An outlook on #Tourism in #Uganda and the wider Eastern African region

UGANDA’S TOURISM INDUSTRY IN 2018 – CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

(Posted 29th December 2017)

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The global outlook given by tourism world body UNWTO for next year is confident that the anticipated new traveller record for 2017 will be bettered again.

Travel to Africa however continues to underperform and raising the percentage of visitors to the continent from the present five plus percent to six, seven or even ten will remain the major challenge in coming years. While the statistics of UNWTO say that Africa has the fastest growth in 2017 of any continent, this needs to be seen against the background of the very sharp drop in recent years for the North African destinations, explaining the higher percentages as countries like Tunisia and Egypt undergo a strong recovery.

“Europe and Africa (+8% each) are the fastest-growing regions in international tourism.” Africa (+8%) was the second fastest-growing region over this period, thanks to a strong recovery in North Africa (+13%) and the sound results of Sub-Saharan Africa
(+5%).

In 2016 Africa welcomed 57.7 million visitors to her shores, 4.3 million more than in 2015 but this still only constituted 4.7 percent of global travel. The global figure stood at 1.237 billion travellers, showing the mountains Africa has to climb to catch up with the other continents. The comparison with the Middle East, which received 55 million visitors in 2016, tells the full story how far Africa still has to go to reach an equitable share of travellers, given Europe last year received nearly 50 percent, Asia Pacific nearly 25 percent and the Americas a combined 16 percent.

Separating North and sub-Saharan Africa however paints a different picture for the continent as the North gained 14.9 percent while sub-Saharan Africa could only manage 5.4 percent plus – up to the end of August 2017.

One might ask, where does that leave East Africa and more specifically Uganda.

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Daring to take a giant leap I’d say in a good position though not in a position to be taken for granted but to be built on. Past accolades handed to the country by global organizations, from CNN to Lonely Planet and more, fade fast when other countries claim such trophies in the more recent past and one off events too tend to fade away fast. The global tourism markets require a destination to be visible, present and shouting its own praise from the rooftops, 24 / 7, all year long or else one might just be overshadowed by neighbours who shout louder, get better travel website reviews and generally work cyberspace as if it was their living room.

So let us look at Uganda’s competitive advantages, compared to our neighbours and compared to other global adventure destinations.

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Birdwatching is arguably second to none in Uganda with over 1.060 species of birds recorded according to Nature Uganda.

We have reason to call ourselves the ‘Primate Capital of the World’ with 15 recorded species within our borders.

Excellent wildlife sightings – Uganda is a ‘Big Five’ country in the 10 national parks is enhanced by outdoor activities like mountain hiking on Mt. Elgon or mountain climbing in the Rwenzori Mountains, which globally go by the fabled name ‘Mountains of the Moon’.

Rivers – among them the longest in the world, i.e. the River Nile springs in Uganda – and many lakes make Uganda an ideal ground for sports fishing and other water based adventure activities like rafting and boating and investing in house boats, similar to what visitors to Kashmir find and enjoy in their tens of thousands on Lake Dal, has yet to make an entry into our country.

Add to that Uganda’s rich history, culture and heritage – the kingdoms have tourism ‘ministries’ but are yet to make significant inroads into the tourist flow – and then go more contemporary with art, fashion, food and the emerging festival scene, there is plenty we in Uganda have to offer which, if correctly packaged, can give us the edge over other countries not just in the region but elsewhere in Africa and beyond.

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All this can be supported by the arrival of new global hospitality brands over and above Marriott – now owners of the Starwood brands like Sheraton and of Protea Hotels – and the ongoing efforts of existing regional hotel giants like Serena, all of which promote their properties alongside helping to promote the country. Best Western now has an initial presence in Entebbe and Golden Tulip entered the Kampala market earlier this year. Hilton continues to express interest to get a foot into the door, perhaps like Protea with a franchise operation such as Double Tree by Hilton. Carlson Rezidor, owners of such brands like Radisson Blu, Radisson Red and Park Inn among others, is also keen to enter the Ugandan market, no doubt also looking several years ahead already when Uganda will start selling oil.

AirBnB, a global phenomenon, too has entered the Ugandan market offering a new accommodation platform for visitors who wish to experience our culture more close up and personal.

No doubt was 2016/17 a challenging period for the hotel industry and UHOA’s Executive Director Ms. Jean Byamugisha claims that occupancies upcountry continued to linger at 36 percent upcountry, 22 percent in national parks and only within the greater Kampala metropolitan area is the industry viable with some 62 percent – giving a national average of just over 30 percent.

Economic but also political factors played a role that these occupancies did not rise faster – in 2016 the national average had dropped to just 28 percent according to UHOA, the only credible hospitality association in the country with a country wide comprehensive membership. It is here where the powers that be have to understand that their actions may have a direct impact on the flow of tourists and that a conducive environment is needed to promote the country as a safe, stable and desirable destination.

Other remaining challenges are the lack of a national convention bureau which is tasked with the promotion of the hugely profitable and high profile MICE segment of the market.

Rwanda in comparison established such a convention bureau in 2014 at a time when Uganda’s tourism managers would not want to listen to good advice and in 2016 had the star of Rwanda risen to the third position in Africa already, tying with Kenya and Egypt while Uganda lingered in 10th position.

Kenya, seeing the writing on the wall, has also set up a new convention bureau and Uganda must follow suit on the double or else leave this huge continental and global market to our direct competitors in the region.

So where do we go from here?

A regular presence at the leading international and African tourism trade shows, like ITB in Berlin, WTM in London, Top Resa in Paris, FITUR in Madrid, the adventure tourism trade shows in North America but also the Magical Kenya Travel Expo, the Karibu / Kilifair in Arusha and Moshi, ZATEX in Lusaka and of course the Africa Travel Week in Cape Town is almost mandatory these days. A successful Pearl of Africa Travel Expo in February 2017 did much to showcase the country to a large number of hosted buyers and business feedback is such that the expense was actually turned into growing visitor numbers sent to Uganda by those who came to sample our country.

Uganda should also take advantage of the country’s affordability when it comes to gorilla tracking as our fees compare favourably with 600 US Dollars for a tourist vis a vis the 1.500 US Dollars one of our neighbours charges for the same thing. Experience over the past few months showed a fast rising demand for Uganda to track and watch gorillas – and other primates like the Golden Monkey, chimpanzees and colobus – and this is the time to not just cash in but to cement Uganda’s reputation as THE adventure destination in East Africa where all elements a foreign tourist might wish to find and explore are on offer.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority - Conserving for Generations

Domestic tourism is growing fast and the recent Big Birding Day, organized by Nature Uganda and supported by the Uganda Tourism Board and the Uganda Wildlife Authority has made this event one which is now on the global map.

Local groups of young people, one going by the name of ‘Mountainslayers’ has taken it upon themselves to hike and climb Uganda’s mountains and hills and the social media exposure keeps drawing ever more young people away from the city’s dancing, drinking and pork joints to explore their own country. They go bungee jumping in Jinja, abseil at Sipi Falls and raft the Nile, attend music and culture festivals and Jinja, aka ‘The Adventure Capital of East Africa’ has been super active to offer such weekend getaways.

It is in fact such festivals where some or our neighbours are very active to bring visitors to such high profile events like Sauti Za Busara in Zanzibar, the Lamu Cultural Festival or the annual Rusinga Festival in Homa Bay. Uganda too can tap into that market by presenting well organized and managed festivals of music, culture, fashion and art and hard sell the events in the region and beyond.

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In neighbouring Kenya has domestic tourism now reached a percentage of well over 50 percent, basically providing the backbone for the tourism industry which, due to the country’s situation had to make up for the lack of foreign visitors, generally referred to as ‘Wagenis’.

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Here in Uganda more should be done to promote domestic tourism and in particular affordable accommodation in- and outside the parks and organized transport – UWA has started to run their own tour busses for that purpose – are key to raise the profile and have more people spend weekends and parts to their holidays to explore our parks, game reserves, river and lake shores and islands.

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Taking a holistic view on all those elements will no doubt help Uganda to record major visitor gains in 2018 over the current and past years, helping to fill hotel beds, secure if not create more employment and induce more foreign investors to come on board to put their money into tourism enterprises.

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To accomplish this must the national tourism board be well facilitated to promote and hard sell the country abroad and must be supported by a tourism ministry which can competently understand the challenges the industry faces vis a vis competition, regulatory, legislative and policy issues. A convention bureau, as said earlier, is a top priority now and constant updates and tweaking of Uganda’s presence on the web through state of the art sites should not need to wait until the next decade.

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But most important will be the love of Ugandan’s for their own country, the desire to explore the land beyond periodic visits to the ‘village’ and for being good tourism ambassadors when opportunity arises, to describe the Pearl of Africa from its sunniest side.

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Raving about one’s country make better talking points than constantly labouring on the problems we no doubt have – every country has those to a greater or lesser extent – as after all it is the place we live in and will continue to live in. Helping to make it a choice destination among the global travellers is, well, almost a national duty.

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In closing, my humble advice for the powers that be, what matters most medium to long term, is to have a sound tourism policy, a sound tourism marketing plan and strategy and competent staff to implement it with enough resources to make it happen. As the hashtag goes #JustSaying

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So now dear readers is the ball in your court, to visit Kisoro, Lake Mutanda, Mgahinga and Bwindi, Kasese and the Queen Elizabeth National Park, Fort Portal and its nearby Rwenzori Mountains, the crater lakes or even Semliki, Hoima and the shores of Lake Albert, Masindi and Pakwach and Murchison Falls in between and not to forget going north to Kidepo and east to Mbale, Tororo and the Mt. Elgon area.

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Discover Uganda in 2018, become a tourist in your own country and learn to appreciate once again the beauty which made Sir Winston Churchill describe us as the ‘Pearl of Africa.

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