than $4m (about Shs13 billion) on marketing and promotion, while Kenya spends not much different.

The tourism industry in 2015 started with buzzed hype about the visit of a Los Angeles based model and TV host Marlina Moreno, visiting the country and trekking the Mt Rwenzori.

Her visit was to culminate into the production of a documentary to be aired to millions of Americans through her travel platforms: examiner.com, and huffingtonpost.com. That was the last to be heard.

Uganda, the tourist destination
The undisputed fact is, Uganda, remains a top tourist destination. Several industry players say the problem, in part, is related to the marketing strategy.

Asked for UTB’s strategic plan on promotion of Uganda’s tourism, Mr Mugaba said they had it but he could not avail a copy to Sunday Monitor to prove his claim.

The American based CNN last December named Uganda one of the top 16 emerging travel destinations in the world for this year.

The country was ranked in the eighth position behind among others, Kyrgyzstan, Papua New Guinea, Mongolia, The Arctic: Iceland, Greenland, Norway, and Madagascar.

“…there’s much more to Uganda; rich in nature, it’s an outdoor sanctuary of crater lakes, white-sand beaches on lake islands, thundering waterfalls and national parks,” said CNN’s travel writer Anisha Shah in her travel blog published by the news giant.

In 2012, the Lonely Planet, a travel guide book publisher, named Uganda as the best travel destination for the year; ranking Mt Rwenzori among the top 15 hiking places in the world, the only mountain on the continent that made it to the list.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, was voted Africa’s number one birding site ahead of South Africa’s celebrated Cape Town’s ocean shores and Kruger National Park, by the African Bird Club.

In 2013, the National Geographic, an international travel channel affiliate of the National Geographic Society, ranked Uganda among the top 20 global tourism destinations.

Ironically, according to audit reports, the number of visitors to this top tourist destination have been restricted between minimal growth and sharp declines; from 1,151,000 in 2011 to 1,196,000 in 2012 and 1,206,334 in 2013.

Early this year, UTB announced that they had recruited three public relations firms to represent the country in source markets, and boost tourists arrivals.

The firms to represent Uganda are PHG Consulting for the North America market, Kamageo for the United Kingdom (UK) and Ireland; and KPRN for the German speaking Europe. Each of the companies will bag at least Shs1.7b ($500,000) a year.

Marketing crisis?
Sometime in 2014, Uganda hosted the Africa Tourism Association (ATA), a leading tourism industry event to sell Africa to North American and European markets, held at Munyonyo Commonwealth resort, which attracted close to 1,000 delegates from both home and away.

President Museveni, the chief guest, randomly picked one of the magazines placed at the high table, and inside was a fascinating image of Rwenzori Mountains with a beautifully written profile describing in detail the snowcapped Margherita Peak.

To the President’s dismay, which he took exception with and took a swipe at UTB officials, there was no image illustrating the snowcap. He went on to say that in fact Uganda is “better destination” but it was because of poor marketing.

And true, Uganda has for years basked in the adulation of its name “Pearl of Africa” christened by former British prime minister Winston Churchill. But his seems to be fading.

So why did the moniker “Pearl of Africa” ring a bell more, then, than now? Geoffrey Baluku of Trek East Africa safaris, a tour and travel company, told this newspaper the problems plaguing the tourism sector are bigger, and beyond marketing alone.

“One arrives at Entebbe, a tourist has to spend another 10 hours going to the tourist spots where in fact, some roads are very poor,” he said.

“Our political campaigns here have also had an effect; the reports of teargas here, violence there, military deployment allover as carried by the international media certainly all disorients tourists to coming here,” he added.

Selling Uganda’s image abroad, one official at Uganda’s embassy in Switzerland, said, “is the perfect classical example of washing and hanging on the ground.”