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TOURISM: ‘‘Uganda Not Just About Idi Amin, Civil War and AIDS’’

Wambi Michael

KAMPALA, Jun 2 2009 (IPS) - Ugandans are unhappy with their tourism authority as they believe that their country’s warm climate and exceptional species, such as the mountain gorilla, should attract as many tourists as neighbouring Kenya. To compound matters, the global economic crisis has shrunk tourist arrivals from Europe.

Mountain gorillas in Bwindi National Park, Uganda. Credit:  Wambi Michael/IPS

Mountain gorillas in Bwindi National Park, Uganda. Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

Kenya and Tanzania have remained the major destinations for tourists in East Africa. These countries, as well as Rwanda, advertise their tourist attractions widely while Uganda’s tourism potential remains unknown to the outside world, tour operators argue.

They have been critical of the country's performance at international tourism exhibitions, saying it’s been underwhelming because of the small annual budget of 180,000 dollars allocated to Tourism Uganda.

The tourism ministry in Uganda on average spends 500,000 dollars per annum on marketing and promotions, compared with the Kenya Tourist Board's 2,5 million dollars and the Tanzania Tourist Board's 1,5 million dollars.

The Uganda Tourism Association’s president, Amos Wekesa, told IPS that ‘‘Uganda’s tourism has big potential, being one of the top 10 countries in the world in terms of biodiversity. It means that we should be one of the top 10 tourist destinations. But this can only happen when the government of Uganda has made sure that the world knows about Uganda.

‘‘The world doesn’t know the real Uganda. Those that know Uganda know it because of Idi Amin, HIV and AIDS and war. But they don’t know, for example, that the source of the Nile is in Uganda.’’

Wekesa, who owns lodges in some of Uganda’s national parks, explained that, ‘‘when you talk about the source of the Nile everybody thinks about Egypt. Egypt makes about seven billion dollars from tourism annually. What are their top two attractions?

‘‘It is the Nile and the pyramids. What have we done with the Nile as Uganda? Those are the issues.’’

Uganda hosts the nearly extinct mountain gorilla. Viewing these giant primates for a mere one hour costs 500 dollars, Wekesa pointed out. ‘‘How many tomatoes growers can grow tomatoes to earn 500 dollars a day? To see chimpanzees you pay 120 dollars. If we have just one million people visiting these parks, jobs will be created,’’ he added.

The Uganda Tourism Board estimates that Uganda has more than 400 of the world's remaining 700 mountain gorillas. The rest are in Rwanda and the conflict-ridden Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tourism Uganda’s marketing and public relations manager Edwin Muzahura told IPS that Uganda earned 475 million dollars last year without proactive marketing or local and international advertisements. The earnings were less than remittances from Ugandans living abroad.

Muzahura told IPS in an interview ‘‘Uganda has 10.2 percent of bird species in the world. There are about 10,000 species of the birds worldwide and Uganda has 1,056 bird species of birds while Africa as a whole has 2,000 species of bird.

‘‘Americans alone are currently spending four billion dollars watching birds. This means if Uganda went out and sought Americans who spend on birds to earn only 10 percent of what the Americans spend, we will have made four hundred million dollars.

‘‘Kibale National Park alone has the highest concentration of primates on earth. It is the best place to see chimps in the world." The park is in western Uganda and was created to protect an evergreen rainforest.

Uganda faces challenges that put it at a disadvantaged position compared to Kenya and Tanzania. Luke Febario, a regular tourist to Uganda, complained about the poor road network in Uganda.

‘‘There are lots of things that need improvement if you want to aim at international tourism. This week when I was touring with my elderly parents, I realised that infrastructure is hampering tourism. My parents are both in their eighties and they like travelling but bumping up and down on some of Uganda’s roads makes them sick.

‘‘This week they decided to cut out some of the sites that I had put in the programme because they get tired,’’ he said.

Besides, he said, promotion of Uganda at international level is required because there is little understanding of what Uganda offers as a tourist destination.

Kimbugwe Salongo, a proprietor of a lodge on Uganda’s Sese Island in Lake Victoria, complained that Ugandans don’t tour in the local parks and tourist sites. ‘‘That creates a big problem for us – especially this time around when we have less foreign tourists because of the economic problems in Europe.

‘‘I have already received 10 cancellations because of the problems in Europe. We need to encourage Ugandans to tour here instead of going to other countries.’’

Uganda’s national parks, combined, have less than 500 beds while Kenya’s Masai Mara alone has more than 50 lodges. Two of the lodges have more rooms than Uganda’s national parks combined.

Serapio Rukundo, Uganda’s tourism minister, admitted in an interview with IPS that there exist challenges but insisted that they are being addressed. He said the country has not given up and is ready to compete with the region.

‘‘For example, we have slashed park entry fees by 50 percent as a way to attract more tourists who are looking for cheaper destinations. We have more investors putting up lodges in the parks,’’ he explained.

But the other countries in the region are also taking steps to buttress themselves against the decline in tourist number due to the global financial and economic crisis, which is increasing competition for international tourists in East Africa.

Kenya has reduced by half its visa fees for tourists in an effort to stimulate demand for family travel. Visa fees for tourist children below 16 years were scrapped. In neighbouring Tanzania, the private sector has reduced the charges for tourist packages by 15 percent.

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