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Brave man of Uganda’s tourism

By Stephen Kafeero

Corne Schalkwyk, a manager at Marasa Africa and Premier Safaris spoke to The Independent’s Stephen Kafeero about his pain and pleasure in the wild and the beautiful places.

You are a manager at Marasa Africa and Premier Safaris plus other entities that you handle. How do you juggle?

Tourism isn’t a regular 9 to 5 work, and in most instances you will find that people that succeed in tourism keep very long hours as you host clients or you’re providing tour operators and clients with information or assistance.

It’s a passion, and people learn to handle their career as a lifestyle. My work at Marasa Africa and that at Premier Safaris as well as other interest such as wildlife photography and travel writing complement each other. They all originated from my passion for nature and exploration.

What is your take that on the belief that the international chains especially in tourism industry just come in with all sort of people in the name of expatriates?

Tourism is a very competitive industry and global exposure is a vital part of the marketing and sales. This might be surprising, but it’s actually a very small industry and the main role players actually know each other or of each other.

This is specifically true in Africa. Most big tourism operations will always have a mix of nationalities as part of their team as it relates to the market that they are attracting or want to attract to their product or destination.

It’s good practise and it’s used internationally. It’s a sign of good management and experience or good advice if they employ a mixed international team, as it would resonate with the industry and attract the market share needed.

From a legal background to tourism why the career change?

I have always had a passion for nature and the right exposure enabledme find the best opportunities to work in nature related tourism. My breakthrough came when I moved to Kruger National Park as manager of the EcoTraining guide training head office in South Africa from where they oversee their camps in South Africa, Botswana and Kenya.

EcoTraining provides tourism and guiding training in ten different countries around Africa and as far as Australia. This led to me to accepting an offer from the Madhvani Group that brought me to Uganda.It’s always been my passion, and I feel blessed to follow my dream career.

What’s the biggest challenge facing your business today?

We have challenges related to UWA’s implementation of higher cost Gorilla permits. I’m unsure of how we will overcome the problem, but see the country becoming even more exclusively geared towards targeting the very wealthy experienced traveller as they would probably be the only ones that can afford visiting the country.

This is obviously not ideal, and I hope the mid-range product will not disappear completely, as we already see product that would internationally be classified as lower end of the market being priced at mid-range. You can effectively stay in a very good hotel in Southern Africa for $100 dollars per night, in Uganda that would give you accommodation that is mid-range at best.

Compared to South Africa and other thriving tourism destinations; how is Uganda faring?

Uganda is still a fledgling if compared to other African countries, even within East Africa. In terms of natural endowments some other countries do not come close to Uganda, yet all of them pull millions of tourism dollars in revenues annually.

This might be controversial but tourism is more than the friendly smiles the country is known for. Uganda can sometimes be frustrating to tourists. The roads are bad, and without signs, traffic is a horrific experience for some visitors and getting to the parks can be a very tiring and expensive exercise. The country has amazing potential, but needs a lot of work to attract the tourism numbers it wants.

Given an opportunity, what are some of the things that Uganda needs to put in place to benefit more from its tourism industry?

There needs to be proper destination marketing and that will only be possible with proper funding.Most of the competing African countries have well organised credible destination marketing agents based internationally that ensure visibility and brand marketing.

Currently Uganda marketing is done by the private sector that have limited funds to compete within a very competitive global market. Infrastructure development is one of the primary concerns, leading to a very expensive tourism product that makes it very difficult to compete with the rest of East Africa.

Uganda remains a niche product for those that want to see gorillas or have done other Safaris in other countries around Africa.

The government of Uganda is often accused of not committing enough resources to tourism. Is it something important for government to do?

Tourism needs to be embraced and developed, especially in poorer countries as it’s their tool to economic growth. Although the government hasn’t been able to come to the table with sound investment the country is already showing significant tourism growth mostly due to private capital investors such as the Marasa Africa Group.

The industry needs to be protected and encouraged, and hopefully the government will help nurture the industry in future to ensure growth.

Is domestic Tourism something that Uganda should focus so much on?

Every country around the world needs domestic tourism. South Africa has a specific domestic strategy and budget that led to increased domestic tourism in the country. With the recent economic downturn we also learned the hard way that a country shouldn’t be solely reliant on international tourist.

Local Ugandans also need to know their own country and explore the activities provided within their country. I found it very surprising that very few Ugandans travel to their own national parks, and those that have, commented that they visited the park as part of a school trip when they were younger.

Even the people with means do not regularly think of their own national parks when they consider a holiday or just a short break from the city. It’s to this end that Marasa Africa Lodges has specifically created a discounted offering for local people to visit the lodges located in the national parks. There is no need for Ugandan nationals to fly to Kenya for a weekend when you can take a direct flight to Chobe for a great weekend getaway.

What do you offer that other tour operators do not?

Premier Safaris is a destination management company for tour operators internationally focussed on the mid to high end of the market to Uganda as well as other parts of East Africa. Premier provided intimate niche experiences and effectively created a new way of experiencing Uganda.

This relates to every aspect of the tourism experience, from brand new purpose built Safari vehicles equipped with small fridges to keep drinks cold as well as power points to change cameras, experienced knowledgeable guides and niche products such as the explorer in residence that you can only experience with Premier Safaris.

As a manager, what is the quality that you value the most in an employee and what do you value the leastor think is overrated?

As companies are expected to do more with less, they expect the same from team members. The all-hands-on-deck employee is worth his weight in gold regardless of workforce experience. The art of being able to listen and then adapt to what you’ve learned is a great instinct, and one of the first characteristics I look for during an interview.

Part of this highly sought after quality is the willingness to occasionally be wrong, and to be able to learn from mistakes. This normally doesn’t come with an ego, and helps a team come up with solutions and ideas.

What I value the least:There are personalities who can see the glass half full and those that see the glass half empty, but it is very difficult to work with people who are always shooting holes in the glass. I would go as far as to say that qualification is less important than a willingness to take on challenges, learn new things and have a passion for hard work and success. I don’t have a tolerance for clock watchers either.

In your career, what mistake taught you the most?

I was notoriously bad at delegating previously and it’s a skill I had to work on. I ended up doing a lot of work somebody else should have been doing. You become distracted and can’t get your own work done.

What’s the most important skill for a leader to have?

This might sound simplistic but I think it’s about making sound informed decisions that you follow through with, ensuring that it’s implemented. Nobody’s perfect and as in many other roles in the corporate world, a leadership role is a never ending process of self-analysis and self-improvement.

What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

Definitely moving to Uganda to take up a new position in a country that I didn’t know that well. It was difficult to take the step to leave a good position in Southern Africa. I do however find it very rewarding as I’m learning new things on a daily basis. Being an avid nature enthusiast, you can’t ask for a better location to expand on one’s knowledge base.

What’s your alternative career fantasy?

I would probably enjoy doing wildlife photography full time or filming in the bush. I have had some exposure in this field and it would be a very natural progression, although I think I might miss some of the pressure that my work provides. I like the mix between business and nature.

What are you obsessed with at the moment?

Finding new experiences or new ways of doing activities or niche products for Premier has become an obsession. I’m also on a steep learning curve to try and get to grips with the East African botany and birding, it’s a whole new world of things to learn.

What book(s) have you read and wish you had written?

The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman, A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century that changed my way of seeing things especially as it relates to business. I often wondered about some of the examples and facts in the book but never formulated it into a story.

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