ANGER AND DISAPPOINTMENT OVER CONTINUED AIRPORT CLOSURE SET TONE FOR PRIVATE SECTOR MEETING
(Posted 05th August 2020)
Uganda’s tourism, hospitality and aviation private sector stakeholders yesterday met at the Sheraton Kampala Hotel to discuss an action plan vis a vis the continued closure of Entebbe International Airport and the ominous silence of government over this issue.
The only more recent mention about the airport closure came from none other than President Museveni who in a recent address to the nation said the airport would remain closed ‘until the situation abroad settles because there is so much chaos in some countries abroad‘, leaving everyone guessing when that might be given the raging nature of the pandemic at present in the United States, South America and countries like Iran.
Tourism in Uganda was in the past the leading foreign exchange earner and created hundreds of thousands of primary, secondary and tertiary jobs for Ugandans and the collapse of the industry since the initial lockdown of the airport was announced in late March, has driven companies to the brink of financial collapse and in many cases beyond.
Stakeholders have in the past repeatedly interacted with ATCNews over their plight and the publication has used every opportunity to highlight the fallout of this increasingly grotesque situation, when in particular neighbours like Rwanda and Kenya – both with significantly higher #COVID19 caseloads – have reopened their airports and started to welcome tourists back.
Following the meeting have the same stakeholders also dismissed the contention of aviation officials that the country must not rush into the reopening of the airport and that more preparations are needed, accusing them and the ministry responsible for sleeping on the job, while all around Uganda air transport has resumed – and in the case of Ethiopia never stopped at all.
One senior stakeholder also repeated earlier angry outbursts to ATCNews that national airline Uganda Airlines continued to be grounded, apart from a few repatriation flights – saying that government put a billion US Dollar investment at risk, which was paid for by the Ugandan taxpayers.
‘The airline did a remarkable job over the first 6 months of operation and captures market share at the expense of regional competitors. The announced new destinations like Johannesburg and Kinshasa just before the pandemic reached Uganda. Since end March is the airline now grounded but two Airbus A330 models ordered are being constructed right now in Toulouse. Those two aircraft will cost Uganda about half a billion Dollars when ready for delivery but in the meantime has the airline not earned a single shilling because the airport is closed.
How those responsible for this closure see Uganda Airlines re-entering the market when right now the main competitors run away with the business is anyone’s guess. I know the airline staff will pull out all stops to succeed but our own government is tilting the playing field. This is not just the case for the airline but for the entire tourism sector. We had a competitive advantage over Rwanda for gorilla tracking but that too has been lost. Rwanda is welcoming back tourists to the track primates and here in Uganda are primate tourism activities still suspended. The lower permit fees Rwanda has launched also go at our expense. I think it is once again proven that our government simply does not understand tourism and fails to appreciate how much the sector has done for the country, investments, tax payments, job creation and forex earnings. Shame on them!‘
Local television featured some of the meeting situations, available via YouTube clips:
Others raised questions with ATCNews where all the international financial relief and support has gone, as the sector has not seen a shilling of it and remains starved of resources while in most urgent need of grants and long term soft loans to recover from five months of no income while shouldering all the expenses like rent, utilities and other monthly payments.
A top level private sector official from Kenya in the meantime also confirmed to ATCNews that their preparations for the reopening of domestic flights on the 15th of July and of international flights on the 01st of August was weeks in the making with private sector stakeholders cooperating with government and aviation officials, to vet and then set out to implement ICAO guidelines for the safe reopening of air transport. ‘We looked at ICAO’s set of new normal operating procedures, checked what IATA has been developing and as a result were all these measures put into place to allow for domestic and international flights to reopen. For Kenya Airways it was crucial to resume operations because the losses weighed heavily on them but also on other airlines based in Kenya. By today we have seen Lufthansa return to Nairobi but also British Airways, KLM, Air France, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and a few others and Ethiopian has also resumed flights to Mombasa. It was the level of early preparation towards reopening our skies which allowed us to meet our target dates‘.
Similar comments were also received from a senior tourism official in Rwanda, who declined to be named however for not being an official spokesperson.
It is understood by ATCNews that government has formed a committee led by First Deputy Prime Minister Moses Ali but that announcement met with a level of disbelief by industry stakeholders as it indicates that not nearly enough preparation and planning had gone into the reopening of Uganda’s airspace for scheduled passenger flights compared with neighbours Rwanda and Kenya have accomplished.
ATCNews will continue to monitor the situation and update readers on progress made towards the reopening of Entebbe International Airport.