The Independent (Kampala)

22 June 2014

Uganda: Tour Operators Buoyant As Peak Season Starts

Uganda's tourism sector is keenly looking out for spill-over effects of security advisories against non-essential travel to regional flagship destination Kenya. Amos Wekesa, the Chairman of the Uganda Tour Operators Association, says Uganda has been benefiting from a stable Kenya because of Kenya's strategic marketing of its tourism sector which marketing Uganda has not developed yet. It is not clear how Uganda will cope as Kenya's tourism sector is shaken by terror attacks.

"Whatever happens in Kenya affects Uganda," says Amos Wekesa, the Chairman of the Uganda Tour Operators Association, "in the eyes of the tourists; Africa is one big country like the U.S."

Wekesa says Uganda has been an add-on destination to Kenya where tourists would visit Kenya for five-six days and spend another two-five days of their booking in Uganda. "Tour operators have been selling holistic itinerary safaris from Kenya through Uganda to Rwanda," says Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) spokesperson, Jossy Muhangi, "We have been sharing visitations with Kenya because tourists want to see certain things in each country."

Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda have a single tourist visa facility to promote the East African region as a single destination. Uganda is visited mainly for the rare Mountain Gorilla, birding watching, and the game parks of Murchison, Mburo, Kidepo, Kibale, Queen Elizabeth, and Bwindi.

Muhangi told The Independent in an interview that there was apprehension over tourists cancelling bookings.

He says, with the international ban on their nationals to travel to Kenya, the single tourist Visa may not work to optimum as expected.

"The ban will most likely have an effect on our eco-tourism," he says, "However, we are working with regional entities and encouraging local tourism to mitigate the unforeseen factors."

So far there has been no noticeable development.

"Our peak period begins June to September and I can say we are doing very well because the tourists are coming in," says Stephen Assimwe, the executive director of the Uganda Tourism Board.

He says based on discussion with tour operators, the number of arrivals so far is beyond what they expected. Amos Wekesa hinted at the same level of optimism.

"Kenyan investors in the tourism sector have started coming to Uganda looking for opportunity in the Ugandan hospitality industry because they believe Uganda is safer," says Wekesa.

Agnes Akiror Egunyu, the minister of State for Tourism, Wildlife & Heritage, says it is still too early to tell what impact the ban on international travellers to Kenya will have on Uganda's tourism sector.

"We will wait and see," she said in an interview.

She added, however, that Uganda takes the threats by Al-Shaabab seriously and has tightened security and was urging citizens to be vigilant.

"We re-assure the tourists that Uganda is very safe and they are all welcome," she said.

International travel congress:

The uncertainty in the tourism sector comes at a time when the Uganda tourism community is priming itself to host the 39th Congress of the Africa Travel Association (ATA). The international travel and tourism conference is takes place from Sept.11 to Nov.16 at the Speke Resort Munyonyo in Kampala. About 500 international delegates are expected to attend.

The ATA is the leading global trade association promoting travel and tourism to Africa and strengthening intra-Africa partnerships.

Its congress to Uganda at a time when East Africa's biggest tourism destination, Kenya, is reeling under a spate of terror attacks blamed on al shabaab militants from neighbouring Somalia.

The worst recent attack was on September 21, 2013 when the terrorist seized the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi and killed 67 people in a week-long ordeal. Since then smaller and sporadic attacks have been made. In the latest incident on May 17, 10 people were killed in twin-blasts in a Nairobi market. Many more were injured. At the time, the UK and U.S. government and other western powers had just issued advisories to their nationals to evacuate Kenya.

Kenya's reputation as the land of 'hakuna matata' - Swahili for no problems - suffered another set-back on June 5 when Carey Eaton, the Australian-born internet entrepreneur and founder of One Africa Media, the largest online classifieds company in Africa, was murdered in an armed robbery attack in Nairobi.

Uganda, which together with Kenya has deployed troops to Somalia under the African Union flag, is also a target. On July 11, 2010, suspected al-shabaab terrorists struck two spots in Kampala killing about 100 people.

Since the attacks, the Uganda tourism sector which had been experiencing robust growth appears to have stagnated.

According to information at the Association of Uganda Tour Operators, in 2012 about 1.2 million tourists visited Uganda compared to 1.1 million the previous year. The figures represented a huge leap from 2010 when only 946,000 visited the country. A decade ago, in 2009, only 193,000 tourists visited country. About 1.2 million tourists visited in 2013, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation figures.

Kenya, meanwhile, has seen a decline in international arrivals since the attacks intensified.

Tourism is increasing becoming a major contributor to the Ugandan economy. It brought US$834 million into the economy in 2012 compared to US$805 million in 2011. Tourism's total contribution to GDP which incorporates indirect and induced imports stood at US$1.7 billion in 2011 which was equivalent to 9% of total Ugandan GDP. The corresponding figures for Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya are: 8.4%, 13.3% and 13.7% respectively.

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