Kampala — Domestic tourism is still facing a number of hurdles. These range from the distance one has to trek to the parks, the bad road network, time spent on the way and lack of scheduled domestic air travel to the outlying parks.
The other challenges are rooted in the perception that tourists have to be whites from abroad who are the only people able to afford our expensive parks. Lack of affordable accommodation near parks and the limited tourist products tailor-made for Ugandans is also a problem
According to John Hunwick the proprietor of Rwenzori Trekking Services, a tour company that takes tourists for hiking spots at the Rwenzori Mountains in Western Uganda, domestic tourism to parks has not picked up but there is an encouraging number of Ugandans visiting beaches and entertainment spots near Kampala city.
He says that tourism to parks can only be boosted if the government encourages investors to set up cheaper and affordable accommodation facilities, encourage investors to start scheduled air travel to parks as well as increasing advertising of the National Parks.
"People visiting beaches for leisure have tremendously increased. This is good for local tourism. However the government needs to encourage investors to set up cheaper accommodation. Accommodation in the parks is still not affordable to many local Ugandans," Hunwick said.
Herbert Byaruhanga, the President of Uganda Tourism Association (UTA), argues that it is yet difficult to ascertain whether domestic tourism has picked up or not. "We can't give concrete figures on that because we lack data. We can't say it has grown or it hasn't," Byaruhanga said.
He however advises the government to support the construction of more accommodation facilities near parks, because the existing ones are still expensive for local tourists. Byaruhanga adds that also the park entry fees for locals should be revised downwards with more enticing advertising for locals to visit national parks.
"The Uganda Wildlife Authority has done a good job in terms of advertising locally. "But this should be supplemented with more advertising and affordable packages for locals," Byaruhanga said.
A campaign to promote domestic tourism was launched in 2011 under the Uganda Tourism Master Plan. This was after the number of foreign tourists visiting Uganda had dwindled as a result of the global economic crisis that hit major sources like Europe, America and Asia.
As a sustainable venture, the Ministry of Tourism Wildlife and Heritage, the Uganda Wildlife Authority, Uganda Tourism Board and the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) launched a campaign to attract local Ugandans to visit their own natural wonders.
A number of them responded by flocking to beaches, visiting near places like Jinja (50km east of Kampala City) for Bungee Jumping and rafting. Others have participated in sport fishing on Lake Victoria, donkey riding, quad biking, boat rides, nature walks in Mabira Forest, bird watching in Mabamba peninsula and jet boat riding.
These are all tourism attractions offered in the country apart from tracking Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Chimpanzee trekking in Kibaale Forest National Park, game driving in Queen Elizabeth National Park and Murchison Falls National Park where a few local tourists have attempted to visit.
"How can I go to see Gorillas after paying Ushs250,000 ($97) and spending over Ush2m ($770) on transport and accommodation. "This can cater for school fees for my four children for a year or feed my family for a year," notes James Kasigwa a resident of Kyebando a Kampala suburb.
Many Ugandans like Kasigwa, have opted either to spend their weekends at beaches or at shopping malls in Kampala with their families, rather than endeavoring to see what leads foreign tourists trek thousands of miles to visit Uganda.
It is not uncommon to find a grown up Ugandan who has never seen or ever heard of a Mountain Gorilla, Chimpanzees, and Baboons or even seen an elephant. The locals, who live near most national parks also don't see any value in wild animals that earn Uganda more than $800m (Ush2.08trn) in foreign revenue.
They have gone into massive poaching of these creatures with a number of elephants now losing their lives for tusks that are a booming trade in Western and Asian countries.