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Kidnap in the park

Dr. Akankwasah Barirega, the commissioner for wildlife conservation in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities was one of many who told The Independent that the Queen Elizabeth Park incident should be viewed as an isolated case.

He said tourism activities were still going on in Queen Elizabeth National Park and other conservation areas in the park and that the world needed to know that this was not a case of degenerated security but an isolated incident that can occur anywhere in the world.

“Uganda still remains a country with the lowest crime rates in the region and even the continent; we hope that our prospective visitors shall not cancel basing on this particular incident,” Barirega told The Independent.

Parks safe from crime

The kidnap happened when the government was announcing unprecedented surges in tourist numbers over the recent years with thousands more visitors coming in from the key source markets of the U.S, the U.K and Germany. It remains to be seen how the latest setback will impact the industry.

Bashir Hangi, UWA’s communications manager told The Independent that Uganda’s game parks have been safe from this kind of crime.

The only such incident he could recall happened 20 years ago when Rwandan rebels known as Interahamwe ambushed and killed eight foreign tourists in Bwindi; a park which is 150km south of Queen Elizabeth National Park and is renowned for gorilla trekking. The rebels were part of a militia group that was involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide before fleeing to the jungles of the DR Congo.

Hangi also told The Independent that the Queen Elizabeth Park incident is a wake-up call for all the tourism sector players.

“This is not only about UWA; it is for the entire tourism sector; it is a pointer to how we are working with our colleagues in the private sector and the government agencies.”

Popular tourist destination

Queen Elizabeth National Park is Uganda’s most popular tourist destination. The park’s diverse ecosystems, which include the sprawling savannah grasslands, dense forests, dazzling lakes and the mashy wetlands, make it the ideal habitat for big game, primates including chimpanzees and hundreds of bird species.

Among its other attractions are several dozen enormous craters carved dramatically into rolling green hills, panoramic views of the Kazinga Channel with its banks lined with hippos, buffalo and elephants. These attractions make the park easily one of Uganda’s most popular conservation spots and it is the reason it receives thousands of visitors every year.

Data from the Uganda Tourism Board, the national tourism marketing agency shows Uganda recorded a 1.5% growth in international tourist arrivals to 1.32 million in the 2016/17 financial year.

The U.S is said to have contributed the biggest number of visitors to Uganda with 57,959, followed by the U.K (39,539), India (30,210), China (19,179) and Germany (10,586). Among visitors from Africa, Rwanda contributed the biggest number of visitors (362,865), followed by Kenya (352,817), DR Congo (90,148), Tanzania (86,091) and Sudan (35,353).

Of all the total arrivals during the year, 18% visited for purposes of leisure, recreation and holiday, 22% visited for business and professional conferences, 38% visited for other reasons such as transit, education and medical.

As a result, tourism remains the country’s leading foreign exchange earner bringing in U.S $ 1.4bn (about Shs 5.1 trillion) that year. This is almost three times the revenue Uganda earned a decade earlier (US $498.3 million).

Executives in the sector link the sudden interest in Uganda as a top tourism destination to the recent recruitment of three marketing firms that have been selling Uganda in Europe and North America.

In the national budget for FY 2018/19 the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development said the procurement of market destination representation firms has so far yielded good results. As a result the government expected to rake in twice as much as much (U.S $ 2.7bn) every year by 2020 from the sector. The projection was that tourist arrivals will have hit four million.

It is not clear now how the kidnap and rescue of the American will affect those plans. Members of the Association of Uganda Tour operators have in the past spoken about how unrest and similar incidents scare away tourists who suddenly cancel their trips.

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