Uganda: Coronavirus Outbreak Hits Tourism Sector

The phones have stopped ringing, the emails are not coming through, and those who booked hotel accommodation and other services are cancelling deals and demanding refund. The flights have reduced and jobs lost as airlines struggle to cope with a slump in demand blamed on coronavirus outbreak that has turned in a global pandemic, sweeping through rich as well as poor nations.

The coronavirus outbreak that started in Wuhan, China, has hit Uganda's biggest foreign exchange earner with sector players making back-to-back losses amid growing fears of a looming economic crisis.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Finance, the tourism sector contributes 7.7 per cent to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and $1.6b (about Shs6 trillion) to Uganda's export earnings. But with the coronavirus outbreak, the 10 per cent projected growth is unlikely.

Government restrictions, including the quarantine of travellers from foreign countries due to coronavirus pandemic, is also causing loss to the tourism sector.

Hotels, tour companies and game parks are affected as several foreign tourists and business travellers postpone or cancel their travel to a country marketed as the Pearl of Africa.

Ms Kelly macTavish, the Managing Director of Pearl of Africa Tours Limited, described the current state as "horrible".

"The phones have stopped ringing, the emails are not coming through, and those who booked are cancelling. This is just one of the worst things that has happened to us," Ms MacTavish told Daily Monitor on Tuesday in a telephone interview.

She said the company forecasts severe financial impacts.

"There is no way, even if the country is doing everything it can, even if we are doing everything we can, it is impossible [to stop coronavirus]," Ms MacTavish said.

Mr Martin Owino, the tours manager at the company, said up to 20 per cent of tourists have cancelled their bookings in the last six days since government announced major restraints.

"More than 160 tourists, each paying an average of $2500 (Shs9.2m), have cancelled their travel because of the restrictions," Mr Owino said.

Ms Sheila Malinga, the business development manager at Great Lakes Safaris, told Daily Monitor that a number of their guests have postponed visit to the country.

"At least 150 guests have postponed their coming. Four of our clients from Italy and one from France didn't come because of the 14-day mandatory quarantine, the ministry has announced," Ms Malinga said.

Mr Paul Olweny from Uganda Gorilla Trekking and African Safaris said the company was affected as two groups of tourists from USA and Qatar who were coming this month postponed their coming till the situation normalises.

"On average each guest pays $2,000 (about Shs7.4m) to $3,000 (about Shs11m)," he said.

Tour operators association reacts

Mr Jonathan Benaiah, the Public Relations Officer of Uganda Tour Operators Association (UTOA), told Daily Monitor that the body is engaging with government and collecting data on how the restrictions are affecting the operators even though it is unlikely that government will unclench given the fact that they are dealing with a global health crisis.

"We shall be having a meeting with Uganda Tourism Board. We are currently monitoring the effects of the virus on the on operations of our members," Mr Benaiah said.

The crisis meeting was expected to take place yesterday. However, by press time, it was unclear whether it took place or not

Hotels badly hit

Mr Muhammad Nsubuga, the operations manager at Hotel Africana, groused over recurrent postponement of important international conferences.

"All the reservations from Turkey, China have been cancelled. People are no longer coming," Mr Nsubuga said.

Hotels forced to refund tourists

Ms Susan Muwhezi, the chairperson of Uganda Hotel Owners Association (UHOA), yesterday said the hotels are being forced to refund some of the booking money, especially for travellers from category one countries.

The countries in category one are those with higher number of coronavirus cases, according to information from Ministry of Health.

The counties as of yesterday in the Ministry's record include Germany, USA, France and China, among other countries.

"Many people who are cancelling their bookings are requesting for a total refund. The terms and conditions in the booking agreement does not capture cancellation," Ms Muwhezi said.

She said this is affecting hoteliers as booking money is always used before tourists come.

"We didn't have contingency fund to respond to cancellation because of coronavirus," she added.

Ms Muwhezi said the 14 days of self-quarantine placed by Ministry of Health was deficient of important considerations.

"Guests coming are told to self-isolate in hotels for 14 days. The problem is that as hotel owners, we don't have that specialty to handle those who have symptoms of coronavirus," she said.

She said this is posing great risk to them as hotel operators as well as Ugandans.

"Uganda spends money to bring these events into the country so if you cancel, other countries take them over and we lose money," Ms Muwhezi said.

Uganda Tourism Board speaks out

Ms Lillian Ajarova, the Chief Executive Officer of Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), said the scourge is frustrating the ambition of the sector to hit the 10 per cent growth rate in this financial year. She said although the disease is not yet in the country, the agency projects dwindling number of arrivals and general revenue.

"We are getting information from tour operators about the visits that have been cancelled. Restriction of entry from category one countries will impact the number of arrivals as we receive most of our visitors from those countries," Ms Ajarova said.

She said the board is, however, taking all necessary precautions from Ministry of Health, especially to safeguard the country from importation of the disease.

"We are encouraging hotels and tour operators to reschedule the visits to later dates," Ms Ajarova added.

Uganda gets most of its tourists from German, Switzerland, North America and Canada. Emerging markets for the tourism sector such as China, Japan, UAE and France are also restricted.

Immediate intervention

Ms Sandra Natukunda, the Senior Public Relations Officer at UTB, said the agency has developed a number of interventions to keep sector afloat.

"We are now intensifying on promoting domestic tourism targeting nationals and people from Kenya, Rwanda and other African countries," Ms Natukunda said.

She said the board is also concerned about protection of the wild animals such as gorillas as this disease can potentially infect them.

The public relations boss said the agency is also engaging tour operators and hotel owners to maintain prevention procedures and report guests with symptoms.

The tourism sector had registered significant and progressive improvements as shown by several development indicators such as tourist arrivals, foreign exchange earnings, growth in domestic tourism, and employment and tourism business among others.

In the financial year 2018/2019, tourist arrivals grew by 7.4 per cent from 1.402 million in 2017 to 1.505 million. The information from UTB shows. The foreign exchange earnings also grew by 10.1 per cent from $ 1.45 billion (Shs5.1 trillion) in 2017 to $ 1.6 billion (about Shs6 trillion), according to the 2018/2019 sector performance report.

A total of 667,600 people were employed in the Travel and Tourism industry in 2018 and is projected to employ 972,000 people by 2029.

Coronavirus now a pandemic

The coronavirus outbreak has been labelled a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold over the past two weeks.

He said he was "deeply concerned" by "alarming levels of inaction" over the virus.

A pandemic is a disease that spreads in multiple countries around the world at the same time.

However, Dr Tedros said calling the outbreak a pandemic did not mean WHO was changing its advice about what countries should do.

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