Ms Lilly Ajarova, who was last year appointed the Chief Executive Officer of the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), charts the many challenges facing the recovery of tourism in the country, but remains optimistic in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Below are excerpts.
What is the current state of tourism in Uganda against the backdrop of the pandemic?
Tourism has really suffered as result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Just like other sectors of the economy, many of the measures that were put in place to combat the outbreak had a big negative impact on tourism. All over the world, measures like the lockdowns, prevented people from travelling. This meant loss of jobs because all international tourists could not move.
Specifically, how much projected revenue did Uganda lose?
In 2019, the sector fetched about $1.6 billion which was a good development. This year, 2020, we were projecting more than $1.6 billion, but all this could not be achieved because the first coronavirus case hit Uganda at the end of March. We had only started the year and little business had been done by then, probably less than $2 million.
As we adapt to the New Normal, what opportunities do you see emerging in the tourism sector?
We are changing our marketing tactics and seriously considering looking at internal or domestic tourism offerings and promotions. This is a big opportunity for Ugandans to start appreciating the tourism attractions in their country. For example, Uganda Wildlife Authority, the custodians of our national parks and operators of various top hotels and destinations around the country, have been reducing their charges for local tourists and this is bearing fruits.
This period has also given us a chance to interact with the world virtually as we continue presenting Uganda as one of the best tourism destinations.
We are also evaluating how we can do better and diversify our tourism products. Recent market research has shown us many visitors would wish to feel the cultural experience in Uganda, to understand the different people they encounter and their particular uniqueness.
We have also discovered that many visitors are adventurous and wish to engage in various activities like rafting and other physical exertions or sports on top of just visiting our national parks. We used to have only one zip-line located in Mabira Forest, but now we have another one at Lake Bunyonyi. In this time of Covid-19, we are also offering virtual tourism on various digital platforms as a way of keeping Uganda in their minds.
The festive season is just around the corner, what have you mind for Ugandans?
The biggest and ongoing product campaign is ‘Take on the Pearl’. We are engaging UWA, several hotels and lodges to encourage them to further reduce their rates which will help entice domestic tourists to their facilities.
Why have Ugandans, especially in the past, been so reluctant to appreciate their national heritage?
One of the problems has been lack of awareness and marketing. Many people believe and still do, that tourism is expensive, especially the accommodation. We are creating more awareness and Ugandans now know that you can visit a national park and not have to sleep in the lodges which are perceived to be expensive.
Several national parks have bandas which are small and simple budget facilities but comfortable. There are also camp sites where you can spend a night and tour the parks the following day and still have plenty of fun.
Accessibility to most tourism destinations has also been a challenge because there are no public means of transport. For instance, someone residing in Mbale wishing to visit Murchison Falls National Park would need a personal car. We need scheduled transport arrangements to improve.
My personal take is tourism is a lifestyle choice that is yet to be appreciated by most Ugandans. You find people going to bars on a regular basis and spending quite a lot of money which is more than enough to travel to most of our tourism destinations. You may find that many people who live in Entebbe, have never even visited any of the beaches sited near Entebbe town.
What measures and Standard Operation Procedures have been put in place by sector players during the pandemic?
We are implementing the SOPs like wearing masks, encouraging social distance and sanitization among others. You will find this in destinations like Murchison Falls National Park where visitors on boat cruises are spaced. In restaurants and hotels, tables are also quite spaced apart. Staff and management of all tourism companies have committees that are implementing these measures.
Let me also mention that Uganda was recently recognized in the top 10 countries that have effectively controlled the spread of Covid-19 in the world. We were the only country in Africa. We received the Travel Safe Stamp from the World Travel and Tourism Council in recognition of our SOPs. The African Tourism Board also appreciated us with a safe stamp which cited Uganda for putting in place all these safety measures in the tourism and the travel sector.
What makes Uganda a competitive tourism destination?
The diversity of our fauna and flora cannot be found anywhere in world. It’s one of the biggest products we offer, because there is much to explore. Nobody can beat what we have to offer as a country. We have a good climate, a variety of foods. Indeed, investing in the tourism sector is a very good choice, because there is much to develop in areas like accommodation, creating new tour circuits and the fast growing agro-tourism among others.
What are you doing to improve service delivery in the sector?
Regulation is one of our cardinal roles. In the near future, all players will be required to be registered with UTB and operate according to the required global and regional standards.
If you are a 3-star hotel, your service should be at par with a 3-star hotel in Kenya or Rwanda. This alignment is part of the classification and grading of hotels in the East African Community. It’s not about punishing people who don’t meet the standards. It’s about encouraging professionalism and good service. We shall work with the players and audit them regularly to ensure that their services meet the required standards.