Kampala troubles dismay Uganda’s tourism stakeholders


(Posted 22nd June 2013)

Some of the Ugandan tourism stakeholders presently in Rwanda for the annual Kwita Izina Festival of the Gorillas, have left no doubt about their frustration over the international media picking up about the clashes in Kampala over the past days, which in the words of one ‘… put our country in a very bad light abroad’. There was consensus that while the Uganda Police has a duty to maintain law and order, their methods, and worse, their methods employed in front of live cameras by the world media, were highly questionable and bound to impact on the hard work of the tourism industry to portray Uganda as a country worth visiting. ‘We cannot have pictures on the main global news channels with tear gas clouds engulfing the city of Kampala. This is where the tourists come first and from where they leave. Remember the negative publicity we got when a security operative was seen some time ago to smash the windows of Besigye’s car with a gun butt and then empty several teargas canisters into the car. Now a teargas canister is thrown into the car of the Mayor of Kampala in front of cameras again.

Our life is made very miserable here. First do we not get any money for tourism marketing in the budget. Let’s not be fooled, what they gave tourism is an insult and not worth to be called money when one compares with Rwanda here. Second, after already crippling our tourism marketing, now they unleash such scenes on to the global media again and how shall we counter that without a good publicity budget. This government still thinks tourism is just happening, is a boundless resource for them. If they don’t wake up they will find out that you cannot milk the cow unless you feed her or otherwise the cow will collapse’ said another, wary to have a name published for fear of repercussions. A third Kampalean then added: ‘When people book to attend a conference in Kampala, they look up all events in our city on the internet. Therefore you can no longer hide such situations. When things look bad in a city, visitors may decide to stay away to avoid trouble. There are growing issues with travel insurance for tourists and when their foreign ministries give travel advice to avoid certain places, such insurance can just invalidate if they still come after being told to stay away. I know, tourists have not been involved in such incidents but we tour operators take them to the markets to shop and see what life in Uganda is like. During days like this we must keep them in their hotels and if they paid for the excursion they must get their money back. What I hope for is that situations like these are handled more carefully and that police and security is more sensitive. Let them avoid to be seen dishing out brutality on foreign TV. It gives Uganda a bad reputation and shows us in a bad light. People can come to Kenya or Rwanda and give us a pass if they fear for their safety’.

Other comments received since the budget reading also focused on the statistics government presents as tourist arrivals, when in the words of one regular source: ‘…arrivals is not the same as tourists. Most of our arrivals are by road from Kenya or Rwanda or South Sudan. Those we do not count as proper tourists. We talk of tourists when people come for the sole purpose of a vacation, a safari holiday. Then there are conference participants who also take tours before or after their conference. And then there are visiting friends and relatives who are taken to the parks by their hosts. Those we consider tourists but most coming from Kenya come for some sort of trading but not to be tourists like we understand it. Therefore, overall arrivals figures which include our land borders together with Entebbe should not be publicly announced as tourists. Real tourist numbers are much much lower. Increased mobility within the East African Community for trade and business should not be used as the argument that we now have a million tourists coming to Uganda. Our friends at UTB know that very well so can we please have proper statistics of tourist arrivals in a separate column? Then the picture will look very different and to boost that number we need a lot more funding for marketing Uganda. I am impressed how Rwanda has focus and works together to promote events like the Kwita Izina week. They are a smaller country but very well organized when it comes to tourism and their government gives them money whereas our government gives us words’.

Negative publicity has also spread in overseas media about the massive loss of forest cover in Uganda and the unresolved issue of Mabira, which is still looming large, has also not helped to project Uganda as a country firmly committed to conservation, when just too many examples suggest otherwise. Shrinking wetlands have had a significant impact on the number of migratory birds coming to rest in Uganda before flying on, a fact affirmed by data supplied from among others Nature Uganda or the records of the bird guides regularly undertaking counts.

Instead of having the wind in the sails to propel the sector forward it now seems that the tourism industry has a stiff breeze blowing into their combined faces and it can only be hoped that a more positive and enabling business environment for the sector can heal the bruises and allow the tourism industry the growth it is otherwise capable of. Considering that these events are taking place only days after similar negative publicity hit the city of Arusha, aka Safari Capital of East Africa, it seems that the fears of Ugandan tourism stakeholders are not entirely unfounded. Watch this space for more updates as and when available.

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