By Amos Wekesa
Yesterday evening at Sheraton Hotel Kampala, the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) old guard was officially handing over power to the new guard.
While sitting at the back with fellow tour operators, i listened to different speeches. Some speeches were good, others just okay but looks like no one wanted to mention our challenges and potential solutions.
Like i have always said, tourism isn’t well understood and it’s fairly a new area for us all Ugandans including myself. I am still a student of tourism and when i travel outside Uganda, i try to learn from people in mature tourism markets like Kenya, South Africa, Egypt, Botswana etc.
It is difficult to find competent and knowledgeable people with ability to transform tourism fast enough. Creating of professional takes time and it’s easier in mature markets.
I tell many Ugandan operators that we are all still very small even when compared to those perfoming well in Kenya. In Kenya, you have very many tour operators whose annual turnover is above USD 50m. One of the Kenyan tour operators told me, Wekesa, this year we didn’t do very well and only turned over USD 68m. That guy had as many tour cars as half of Ugandan tour operators.
In Uganda, we are lucky because a person who turns over just USD 120,000 annually will spend much of his or her time making people to think he has arrived. You dont need much for people to think you have arrived in Uganda.
It’s very true that Uganda has massive potential and has achieved some steps and the future looks even brighter. The future looks brighter mainly because government people and the general public seems more interested in the sector. Many young operators seem to have a long and better outlook to doing business and that can be seen through the vehicles they are purchasing, the accommodations they are building etc
I think the most entreprenuers in Uganda are starting to consider tourism as an option and i must say, local entreprenuers are leading the way. People are cooperating more with a few pockets of people still stuck in the old ways, but those will be forced to style up. Conditions will force them.
That said, what has been my personal observation over the many years i have been in tourism? What has been Uganda Tourism Board’s challenge over the last 20 years? UTB spurs tourism business growth.
The biggest constraint has been poor financing of the whole tourism sector, but that is changing as we see very improved financing. In fact, if the money given by Ministry of Finance now is well utilized, Uganda’s tourism could create more meaningful opportunities than any other sector in Uganda.
Research on Uganda’s tourism potential shows that we could earn up to USD 12bn annually if we matched the right monies and competent team at the Uganda Tourism Board. Good marketing could spur demand and hence investment would follow. People dont invest out of emotions, they must see opportunities.
The other challenge of Uganda Tourism Board has been the quality of Board members. You will find a Board with 2 or 3 people who have actual investments in tourism and the majority will be representing different interests. Our challenge lies in balancing tribe, gender, Ministries etc. Such Boards don’t need people who have nothing to lose. They will discuss allowances and travel abroad as the most important thing. You spend so much time discussing none issues and frustrates business people.
The other challenge over the last 20 years has been (i am saying has been because we expect to see massive change) the attitude of those employed at UTB. There has been more internal fights than i have seen anywhere else which affects perfomance. At tourism exhibitions abroad, staff often arrived late and left early yet other countries had very committed government people.
In last 20 years, i have seen all tourism exhibitions abroad organized last minute including paying for the stand. Countries that suceed at these tourism fairs prepare for them at least 6 months in advance. That includes creating mailing lists of potential clients in source markets, preparing press for new products, choosing winning colours, some countries will bring media who write about them just before tourism fairs hence attracting big business.
When we tried to do a tourism fair here in Uganda, everything was last minute and couldn’t borrow a leaf from magical Kenya or Karibu in Tanzania that have stood the test of time. Kenya spends a whole year marketing the Magical Kenya and has brought a lot of oppotunities to them. It has become an important fair for us to attend. Why did ours fail？Even things like Martyrs Day (3rd June). You will only see people run around at the last minute. Why should Namugongo not attract people every week？
The other challenge has been a weak private sector. We haven’t been strong enough to demand better from the tourism government agencies. Since tourism is attracting big boys now, we shall see people demanding more because of the investments they put up. They won’t want empty accommodations.
The other challenge was the cold wars between agencies (Uganda Wildlife Authority and UTB). The fight over mandates. Whose mandate became whose mandate. The Permanent Secretary has done well training to address this. I once attended a meeting where bosses of these (agencies) were and i could not believe the level ego levels. Very dangerous levels.
Tourism is a business, not politics, and that requires commitment and focus from all those concerned including government agencies. We are competing with other countries for those spenders also called tourists, we must be switched on to achieve anything. We must put up proper fights against our competition.
That said, should the above be addressed, Uganda’s tourism will win for all of us.
Otherwise, congrats Lilly Ajarova and your team and we are here ready to advise and work for the good of Uganda.
All the best to you all who have served at UTB. It’s a public office, you come and serve and move on.
The writer is a tour operator, chief executive of Great Lakes Safaris and a former Board member at Uganda Tourism Board (UTB)