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On 1st September 2017, the supreme court of Kenya overturned President Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory following the elections held on 8th August 2017.

In a court petitioned by the opposing National Super Alliance led by Raila Amollo Odinga, the result was declared void.

After months of vigorous political campaigns and hostile talk had somehow triggered memories of the 2007/08 post-election violence that left many people dead, goods destroyed, roads blocked and severe business disruption, leading to limited travel appetite towards Kenya within the tourism community, according to Ugandan tour operators. Falling travel ratings experienced by Kenya since the beginning of 2017 seem to have translated into spin off opportunities for Uganda’s tourism industry but growth projections are still unclear.

As intense fears of violence surrounding the Supreme Court’s decision on the Kenya elections continues to intensify, early gains from international marketing activities undertaken by the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) are likely to boost visitor numbers in the local tourism industry, insiders claim but nagging challenges linked to taxation and a falling lion population pose a nightmare to sector players.

Though the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) is yet to release fresh visitor numbers covering the first six months of 2017, a small survey done in the popular Murchison Falls National Park conservation area revealed most of the leading lodges recorded more than 50 per cent occupancy rates towards the end of June 2017- a positive sign of strong visitor uptake prior to the peak tourism season that lies between July and September. For instance, Heritage Safaris, located in the Tangi sector of Murchison Falls National Park, registered more than 100 per cent occupancy levels in the last week of June 2017, with two excess guests choosing to camp on standby after its 54 rooms had been fully booked! In comparison, Chobe Lodge and Paraa Safari lodge recorded roughly 60 per cent and 75 per cent occupancy rates during the same period as foreign tourists began to flock into the famous wildlife corridor.

In contrast, some low end Kampala based hotels are still suffering from weak occupancy levels; a factor partly blamed on poor marketing strategies and differences in visitor entry patterns. For example, up market tourist lodges usually attract high end, sophisticated tourists sourced through big marketing agents who tend to indulge in leisure travel during the third quarter of the year while low end Kampala hotels prefer low income tourists, commonly known as “backpackers”- a visitor class that bears different seasonal dynamics.

In 2016, Uganda contracted three foreign marketing firms- KPRN, Kamageo and PHG Consulting Group of the USA to market its tourism offering across German speaking countries, the United Kingdom and Ireland plus North America. Each firm was paid US$500,000 and the contracts are currently under review in a process that ends September 2017.

Aggressive international marketing activities undertaken by UTB in recent months are also likely to boost the visitor growth outlook during the peak tourism season, industry players say. Though UTB has vigorously targeted European and American tourism markets, some lodge operators feel its strategic focus leaves out new, promising markets like Austria, Germany, the Scandinavian region, France and Belgium- an observation that the tourism board has disputed. UTB contends it hired three foreign consulting firms last year; KPRN, Kamageo and PHG Consulting Group of the USA to execute extensive tourism marketing activities on its behalf. While KPRN was tasked to implement marketing activities across German speaking countries, Kamageo was assigned the United Kingdom and Ireland and PHG Consulting Group was assigned the North America region. Each firm was paid US$500,000 for a contractual period of 12 months while the performance review process is to be concluded September 2017, UTB indicated.

“The Kenyan election season is likely to divert many foreign visitors away from Kenya to Uganda this year but I’m yet to analyse all the growth indicators. UTB’s marketing efforts have also started bearing fruit after many months of hard work,” said William Lalobo, Managing Director of Heritage Safari Lodge located in Murchison Falls National Park.

However, fresh taxation challenges facing the tourism industry pose a dark cloud to future growth. “We were disappointed by this year’s budget and we are still bothered by the new tax measure that requires us to pay Ush2, 000 in local service tax per guest that books into a tourist lodge. How do you collect less than $1 from a tourist that has already paid up for their stay in your facility?,” Lalobo pondered.

Considerable poaching activities alongside the severe dry spell experienced across Uganda during 2016 have led to substantial reduction in the number of wildlife attractions, particularly lions. As a result, visitors are often forced to trek across large national parks such as Murchison Falls that covers around 5,072 square kilometres for a whole day in search of roaming lions but sometimes in vain! While some tour operators have resorted to early morning tours that commence before 6 a.m in an attempt to trace lion communities, other players have opted for night time game drives that offer sightings of hunting lions going after their prey.

“Lions are not usually poached but killed by communities that are eager to expand their cultivation areas and ensure protection of domestic animals that graze near homesteads. There are about 400-500 left in Uganda, with 200 of these living in Queen Elizabeth National Park while the rest live in Kidepo National Park but only three are left in Lake Mburo National Park due to extinction caused by degazetting of some sections of the 600 square mile wildlife zone and increased pastoral activity. We have introduced night game drives of two hours to enable tourists enjoy a glimpse of hunting lions,” said Jossy Muhangi, the Public Relations Officer at Uganda Wildlife Authority.

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