By Patrick Kagenda
Even before Barack Obama was announced winner of the November 4 US presidential elections, Kenya his half ancestral home was planning for tourists who would flock the country to experience the roots of the first black man to occupy the White House. The Independents Patrick Kagenda talked to the chairman of Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) Ltd, Mr Henry Okecho, about the Obama Experience, the strategy expected to rake in millions of tourism dollars.
How prepared is Uganda to benefit from the Obama experience?
Kenya has been very quick to grab the opportunity to market the Obama experience but I would have been very shocked if they hadnt because I know that the Kenya tourism association is very professionally run and is quick to capture any attraction that generates something new in Kenya.
At the moment, a lot of people feel the Kenyan product has been oversold, that is why Uganda stands a good chance to compete effectively with Kenya. However the government needs to put a lot of effort in marketing the tourism product in Uganda, because the difference in the East African region where we lag behind is marketing. The other East African states commit a lot of resources to market the tourism product but government support has almost been none existent here.
Why doesnt the government market Uganda?
Whether deliberate or a lack of understanding, its very surprising because Kenya and Tanzania have budgets close to $700 million (Shs 140 billion annually) to market their country. The Uganda Tourism Board was this year given Shs 200 million only just enough money to pay their wages and rent. Uganda has the highest population of mountain gorillas than any other place in the world, it is top most for bio-diversity, and we can sell Bwindi. Even if you woke up and said a gorilla permit is US$ 3,000, tourists will still pay for those permits to come and see those gorillas.
What steps has your association taken to market the tourism industry in Uganda since you benefit most?
To be honest and to be fair to the association, call it the private sector, we have actually been doing it all these years. When government was not forthcoming, we put in money to market the country. Private tour operators use the internet to market the country, we have been visiting exhibitions worldwide meeting all the costs on our own. It is a very expensive venture. We cannot say that as the private sector we can market the country to the specifications that we require because of the amounts of money involved.
What is the Obama experience likely to be?
A lot of things are going to come with Obama`s election as the first black US president. There will be tourists who will be willing to make the journey to see where exactly Obama`s roots are on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. Kenya markets Mt. Kilimanjaro irrespective of the fact that Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania. But they take the advantage that Kilimanjaro is quite close to the Kenyan border so traveling to Kilimanjaro would not be a problem and as such I hope as Uganda tour operators we can take advantage of the situation. Obama`s homeland is quite close to the Eastern part of Uganda. Its three hours to the border and another two hours to some of Uganda’s tourist attractions. We hope there wont be sanctions from the Kenyan side.
How has the global financial crisis affected the tourism industry in Uganda?
Â It may be too early for us to say we are experiencing it but I know the credit crunch is making disposable income unavailable. This means the tourists are going to think twice before they actually take a trip or take a holiday and that in a way will affect us probably around June/July which is a very high season for us. We might experience a lot of cancellations.
So what happens next?
We have to look at what Kenya and Tanzania are doing. Kenya has a target of earning US$1 billion in 2009-10 while Tanzania which has the same arrivals as Uganda is earning close to U$800 million while we in Uganda are earning $400-500 million only.
Why is there this discrepancy between Tanzania and Uganda yet they get the same number of tourists coming to their countries?
Tanzania has made a deliberate effort to go out to North America and Europe to market what you would call high end tourists. These are tourists who spend a little bit more than others. If you were to set up accommodation in Ngorongoro national park you would not set up anything below US$600 per night. This is because they are targeting high end tourists. Even with 600 -1 million tourists coming into Tanzania they could still hit the US$ 1 billion mark.
So what is Uganda’s tourism future like?
Very bright; tourism world wide is the fastest growing industry and Uganda has a lot of products to offer. However one of the biggest problems we are facing is exclusivity. Five “six years ago government signed contracts with certain investors and put in clauses that are very exclusive. Nobody is allowed to construct accommodation within a radius of 25sq miles from the main hotels especially in national parks. Take the example of Queen Elizabeth National park. This handicaps the country in that if we got a lot of tourists coming in the country today, we cant accommodate them. Another issue is the oil drilling. Most of the areas where oil has been discovered are protected areas. Unfortunately this oil is within theses areas. Once the drilling starts animals will run away or the vegetation will be destroyed, but I hope government is going to find a way of balancing the situation despite it being a catch 22.