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Entebbe Road madness

One of the temporary inconveniences that are making branding Uganda more complicated

Entebbe road deserted prior to the arrival of South Korean and Turkish heads of state. PHOTO/JIMMY SIYA
Entebbe road deserted prior to the arrival of South Korean and Turkish heads of state. PHOTO/JIMMY SIYA

Amos Wekesa, arguably the face of Uganda’s tourism industry and self-confessed ‘brand ambassador’ for the country, rarely, if ever, makes negative comments about his country in public. He travels around the world marketing the country in his ‘I’m So UGANDA #Ondaba’ T-shirt, which has almost become a trademark.

His May 30 post on his Facebook account could therefore be seen as completely out of character. “Like everybody, I was not excited that Entebbe Road was closed off,” he wrote. “I got many very unhappy phone calls from tour operators even when I am not in the political leadership of the Uganda Tourism Association.”

Wekesa echoed the chorus of uproar that greeted the temporary closure of Entebbe Road – the only access road to Entebbe International Airport – for three days. Apparently, two presidents, Park Geun-hye of South Korea and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey were coming to town and the government wanted to offer them a hassle-free drive to Kampala.

The decision – warranted or otherwise – left thousands of motorists in a quandary. This has once again put a spotlight on the country’s infrastructure bottlenecks and apparent lack of awareness on country branding. The South Korean president was in the country from May 28 – May 30 while Erdogan arrived on May 31 and left in the morning of June 1. The government cited undisclosed security concerns (read Opposition demonstrations) for the blockade.

The Police explained that the move was intended to ensure that there would not be a repeat of ugly incidents in 2011 when foreign dignitaries, particularly, the Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s convoy was engulfed in skirmishes with supporters of opposition chief Dr. Kizza Besigye who was returning from Kenya after receiving treatment following a violent brutal arrest that left him almost visually impaired.

This time, commuters to the airport – the country’s only international gateway – were directed to narrow, dusty and bumpy auxiliary roads.

Despite the recent surge in tourist numbers and the economic prospects in terms of revenue and jobs, the sector suffers from occasional disruptions both natural and man made.

Many people missed their flights as a result, while those arriving were terribly inconvenienced prompting the outcry by tourism operators.

Geoffrey Baluku, a tour and travel operator and member of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO), said the Entebbe Rd closure was a big slap in the face of Uganda’s tourism industry. Many other people, like Wekesa, vented their anger on social media.

However, government spokesman Ofwono Opondo told The Independent on June 4 that the closure of Entebbe Road was for the security and travel convenience of the visiting Heads of State and their delegations. “In any case neither the whole country nor the whole of Kampala and its environs were in a 24-hour lockdown. Don’t we always have traffic jam nightmares without visitors?” He asked. “Those complaining are simply looking for false excuses why they don’t work or simply have beef with the government.”

Opondo added that the public was given advance notice of the intended closures so they could re-plan their schedules if need be. Baluku, however, said State visits should be conducted in harmony with the attributes of host communities.

He argues that when you close major roads and deny local populations access to social services in the name of visitors, you violate Article 1(1) and 1(2) of the UN WTO Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, which calls for an environment of mutual understanding and respect between visitors and host communities.

Baluku said although Uganda is famed for its hospitality, thanks to its welcoming people, this hospitality is now being put to the test by such government actions as the population becomes weary of the inconvenience caused by State guests.

Tourist museveni 6
President Museveni tours one of the parks in a bid to boost image of Uganda tourism. This efforts watered down often by several other bottlenecks

Yet, in recent years, the tourism industry has been boosted by glowing reports of Uganda’s attractions in international tourism catalogues. Uganda is regarded as Africa’s best destination for birders, thanks to being home to over 1,000 bird species, which account for 11% of the world’s total, and half of Africa’s known bird species.

In 2014, tourism for the first time became Uganda’s biggest export earner after it fetched $1.4 billion in 2013/2014, up from $1.1 billion the year before, according to Bank of Uganda’s monetary policy statement that was issued in August that year.

But despite the recent surge in tourist numbers and the economic prospects in terms of revenue and jobs, the sector suffers from occasional disruptions both natural and man made.

Last year, tourism experts said tourism arrivals and earnings had dipped by over 70% compared to 2014 figures — a development that led many tour operators losing business. Back then, the reasons ranged from the Ebola epidemic to the anti-homosexuality law that was later pronounced unconstitutional after a civil society appeal. These, according to industry experts, have marred the country’s brand image and undermined its marketing efforts.

David Amerland, a British author and business analyst, noted in a recent blog that a country is essentially a brand. “Like any other brand, a country needs brand ambassadors, fans and even critics in order to keep it growing and to develop a reputation.” Amerland defines reputation as the willingness of someone to do business with you when they have never had direct contact with you and as such it is made up of some very specific elements.

Belinda Namutebi, a branding professional, agrees. She says brands create experiences. “What we are selling out there as the ‘Uganda brand’ is the experience of coming to Uganda, [to see] the country’s natural resources, tourist attractions, infrastructure, and the people,” she says.

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