Uganda is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet with millennia of history and thriving cultural traditions. But it remains an underrated tourist destination. From the royal trails across the kingdoms – Buganda, Tooro, Bunyoro-Kitara, and Busoga – to the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Kasubi Tombs, the art galleries in Kampala, and the Nyege Nyege music festival near Itanda Falls on the Nile, there is a world of activities that offer unique and memorable experiences. Developing these products and others could broaden Uganda’s appeal beyond gorilla trekking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, which is currently the most popular attraction. Broadening the menu of tourism attractions and experiences in Uganda is critical to bringing in more tourists and increasing the potential earnings for Ugandan businesses and the private sector.
Similarly,for guides, tour operators, hospitality workers, and marketing professionals, among many others. Tourism is also opening up new opportunities for women and youth and before the pandemic employed about 600,000 people in Uganda. While a significant proportion of tourism jobs were lost due to COVID-19, signs of recovery offer hope.
Violet Komuhendo of Afrika Panthera Safaris leads a group of women guides who come from the communities living near the Kibale National Park, the famed home of chimpanzees in Uganda. She told me that guiding in Uganda is still mostly done by men, but she is committed to supporting training for women guides in a male-dominated sector and wants to provide employment opportunities for them. For Violet to realize her ambitions, she needs help in accessing capacity building, financial support, and marketing opportunities.
To realize its full potential, a multidimensional approach is needed to bring together stakeholders and offer targeted support.
Growing Uganda’s global brand by leveraging digital platforms is essential. For many tourists, it is word-of-mouth through digital platforms like TripAdvisor and Viator which introduces them to new destinations, but few Ugandan firms are using these platforms to their full advantage.
Milca Akandinda, who leads a tour company in the Bigodi community near Kibale, is seeking to borrow money from a local bank to set up a permanent office. She owns land she has inherited from her father, which she offered as collateral. But the bank has not accepted it. She was told she would need a formal agreement from her father confirming that he had transferred the land to her. She then offered to sign that agreement with her father right then, but the bank told her doing that right before applying for the loan would be deemed “suspicious” by them. Milca’s proposal is in no way contrary to the law and required documentation of land ownership can be completed at any time prior to a loan application. Dynamic entrepreneurs like Milca are held back by the lack of widespread information about how people can formalize claims to their land.
What is clear to me from the experiences of these two women entrepreneurs, is that a lot more work is needed to improve tourism management to target support where it is likely to yield highest economic benefits for the tourism sector, including in product diversification, skills development, and access to finance, all in close collaboration with the private sector. Coordination between the center (Kampala) where decisions are made and the districts where most tourism activities take place is limited and uneven. The private sector is similarly organized across many associations. Some smaller and newer tourism enterprises report high barriers to joining such groups. At the policy level, there is no framework for managing crises emerging from pandemics, natural disasters or other global and domestic situations that have the potential to interrupt and slow down tourism in the country. The combined impact of COVID-19 and the Ebola outbreak demonstrates the urgency of developing such a framework and its relevance to broader areas of conservation and climate change adaptation and mitigation. Cross-sectoral issues, including land administration, need to be better addressed as well.
Better data collection, for example, on tourist profiles and emerging areas of growth in tourism, would address a lot of these challenges and allow for evidence-based policymaking. We are supporting the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities in the development of a Tourism Information Management System (TIMS) which would form the backbone of evidence-based policymaking in the sector under the ongoing Competitiveness and Enterprise Development Project (CEDP).
There is room to do much more to facilitate a robust, sustainable dialogue between the public and private sectors. This is essential to better target scarce public resources. Sector management, in the public and private spheres, needs to be professionalized. There is scope for scaling up public-private partnerships to maintain and build sites and attractions. Encouraging innovative new products −like heritage and cultural tourism, culinary tourism, agro-tourism in coffee and tea estates, and development of community tourism featuring Uganda’s diversity− offer viable avenues for growth and a brighter future for Uganda.