How do we rebrand our tourism sector?

Uganda last week hosted the Africa Travel Association (ATA)onference at Speke Resort in Munyonyo. The conference attracted more than 500 foreign delegates and hundreds of local tourism players.

ATA is a rare opportunity to market a country in fact, it is only the second time the conference has come to Uganda.

The opportunity in such conferences is that they attract not only the biggest travel media that would cost billions of shillings on any other day, but also, world travel agents from North America who are involved in helping their clients choose holiday destinations.

While addressing the tourism fraternity at Munyonyo, President Museveni — who was actually impressive in his understanding of Uganda’s tourism issues — bashed the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), an agency mandated with promoting Uganda’s attraction. He called them the “Uganda Suppression Board” because they have failed to market the rich diversity in Uganda’s tourism.

Mr Museveni is right about the ineffectiveness of the Tourism ministry, although the problem with Uganda’s tourism sector borders to leadership and creativity.

Cash cow
Over the years, Mr Museveni’s government has been told that tourism is a cash cow because it does not need intensive investment compared to sectors such as energy and even agriculture. It would employ people, and attract investors if the sector was booming.

Tourism is the country’s second highest foreign exchange earner that fetched more than $600 million (Shs1.6 trillion) last year.

Mr Geoffrey Baluku, a tour operator in Kampala, says the tourism sector contributes nearly 26 per cent of Uganda’s total exports earnings. The hospitality sub-sector alone employs an estimated 59,000 people with the related transport sector accounting for another 17,000 jobs. This totals more than 75,000 employees or 17 per cent of the total employed workforce.

This is how key the sector is to the economy.
After defeating rebel groups whose instability had contributed to scaring away tourists, the president created a fully-fledged ministry, breaking it from the Ministry of Trade and Industry. A tourism police unit was also formed to ensure tourists are safe in all destinations, and roads to tourism destinations are under construction. Those initiatives proved that Mr Museveni had the will to turn tables on the industry.

But one thing he got wrong – the way the Ministry of Tourism is organised. It is operating like a bureaucratic department.

Even as the budget to the sector increased, leadership in the sector has not ripped the dividends. In my opinion, the tourism numbers are growing not because of efforts of the ministry, but the stability dividend is paying off, coupled with the discovery of oil and gas in the country.

Leadership at the ministry of Tourism needs to address the legal and policy loopholes that would see tourism sector one of the beds for creative minds.

As officials In Uganda blow resources in travelling the world over, tourism officials in Uganda have spent the bulk of their budget on travel expos in London, Berlin, Berlin, Beijing, among others, hoping to attract an extra head.

Little spent
However, with little spent on developing the products, such as the importance of keeping Uganda clean, green, not killing animals, preserving cultures, knowing the country’s history, making Ugandan crafts, and welcoming visitors, name it.

This year, the government committed an addition Shs5 billion to promoting Uganda’s tourism to the Shs2 billion running budget. And another UsaidUganda Tourism for Biodiversity Programme has been provided $10m (Shs27.4 billion) to improve tourism in the country. Money, therefore, is no longer the biggest problem, but how it is being used.

On foreign travel and allowances, therefore, the bulk of resources are spent, leaving little to invest in developing the products back home.
This lack of leadership, professionalism and creativity, was even apparent at the just ended ATA conference in Munyonyo. When delegates arrived at the hotel, rooms or meals had not been booked for them.

It was not lack of preparedness that brought on the country such shame, but, incompetence and mismanagement for an industry associated with hospitality and customer care.

Prioritisation and misuse of resource is another.
Last year, for instance, the ministry spent more than Shs500 million on the eclipse event, for example, yet little remains to be seen of what the Shs500 million impacted on Nebbi’s tourism for posterity.

Contrast that with Mbarara, where Mr James Tumusiime, a publisher, has built a memorial of the eclipse that hang over Ankole many years ago. People are now moving to the hill to see the unique memorial. Mr Tumusiime has built a private museum of Ankole heritage. How many cultures could the ministry celebrate if they took Igongo’s example? What would Shs500 million leave in Nebbi or Pakwach if a memorial was thought through?

In May, the Kenya Tourism Board invited a group of journalists from Uganda. The Kenya statistics had shown that Ugandans are leading their tourism arrivals as witnessed at their airports and hotels.

The seven-day trip that took us from Nairobi, to Maasai Mara game reserve, and to the coastal region, was proof why Ugandans prefer Kenya to their home country when it comes to spending their money. Yet it is not in the attractions Kenya has to offer such as resorts, but in innovative products such as organised Maasai villages, great customer service, efficiency, timeliness and value for money.

UTB’s Stephen Asiimwe and James Tumusiime and Susan Muhwezi, the chair of hotel owners association, are progressive people, but, the system has been held back by a conservative crop at the ministry.

We should go beyond nature

The assumption that Uganda’s beauty sells itself is flawed. We need to develop new products. The “Suppression Board” needs to do things such as a museum for the more than 22 conflicts in Uganda since independence but, we are a country without a war museum.

The terrorist bomb blasts four years ago killed 72 people, at Kyadondo Rugby Club and Kabalagala. Compare that with the number of tourists that visit the Ground Zero memorial grounds in New York.
We need to remember Kasensero where HIVAids was first reported, the works of Uweso in combating aids, and role models such as Philly Bongole Lutaaya.

In 2000, I visited Ethiopia. I was taken to see the ruins of Aksum in Tigray region. The kingdom of Aksum was a trading nation in the area of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, which existed from approximately 100–940 AD. Don’t we have an equivalent in Bigo Mugenyi in Sembabule?

Bigo Bya Mugenyi is a four square mile iron age settlement of the Bachwezi, about 1000-1500 AD. Not far away, in the Ntusi village are two man-made mounds which are locally known as Ntusi male and Ntusi female and the basin also known as Bwogero.

But, Ntusi and Bigo are being destroyed as the Ministry of Tourism watches by farmers who don’t actually appreciate them as long as they earn nothing from archaeological sites.

SOURCE: Daily Monitor

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