Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME | Amos Wekesa is the CEO of Great Lakes Safaris, a tour and travel company. He spoke to Ian Katusiime about tourism in 2017 and the prospects that lie ahead.
What have been your highlights for tourism in 2017?
Tourism in 2017 was showing signs of growth based on three public relations firms that were hired by government from Germany, U.K. and the U.S. Regrettably, we are spending $1.5million a year which is a small investment when it comes to marketing a country. In tourism, marketing is a continuous activity. General elections also seem to be another issue. In every five years, we work for three years – we do not work the year prior to the general election and the year after the election and until the president is sworn in. Now, when we were starting to pick up in the aftermath of the past general election, ‘Togikwatako’ happened. We know that every country has its own battles but we just need to learn to communicate the right message that can bring opportunities. For instance, I don’t know how many tourism companies have closed in Kenya in the last four months. However they quickly reinvested a lot of money- they have 18 PR firms marketing their tourism.
You have been in the tourism business for a long time. What is your personal philosophy about tourism?
Tourism should be seen as a business; a lot of Ugandans think these tourists are just travelling. When one tourist enters a restaurant, he/she is creating business for all kinds of food suppliers for that business and that is how economies grow.
Tourism is a source of peace. Any country that has tourism has the world as a stakeholder. For instance, Libya and Egypt had problems at the same time (2011) but because Egypt has so much tourism, they (various players) had to fight and make sure that the country goes back to its normal growth path. Libya has no tourism and that is partly the reason there were chaos.
When there was this recent political crisis in Gambia, I told people there was not going to be chaos…because of tourism and in one week Thomas Cook was airlifting one thousand people. The likes of Thomas Cook will influence discussions, the western leaders among others.
In Kenya, 30% of politicians have direct investment in tourism and therefore can’t go into chaos forever. In 2008 when there was chaos in Kenya, Musalia Mudavadi representing opposition, and the First Lady, the late Lucy Kibaki, flew to Germany for International Tourism Bourse, the world’s largest tourism fair to convince people that Kenya is back in business. We don’t have that kind of thinking in Uganda.
You have always said that 10 tourists create one permanent job. How does that work out?
In India, it is six jobs. In Uganda, it is 10. An average tourist spends $250-500 per day. If that tourist is here for 10 days, usually a local person will earn $100 on a given day. This money is going into accommodation, food, transport per day. This means that one of the people along the chain is able to start a small business based on earnings he/she has made from that tourist. Entebbe International Airport gets 1.4milion arrivals every year and every small accommodation in Entebbe is tuning into a safari lodge where they host tourists. Have you ever imagined if they are 4 million? The amount of jobs that would be created would be immense.
One year later, how would you assess the damage caused by the Kasese massacre?
The challenge is that we don’t know how to measure it. First, there were lots of cancellations. There are those who didn’t even book a safari. For instance, do you know how much damage has been done in Kenya because Raila Odinga (Opposition leader) wanted to swear in? There are people in Uganda that wanted to go Kenya but feared and therefore cancelled their travels.
Some people say we have not done much on museums. We mainly have Igongo Cultural Centre and National Museum. What can be done?
I think museums should be privatised. Give the national museum to James Tumusiime of Igongo in Mbarara; he has shown he has the competence to do it. We have not tapped into culture yet there is so much potential. When we talk about culture, we mean mountains, Lake Victoria, see how empty it is yet it is the main lake- there is no boat, no activity, and no tourists. There is nothing compared to how much we can earn from tourism from this lake alone. It can create a hundred times the amount of jobs that fishing can create.
How can Uganda’s foreign missions help to promote tourism?
First of all we don’t have a policy as a country. What’s our dream? America’s policy is triple D; Defence; whatever Americans are doing abroad, their Defence department must protect them. Whatever an American is doing in foreign land, it must develop America. Third is diplomacy. China has triple T- Trade, trade, trade. Wherever there is a Chinese embassy, it is looking for opportunities for Chinese people. That is why if you touch a Chinese in Kikuubo (Kampala’s business hub) today, you are touching China as a country. What is ours? There is no policy but once you have a policy that is so clear, you can have expectations from these ambassadors. But the ambassadors should not be people who have been voted out of office. It is what is happening to our boards, every board has a failed politician. Such people cannot run your boards and embassies.
What is your outlook of tourism in 2018?
It is going to be nice and good if the three PR firms continue and also, if the politicians remain sober. There looks to be light at the end of the tunnel. We base this on bookings for 2018 which look much better than the ones we had in 2016 and 2017.