By Dr. Celestine Katongole, PhD
The outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged many sectors of the Ugandan economy. Tourism is one of those sectors that have been significantly affected. I have had the opportunity to conduct a few studies measuring the impact of the pandemic on the sector.
For every month that the country has been in a lockdown, Uganda lost US$130million from tourism. For 2020 alone, Uganda has had over 20,000 trip cancellations and postponements from international visitors (AUTO, 2020).
Each month that has passed without business, the Uganda Wildlife Authority has lost an estimated US$2.7 million. This organization nearly depends on internally generated funds to run its operations – and without income you can guess what will happen to patrols, wages, track maintenance and operations.
Tourism is a major source of natural and cultural resources conservation revenue, and without such revenue, a lot of these resources may be lost. Conservative estimates indicate that over the next five years, Uganda will lose about US$5billion from international tourism alone (UNDP, 2020). Accommodation and restaurants, two subsectors that offer the biggest proportion of the jobs that tourism offers, will share over 60% of this loss.
Such losses have already triggered job cuts, business closure, and extreme financial stress to the owners of businesses. These two subsectors have wider backward and forward linkages. Already farmers supplying milk, eggs, vegetables and other produce are crying foul because the demand is limited. If you look at the manufacturers of beer, bottled water, vodka, as well as suppliers of piped water, fuel, electricity and other utilities, tourism is a major consumer. You can see that tourism will not go down alone.
Looking at the scale of impact that tourism and the allied sectors will suffer, attention should be paid to support quick tourism recovery.
First and foremost, the sector needs financial support measures to help it stay afloat. Some people have argued that liquidity grants to support basic operations of enterprises would offer the much-needed relief. Yes, this is a good idea but we could offer more. Government could take measures that ensure that companies in tourism retain as much income as possible, but should also offer low-cost longterm financing to facilitate enduring resilience.
Secondly, there is need to change the marketing strategy, away from the traditional offline activities. Uganda needs to urgently have a national brand, which should be used to give the country a unique identity out there. Good progress has been made on the front of containing the spread of the pandemic, we can ride on this to tell the world about this beautiful country. Post-covid visitors will look for places that do not have crowds, but with open spaces and fresh environment to allow recuperation and relaxation.
We need to take marketing to the digital world. This is the time to create content, beautiful stories and videos of the anti-covid measures taken, and how the industry is adopting them to ensure that visitors will be safe and protected from not only coronavirus but other diseases as well. We need to urgently come up with a digital marketing strategy and find ways we can reach the consumers with the messages of hope and inspiration, as well as messages on the vast opportunities that country offers them to enjoy. The time is now to work with online tour operators, and those internet platforms that not only control tourism traffic flow but also help people find new and ideal destinations.
Definitely, the sector needs to work together to create discounts across the value chain and promote travel deals that will attract visitors once the crisis period is over. Tourism businesses need to be supported with adopting standard operating procedures, and the support could be in form of special financial incentives, training and communication. At the same time, the sector needs reskilling and retooling to ensure that the service providers have the right skills, knowledge and attitudes to serve post-covid guests.
We need to broaden the product range and stop depending on primates alone. The time is now to carefully think about what the new consumer will want and design packages offering experiences that will meet these wants and needs.
In the past, the sector has had many cases of unprofessional conduct. During this season of the pandemic, Uganda Tourism Board needs to come out and support the sector to become professional, helping them acquire new skills, new technologies and standards. The Board should be championing adoption of international certification programs among the private sector members, and the world should be made aware of the existence of such programs.
Currently, about 5% of tourism private sector meets the standard expected of them by the outbound visitor suppliers from the west. Ideally, this period should be the busiest time for those charged with developing Uganda’s tourism sector.
While a lot is expected from government, it appears that the same budget has been offered to the tourism sector. This budget allocation of UGX198billion cannot support recovery of tourism, not even a return to the pre-pandemic levels.
Last year, government allocated about UGX194billion to the Ministry of Tourism Wildlife and Antiquities, Uganda wildlife Authority, Uganda Tourism Board, Uganda Hotel and Tourism Institute, Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre, and Uganda Wildlife and Research Training Institute. About 86% of this budget went on wage and non-wage recurrent expenditure, leaving only 14% for development investment.
It is evident from that budget that the wage and non-wage recurrent expenses of the Ministry of Tourism and its agencies are around UGX167billion. Thus, if the sector has been allocated UGX198billion for next year, it means that only about UGX31billion will be for recovery, if ongoing investments are halted. Technically, it appears that no effort has been made to ensure that tourism recovers as fast as possible. Once again, a missed opportunity to shine.
The writer is a Senior Lecturer at Makerere University Business School (MUBS)