The Mbale-Sironko-Budadiri-Bumasifwa Road- a key link for tourism- is one of the most potholed in the country despite being a key economic link.
A number of sections including bridges were washed away by the rains, while others have numerous diversions that make driving a nightmare for tourists and motorists visiting the Mt Elgon National Park. "The pitiable condition of the roads is holding back growth and development of tourism in this area especially when it rains," says Fred Kizza, warden of Mt Elgon National Park. The park received 3075 visitors in 2016.
Kizza reveals that this particular route also connects to tourist attractions such as Pien Upe National reserve and Kidepo National parks in North eastern Uganda thus making access difficult for tourists.
"With the Mbale-Sironko-Nakapiripirit-Pien Upe National reserve roads in very bad shape, a one-day journey from the northern Karamoja region to Kampala, the capital city, may take travellers three days or more because in the rainy season, many roads are impassable," he says.
The area conservation warden Kidepo National Park, Johnson Masereka says travelling to Kidepo National park from Kampala, which used to take a minimum of 12-hour drive by taxi (about 700km), has now turned into a nightmare because of the worsening condition of the roads in the area.
He explained that although there is now an improvement by Uganda National Roads Authority (Unra), travelling from Mbale to Soroti and on to Moroto, about 314.7 km and then to Kaabong approximately 220.1 km by road could take a tourist more than six hours.
"Tourists tell us they cannot come back because of the bad roads. This means that we are going to lose out on main tourists in this part of the country unless government helps to work on the roads," Masereka says. The park received 9800 visitors in 2016.
Progress against plans
In the lead up to the 2011 general election, the ruling NRM party in its manifesto committed itself to work on infrastructure with a focus on construction of roads that would turn Uganda into one of the leading tourist destinations in Africa.
According to a report by Unra titled Status of Tourism roads, 2017, an assessment of the planned tourism roads construction in the seven recognised tourism zones shows that while 72 roads covering a distance of just over 4000km have been earmarked for construction and improvement, only seven roads have been completed countrywide while another seven are under procurement and 38 roads, more than half of the total are reported to be under design study, leaving 20 roads across the zones due to be advertised for bidding or for which works have not begun.
With the bulk of the tourism road construction far from complete, travel remains cumbersome for tourists and service providers, crippling an industry which is one of the country's key foreign exchange earners.
Poor roads, slow tourism growth
According to Dr Steven Asiimwe, executive director Uganda Tourism Board, the number of tourists visiting Uganda had hit the 1.74m visitors' mark in 2015 and the target is more than two million visitors by the end of 2017 once the construction of the roads that lead to these tourism hubs are completed.
"We incur high expenses on vehicle repair along the roads during our tours, especially on the Sironko Budadiri road, Wanale Road and Mbale Bududa during the rainy season," says Swalley Naminyi, the executive director at Casa Uganda Safaris, a tourist travel company. The operators have adapted to using strong costly tour trucks for their expeditions.
According to Dr Fred Muhumuza, a renowned development economist and researcher, if we do not have right infrastructure to propel tourism business competitiveness in the region, our efforts to turn tourism from merely valuable natural resource into a high income generating activity will be in vain.
"We must find a strategy and consolidate the current benefits under tourism, but also look at how we can improve our roads to attract more tourists," says Dr Muhumuza adding that there are underlying problems that cut across Uganda's economy and also affect tourism which must be addressed as a whole such as limited marketing and competition from neighbouring countries.
Construction progress made
"UNRA has started construction on some roads. For others, procurement of the works contract is ongoing under the AfDB financing while others such as Buhoma [45km], Kabale - Lake Bunyonyi [12Km] and Kisoro - Mgahinga National Park Headquarters [17Km], the designs have commenced and are expected to be complete by 2018 to commence construction works. I think all is not bad," says Asiimwe.
According to the Principal Public Relations Officer at Unra, Mark Ssali, tourism roads in the southwest Tourism Zone (Bwindi- Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and associated environments, Lake Bunyonyi, Lake Mburo, Murchison falls are being worked on.
He explains that for Kisoro, Kanungu and Kabale, Rukungiri - Kihihi [48.3km], Kihihi - Butogota - Buhoma [45km], Kabale - Lake Bunyonyi [12km] and Kisoro - Mgahinga National Park Headquarters [17km], the designs are underway and are expected to be completed by 2018 while others are currently being worked on by Unra.
Tourism contribution high exchange earner
Currently, the tourism sector is the fastest growing with annual growth rate of 21 per cent and contributing at least 24 per cent of the country's foreign exchange earnings.
The Figures from the 7th Annual Tourism Sector Performance Report indicate that tourism is a pillar of Uganda's economy, contributing nearly Shs7.3b to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the financial year 2015/2016. This translates into 9 per cent of the country's GDP.
With the Ministry of Tourism stating that the year 2017 is a year for tourism sector development, according to minister Prof Ephraim Kamuntu that have already started re-positioning themselves and promoting the country as a top tourist destination. "Government is now committed to improve roads going to game parks and other tourist attractions to make them easily accessible to visitors. Power and lodges in those places need also to be improved," said Prof Kamuntu. Vice chairperson of Parliament's Budget Committee on Tourism, Ignasius Mudimi Wamakuyu [MP Elgon County in Bulambuli district) highlights the need to increase the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities budget to at least 2 per cent from the current 0.13 per cent (Shs 30.8b).
Status of tourism road construction in zones
Road construction status in the seven tourism zones is as follows;
South Western zone [Bwindi impenetrable national park and Mgahinga Gorilla national park and associated environments has nine roads measuring 340km; procurement done for two roads, the two under construction while design studies are ongoing for five roads.
Western Rift valley zone [Queen Elizabeth, Rwenzori, Semliki National Parks, Bundibugyo hot springs, Lake Edward and George] has 16 roads measuring 849km, two completed, one under procurement while 13 are still under feasibility study.
Murchison Falls Zone: [Murchison falls National park, Lake Albert areas, Wildlife reserves, Budongo forest and associated environments] has 13 roads measuring 978km. Four roads are under construction, four roads under design study and no work has been done on four roads under the district local governments of Nebbi, Hoima and Adjumani while one road is under procurement.
Kidepo Tourism Zone [Kidepo valley national park, Mt Kadam, Wildlife Reserves and historical sites] has 14 roads measuring 1317km with five roads under design study, two roads completed, one under procurement, two under construction while four roads are under the district local governments and works are yet to commence.
Mt Elgon Tourism Zone [Mt Elgon national park and associated environments] has nine roads measuring 272km; two roads are under construction, three roads under detailed design study, one road completed, one road yet to be advertised for bidding and one is under district local government.
Jinja Tourism Zone [Jinja and Kayunga] has two roads under the district local governments of Kayunga and Jinja. Works are yet to begin.
Kalangala Tourism zone [Masaka] has nine roads measuring 310km with eight roads under engineering designs study while one road is under procurement and work is expected to commence soon.