By Bernard Tabaire
Investment — Trade. Tourism. (ITT). Those are the three areas President Museveni would like our foreign friends, especially those from the Commonwealth, to engage in with Uganda.
The President was the chief guest on Thursday night at the British High Commissioner’s home in Kampala on the “occasion of the Official Birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, in the year of Her Sapphire Jubilee”. This meant that Mr Museveni could not borrow the colourful words of Fela Kuti and say that if the British do not share wealth with Uganda through investment, trade and tourism, we would consider them to be engaged in the other ITT — International Thief Thief.
I am more interested in the tourism bit. A World Bank study published in 2013 noted: “Tourists’ overall satisfaction with their trip to Uganda is high. However, local transport in Uganda and insufficient visitor information are the most frequently cited sources of dissatisfaction and suggested areas for improvement.”
“The need for a stronger Web presence for Ugandan tourism was also noted by tourists. In addition, about 10 per cent of respondents to questions on areas for improvement in Uganda tourism cited the quality of customer service as an issue.”
It appears Mr Museveni’s government is finally waking up to the importance of tourism. Why they waited this late, I have no idea. Finance minister Matia Kasaija characterised tourism as a “cash cow” in his Budget speech just over a week ago. And the background to the Budget document says tourism is a “pivotal pillar of the Ugandan economy”.
Mr Kasaija said: “Tourist arrivals to Uganda have more than doubled to 1.3 million people in 2015, rising from 540,000 in 2006. Tourism also employs 1.2 million people both directly and indirectly. Consequently, Uganda is targeting tourist arrivals to increase to 4 million visitors per year, and double tourism earnings from $1.35 billion today to $2.7b by 2020. This will translate into significant jobs for Ugandans.”
The plan now is to improve infrastructure to tourism sites, improve skills in the hospitality industry, increase marketing and visibility of the country as “a world-class tourist destination”. The focus for all the promotion — ramped up recently but nowhere near what the Kenyans and Tanzanians are doing — has been on natural sites such as national parks. Talk about historical, cultural and faith-based sites is yet to translate into meaningful action.
The rock art sites in Teso are finally getting some attention. I would add the ones on Dolwe Island on Lake Victoria as well.
Speaking of Lake Victoria (God bless British queens), how about introducing leisure activities on it and market it as a tourist destination? This one we could do jointly with Kenya and Tanzania. The World Bank study found that for visitors who want to mix business with some pleasure, sites in and around Kampala are popular. Which means “fixing” the source of the Nile in Jinja, as the government says it is going to do, is a quick winner.
Improving infrastructure in and around Kampala needs to move faster so that if I am leaving Munyonyo conference venue to visit the Namugongo Christian shrines or the Baha’i Temple or the Kasubi Tombs, I do not have to get there when angry because of the traffic madness. If Kampala works, a lot works for the national economy.
I am not sure why packaging information about Uganda and making it available everywhere and anywhere, especially online is such a hard thing. As I planned with some friends in 2015 to climb Mt Elgon, finding meaningful and detailed information was hard.
Once on the mountain, it was striking how key features such as the dreamily magnificent Simu Gorge is not talked/written about that much. You will hear of the caldera (the world’s largest mountain caldera), but not much else. (As of this writing on Friday morning, the website of the Uganda Tourism Board is down for maintenance and I hope it resurrects with plenty of useful information presented in proper written English.)
A historical site like Baker’s Fort in Patiko, Gulu, also cries out for revival. It has such a riveting story going back hundreds of years. Yet it is bush. While at it, UTB will need to promote some of our key annual creative festivals – Writivism, Bayimba, Nyege Nyege. Uganda is more than Mountain Gorillas.
Back to that World Bank study. “A key insight from the economic analysis,” it says, “is that $1 of expenditure by a foreign tourist generates, on average, $2.5 of GDP — the total impact includes the indirect value added along the supply chain plus the induced effects of households spending the wages generated.”
Tourism is the deal. At the Queen’s birthday, I got talking to a Ghanaian insurance man who has worked here two years. “You have everything in this country. You have a beautiful country.” The man gushed. Yet Ghana is quite attractive as well. How to translate the “everything” we have is the small challenge at hand, but which we often fail to meet to transform our lives.
Mr Tabaire is the co-founder and director of programmes at African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala.