Separating fact from fiction
Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | According to official figures, tourism contributed up to US$1.35 billion into Uganda’s export basket in 2016, and was the single highest foreign exchange earner; contributing 23.5% of total exports.
Based on those figures, the tourism lobby; which has advocates on the powerful Presidential Advisory Committee on Budget (PACOB) and is supported by the chairman of the Parliamentary Budget Committee, Amos Lugolobi, is lobbying for increased allocation of resources to sector agencies involved in promotion and marketing. They want the money allocated to the tourism sector in the 2018/19 budget raised from the current Shs16.4 billion to 29.5 billion – an increase of about 80%.
The tourism lobbyists cite the growing number of international visitors to Uganda, increased earnings, and sector contribution to the local job market.The officials say the tourism sector also employs 6% of Uganda’s labour force. This includes employment by hotels, travel agents, airlines and other passenger transportation services).
Significantly, however, the lobbyists cite tourism’s alleged contribution to national foreign exchange earnings. In one case, they say, over 30 tourism and travel companies that travelled to the ITB Berlin between March 9 and 11 were projected to clinch deals worth over Shs3 billion (Approx. US$1 million).
Most of these operators are funded by either the government or the donor community because, they say, they cannot afford to pay their way.
But, as such demands from the lobbyists increase, there is a growing rise in the number of questions about the authenticity of the tourism sector claims. Does tourism really contribute the money its promoters claim it does? How is the contribution of the tourism sector measured? Who actually benefits?
Statistics from government agencies like the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) and the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities show tourism revenues soared to Shs 5.1 trillion ($1.4bn) last year when the country attracted over 1.3 million international visitors.
Longer projections show that annual tourist numbers have continued to grow from just 650,000 in 2007 to over 1.3 million visitors in 2016—a growth of 106%. At this rate, local experts say, the sector is likely to achieve the four million mark by 2020 – just two years away.
Earnings from tourism are also said to have more than doubled. Between 2008 and 2016, for instance, annual sector earnings are said to have risen from US$540 million to $1.37 billion. That was 4.3% of GDP and 26% of exports.
The Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities’ annual tourism sector performance report for financial year 2016/17, shows that tourism was Uganda’s leading foreign exchange earner, bringing in US$1.4 billion.
But as tourism officials revel in the positive outlook of the industry, questions are also being raised about the quality of tourist data used. At the heart of the debate is how these agencies define a tourist.
Who is a tourist?
If you think your typical tourist is the scruffy heavy-back-pack-carrying white man or woman sweating and peering into a pair of binoculars in Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda or Murchison Falls National Park in the north hoping to see a lion, you are wrong.
“When a person leaves their country of residence and crosses a border and spends anything between 24 hours and beyond but does not exceed a year, we regard that person a tourist,” says Hellen Nviiri, the director population and social statistics at Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) who has been involved in capturing data on visitors to Uganda over the last 20 years.