A series of new innovations by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has led to a surge in the growth of domestic tourism, with the latest official calculations pointing to an increase in the number of Ugandans embracing tourism spots.
According to records at the national parks of Mburo, Queen Elizabeth and Semliki, the number of Ugandan visitors has surpassed that of foreigners, pointing to a trend that could change the face of tourism in the country. With much of the western world undergoing a financial squeeze, there had always been worries that there could be a slowdown in foreign tourists coming to visit Uganda.
Officials attribute the renewed interest among Ugandans in tourism to the newly-introduced incentives such as budget accommodation packages, night game drives and computerized access to the parks. Previously, tourism was regarded a preserve for foreigners. That is, however, changing.
Mburo has recorded a 25 per cent increase in Ugandans and other East Africans visiting the park, Queen Elizabeth, 20 per cent, while Semliki has done remarkably well with a 50 per cent jump, according to official figures.
"This is an encouraging trend and we want to market it aggressively because we cannot entirely rely on foreign tourists alone," says Patrick Tushabe, the manager in charge of tourism facilities at Mweya in Queen Elizabeth national park.
At Queen Elizabeth, there's a new eatery, Tembo restaurant, which serves local dishes at affordable charges, especially for those that cannot afford the pricey meals at Mweya Safari lodge. Meals at Tembo restaurant go for as low as Shs 10,000 and Shs 15,000. Previously, it was difficult to find local dishes served in the park.
Low-budget accommodation is now available. By transforming former UWA staff quarters at Mweya (headquarters of the park have been moved to Katunguru), Tushabe says they have introduced pocket-friendly accommodation facilities. The facilities include non-self-contained single rooms, self-contained single and double bed-roomed cottages, a hostel and self-catering cottages.
Charges range from as low Shs 20,000 for single rooms, Shs 40,000 to Shs 75,000 for self-contained cottages and Shs 42,000 for hostel accommodation per night. Family or group self-catering cottages cost between Shs 200,000 and Shs 300,000 per night. Accommodation at the nearest Mweya Safari lodge goes for roughly $200 a night.
According to Nelson Guma, the area conservation manager at Queen Elizabeth national park, 70,000 tourists visited the park last year, attracting Shs 6bn revenues from accommodation charges, game viewing, boat rides and other activities in the park. Guma says they expect to attract 80,000 tourists this year. Ugandans pay between Shs 15,000 (students) and 25,000 per individual to access the park.
Mburo and Semliki national parks have such services. For instance, Mburo has introduced special night game drives for tourists to see the park's different herds of elands, buffaloes, hippos, impalas, waterbucks and zebras.
"They [night game drives] are hugely liked by our local clients and have become our flagship package," Christine Nakayenze, a senior warden in charge of tourism, explained.
The boat ride on Lake Mburo is the other big attraction that has a special package.
Mburo has also established low cost accommodation facilities and a restaurant at the shores of the lake. At Mburo and Queen Elizabeth, tourists have gained easy and efficient access to both parks, thanks to the introduction of the wildlife smart card.
Both parks have embraced the UWA smart card, which clients can use to pay for all activities at one point of entry. Once at the entry gate, tourists pay for services and activities of their choice and the money is loaded onto the card. Guma, the manager at Queen Elizabeth, notes that the smart card has reduced on inconveniences that tourists used to face while paying for every activity. The cards have also reduced the burden of moving with cash and falling victim to thieves.
Semliki park has partly benefitted from the newly-constructed road between Fort Portal town and Bundibugyo district. Statistics show that since the road was completed and opened in 2012, the number of visitors has doubled to 6,000 last year, from the average 3,000 in the years gone by.
Richard Muhabwe, the warden in charge of Semliki national park, adds that they also have constructed self-contained cottages, which cost between Shs 30,000 and Shs 80,000 per night. These cottages are available for single, double and family or group tourists.
Major attractions to the Semliki include the miraculous famous female and male Sempaya hot springs, nature walks along the Semliki river banks, as well as the rare sight of rare birds, plant species, and red and while Colobus monkeys.
Mburo is revered for its huge population of zebras, the rare elands and impalas. Also, the park has the most-sought-after 'omuboro' tree, treasured for its aphrodisiac prowess. In Queen Elizabeth, major attractions include elephants, tree-climbing lions, kobs, crater lakes, crocodiles, hippos and buffaloes.