Uganda’s tourism sector

The Catholic Church and its management team deserve credit for their latest development initiatives. In what can be called a case of entrepreneur acumen and extending horizons of innovations, the Catholic Church is said to be in talks with Uganda Tourism Board to develop Namugongo shrine into a modern historical centre to tap into the numerous potentials it presents.

Namugongo shrine is of special historical significance to many Christians around the world. Christians love the place and gather to honour the more than 22 brave youthful Ugandans that gave up their lives for their Christian faith. The place is internationally recognized and the “world” converges at Namugongo to honour the Uganda martyrs.

Thousands of devout religious people from as far as America, Australia, Greenland, South Africa, Nigeria, Zambia, Rwanda, and Kenya flock to Namugongo every year. For 126 years, the place had almost nothing for tourists to see and nowhere to sleep for the visitors.

Other than roadside food stalls and kiosks, Namugongo shrine has no good places for a decent meal for the visitors. The lack of modern facilities means so many foreign visitors shun travelling there. Those who come spend a small fraction of what they would due to absence of quality facilities. Many others would be willing to spend longer time at the shrines but cut their trip short.

All this is likely to change soon. According to sources, a partnership is being explored which will see the shrine developed with modern facilities including hotels and hostels to accommodate people who come to visit. The roads leading to the shrine are also set to be upgraded and tarmacked.

The development comes at a time when church leaders led by Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga are working to turn Namugongo shrine into a basilica. This, according to plans, will attract more visitors and generate more revenue.

The partnerships also bring on board other stakeholders like Kira town council and Uganda National Roads Authority, which has already taken over the road from Bukerere to Kasangati and soon the road will be given a new face. This will allow easy traffic and connection to Gayaza and Jinja road.

Untapped potential

As they say, it does not matter how many resources you have, if you don’t know how to use them, they still will not be enough. That is the situation Uganda finds herself in. The country has rich natural resources with favourable climate and rich soils for agriculture all year through, but the practices, laws and cultures have discouraged meaningful exploitation of the same. Sites of historical significance have not been identified, gazetted and developed to world-class standards. When tourists travel to Uganda, instead of enjoying the country, they feel pity for the folks who live in it. “I wish they had good roads without potholes… I wish this fresh water lake was in Europe…” In the end, some tourists stay around to exploit the untapped opportunities, than spend to empower the local businessmen. That is why you see unplanned developments. People are trying to make quick kills and go back to enjoy their retirement.

President Museveni was recently quoted as saying: “When you hear these Europeans saying they are gonging to cut aid, we don’t need aid in the first place. Uganda is one of the richest countries on earth.” The president was spot on. Uganda is such a rich country with lots of resources still lying idle and not yet tapped.

There are several religious and historical sites that still lie idle and remain unknown to majority of Ugandans. Uganda is endowed with several very rich tourism sites. From eastern to west, north to south, Uganda’s rich culture is yet to be exploited. This means that the tourists’ travel experience is not excellent. Tourists will prefer a place with several attractions in one place.

The same is echoed by Stephen Asiimwe, the chief executive officer of Uganda Tourism Board. He says global tourism trends show that travellers are more interested in a more holistic travel experience. When developed, such experience has potential to bring in money and provide employment to tens of thousands of Ugandan graduates who are currently unemployed. Otherwise, Uganda risks being left out of the recently-launched single East African tourist visa.

Low technology adoption

It is 2014, but Uganda is yet to embrace technology in her marketing strategies. For example, the country is yet to develop digital maps and indicate all places of attractions on the maps. The world is now a global village and the fact that the tourists being targeted already use advanced technology, developing these places and having them on digital maps will go a long way in increasing tourism revenue and create much-needed employment. Google and Apple maps have gone a long way in easing directions. However, it is important for government to work with such companies to ensure all places of significant and tourism potential are visibly indicated on such maps. And where possible, they should be given objective reviews.

According to Kelly MacTavish, managing director Pearl of Africa, “Uganda is not selling tourism in the right way. I can promise you if you gave US$5m to the right people, we could triple it just by marketing in North America and a few states in Europe.”

Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, has developed historical sites into modern tourism attractions. Ottoman Empire and other sites were gazetted and are now minting money as both local and foreigners want to visit to see for themselves the once largest empire. When a plane is landing in Istanbul, next to the Black sea, what do you see? There are well-developed beaches with modern facilities and it is a case of exploiting what you have.

In Uganda, we have not exploited our resources. It’s a question of developing these resources and money will start flowing.

A fool and his money!

On the contrary, Uganda is the opposite.

What do you see when you visit Kampala? Why have we failed to turn high altitude places like Mutundwe into tourism sites? On top of these places, one can gain a bird’s view of the wonderful Lake Victoria and whole city. The location of Kampala city on several hills is itself a wonder.

Most historical sites including the Queen Mother home are lying idle. Muganzi-waza has been encroached by squatters. What about King’s prison in Kyebando where the Buganda king used to imprison people? The place has been abandoned. Kololo, where British colonists imprisoned Acholi chiefs who had rebelled, too is not developed and promoted as such. The hill overlooking Masaka town was the command post for then Buganda kings who were advancing to take over nearby areas of Koki. When you go there today, no one remembers and there is nothing historical. Yet this is a powerful place to attract both international and local tourism.

In West Nile, there are hot springs that are spectacular. Unfortunately, this place has not been properly and strategically marketed and is not known to Ugandans nor is it on the tourism cachet. In UK, there is a place called Batch with hot springs. It is so popular and attracts both local and foreign tourists.

In western Uganda, we have the same springs in Kitagata, nothing of tourism is there. All you find are naked people bathing from there. This is a true case of a fool and his money. It leads to poverty amidst plenty.

In eastern Uganda, we have place where Bishop Hannington was murdered on orders of the king of Buganda. This place can be turned into a tourists’ site to attract local and international tourists. Unfortunately, when you visit the place today, you will not like what you find there. It is badly run down.

In Kenya, there is a place they call Sweet waters. Of course there are no sweet waters in the actual place. The Kenyans just say there used to be sweet waters there. So many tourists flock the place just to see it. Kenyans know that few, if any, tourists will dare taste the water to find out the taste and by that time, they will have visited and also paid. And that is what touring is all about – fulfilling your curiosity.

Compare this to Uganda’s sites like the one in Sebei, where there are female and male falls! These falls are a potential tourism attraction magnet. All you need to say is “where humanity begins…”

Uganda Tourism Board has the mandate to identify, gazette and develop Uganda’s potential tourism sites into income-generating ones. We hope the new CEO will bring in much-needed change. It is all about good leadership and knowing what to do. Let’s not keep blaming the budget. Let’s focus on using what is available to move ahead in small steps.

Kenya, endowed with beaches, has developed them by establishing modern facilities and today, these beaches generate more than 60 per cent of tourism revenue. They have also developed historical towns.

Kampala is one of the few cities in the world which you visit and find nothing of historical significance. There is a lot of firefighting and poor execution of mandate.

At Entebbe airport, visitors are given nothing to guide them about the country. In Kenya, Rwanda, and other countries, visitors are given booklets showing potential tourist destinations, places of interest and lots of surprises beyond what they had read in foreign media. This is your opportunity to represent what your country has to offer well, but Uganda Tourism Board, or whoever is responsible, are too busy doing other things at the expense of finding innovative ways to grow the sector.

In the arrivals lounge at Entebbe, people, mostly taxi drivers, will ask in Luganda: “Ssebo ogenda Kampala?” And then a couple of corporate adverts. Why can’t we have adverts for our numerous tourism sites, interesting places and clear listing of where to find what?

In South Africa, for example, at Kwazulu Natal airport, visitors are given tourism maps. Why can’t the concerned authorities prioritize the little money they get from the consolidated fund and print enough maps, travel guides and give them out at the airport to all non-EAC visitors?

What do tourists see when they come to Uganda?

The handcrafts people are selling in Uganda are from Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. The face masks are from DR Congo. And worst is that over 90 per cent of handcrafts at the airport shops are duty-free imported from Kenya and South Africa.

Want to turn Uganda into a world-class tourism destination? Stop giving critical positions to people because of patronage. Tourism requires flexibility, class, cross cultural, effective marketing and innovativeness. It is difficult to find these traits with folks hovering over retirement. The first step is to identify and clearly gazette the tourism sites. We could use the bad roads as ‘a travel experience’ and market it as such. “Our sites have a bumpy ride to test your physical fitness. It is a natural way to exercise and lose weight and have a wonderful rest at your destination.”

Travel to Uganda: tour as you exercise. Such kind of a promise will surely bring more tourists from North Africa Europe and some parts of Asia.

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