How Uganda’s tourism sector is re-emerging from Covid-19 fall

On the 21st January 2022, H E the President launched the national brand, Explore Uganda, The Pearl of Africa, This was a symbolic and monumental occasion in the country’s tourism marketing efforts as it presented a new identity and promise defining the rich and extensive offer of Uganda’s tourism potential.

The launch of the national brand comes alongside the advent of the full re opening of the economy that has been partially locked and affected by the most dangerous pandemic in the recent history of the world. The impact of the COVID’19 pandemic has been devastating to all social and economic spheres but tourism has notably been one of the most affected.

The consequential lockdowns virtually stopped all travel at one time and then limited it over the time. Many companies associated with the tourism value chain faced dire financial stress and many jobs were lost.

The emergence of the pandemic also coincided with another environmental threat – the extraordinary rise of Lake Victoria water levels. This affected all tourism businesses at the water fronts and perhaps the worst affected were the Sesse Islands that became almost inaccessible. The Murchinson Falls National Park was equally affected closing some of the most popular tourist activities like Boating to the Bottom of the Falls.

During these difficult times, the fragility of the tourism industry and over reliance on the foreign market became apparent. Historically, the tourism sector had grown and positioned itself for the international visitor. There was limited public transport access and accommodation for the key attractions that fitted the domestic market needs.

This situation changed dramatically and was driven by the need to survive and sustain business operations. The industry developed travel and holiday packages suited for the domestic market and were more aggressive in capturing this segment.

Another factor that has transformed the dynamics of the industry has been technology. Innovation along the value chain has changed the way tourism experiences are marketed and consumed. The social media platforms have become the dominant and preferred tools for inspiring and sharing travel experiences. Equally the online booking and payment platforms have become the preferred tools for transacting travel business. These technological disruptions have expanded access and enabled small enterprises and emerging businesses to trade in a previously expensive market environment.

It is also noteworthy that the limited travel options of the middle class in the country made domestic tourism more appealing and invariably exposed the hidden gems of the country that were previously unknown to many. Government played an important role in facilitating this transition in the market on a number of fronts.

Over the recent past, The Tulambule and the Take on the Pearl domestic tourism awareness campaigns have showcased and inspired travel among Ugandans. Indeed, National Parks like Semiliki with the famed Sempaya Hot Springs received a fivefold increase in visitor traffic. The accommodation in protected areas that was previously dominated by foreign visitors was occupied by local traffic.

In order to attract more visitors to the parks, the Uganda Wildlife Authority, halved the entry prices to most of their services making it more affordable especially for group travel. More work has been done to improve the product diversity and the access infrastructure within the protected areas. A notable addition to the road network is the Paara Bridge connecting the southern and northern banks of the Murchison Falls National Park. The boat and ferry services introduced on Lake Victoria connecting to Kalangala are another addition that eased travel and access to the Sesse Islands.

Government has also cushioned the impact of the pandemic with financial incentives to help the private sector cope with the associated shocks.

In the early stages of the COVID ’19 lockdowns, tax and interest deferments were negotiated. Affordable loan facilities with grant options were provided to eligible business to help protect jobs and recover from the pandemic. These provisions are ongoing and government is doing more to expand access to affected enterprises.

A number of skilling programmes have been introduced during the pandemic to build the capacity of enterprise staff in the hotels and tour guiding businesses. These training programmes have been packaged in partnership with development agencies like the Mastercard Foundation, United Nations Development Program and World Bank. Product development is another important intervention that has been a point of focus.

Tourism championed a musical talent search that interestingly combined awareness promotion and talent development. The Pearl of Africa Star Search was one of the most successful marketing campaigns of the period.

In a similar stance a premium product packaging initiative was undertaken with the Tooro Kingdom.

The Ekyoto ha Mpango is designed to become a signature event defining cultural tourism. Adventure tourism has also been targeted for improvement and notably the access infrastructure on Kagulu Hills has been constructed. Many of these interventions are continuing projects and will competitively redefine the tourism landscape in the near future.

The important lessons learned by the tourism industry during the pandemic period have been that of resilience and innovation. The sector has refocused its attention on the domestic market segment and local tourism has sustained it in the most difficult period. As the country gears for a full reopening, tourism is on a strong footing and ready to welcome the world.

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