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Politics And Tourism

Quo vadis Uganda tourism?

Wolfgang H. Thome, eTN  May 13, 2011

UGANDA (eTN) - Tourism and hospitality operators, under cover of strict anonymity for fear of repercussions and being potentially singled out for violent reactions by political "rent-a-hooligan" gangs, have started to comment on the recent spate of opposition demonstrations in Kampala and upcountry political hot spots. While careful not to be too offensive in their comments towards the responsible section of the opposition, probably mindful that the opposition today may sometime in the distant future mature enough to become the government of the day, the underlying sentiments are nevertheless strong and may give opposition strategists an insight just how much they are offending stakeholders in tourism responsible for providing hundreds of thousands of jobs for Ugandans and potentially creating a new wave of anti-opposition sentiments spread by business leaders.

Today is the swearing in ceremony of President Museveni, following his convincing election victory, the magnitude of which was predicted by all opinion polls, including those commissioned by the opposition parties and their foreign NGO friends ‚Äď all taken aback by the results of the polling and eventually the votes cast.

Economic development and progress, including in the tourism industry, has for many years been a hallmark of the NRM government, and while government is regularly criticized over the lack of sufficient funding for the Uganda Tourist Board and related institutions, at least government has provided an enabling environment for business to prosper. In fact, government’s ability to bring peace to the country and through a series of economic and fiscal measures, ensure economic progress and development over the past two decades are arguably the main factors for the election win, something either not understood or overlooked altogether by the opposition.

The onset of the political crisis in Northern Africa and parts of the Middle East, which sent oil prices rocketing and fueled global inflation, hit East Africa’s populations, not just Ugandans, very hard, and though relief is now in sight due to the sharp downward correction of crude oil prices, this will take a while to translate into the cost of imported items, including fuels, to come down.

It was here that sections of the opposition perverted the daily struggle of Ugandans, who cannot afford a bus fare and have to walk to work. Staging scripted "walk to work" protests, with sections of the local and international media in league and almost open cahoots, they were attempting to turn the daily challenges of life for many Ugandans into counterproductive road blockages, random violence by rented mobs, and looting of mostly small-scale retail businesses.

Government came down hard and fast on them, but the deliberate way of biased and one-sided reporting by sections of the media swiftly portrayed Uganda as an unsafe destination, to the deluded delight of the perpetrators of such incidents who happily see the economy, and in particular the tourism industry, sink into the abyss, ready to destroy what has taken 25 years to build, if only to serve their own selfish purposes and satisfy their own egos.

Tourism operators have now warned that the country could lose as much as US$100 million a month in projected tourism incomes, as airline chiefs in Kampala too have sounded the alarm over the cancellation of booked tickets with potential visitors scared off by sensational TV pictures NOT reflecting the reality on the ground. Hotel managers have confirmed a trend downwards of occupancies since the opposition started their ill-conceived campaign and safari operators, and car hire firms are seeing their fleet utilization come down, too, as have occupancies in safari lodges and camps in the national parks.

As said here before, Uganda is a fundamentally peaceful country, with unique attractions worth visiting, from Lake Victoria and the source of the River Nile to the "Mountains of the Moon," from gorilla tracking in Bwindi and Mgahinga to the spectacular scenery of Kidepo Valley National Park, and from Murchisons Falls to Kibale Forest. The municipality of Jinja has acquired the byname of "Adventure Capital of East Africa" for its range of thrilling attractions, offering white water rafting, river trips, bungee jumping, quad biking, horseback riding, and also hikes along the river and trips by bicycle through the friendly villages nearby.

Over the years, and while admittedly with a more focused and deliberate financing of the sector by government, much more could have been achieved. The progress of the industry is impressive by any standards. Indigenous stakeholders, arguably more than in any other country of the East African Community, have come to the forefront of the tourism industry and are now providing tens of thousands of direct and even more indirect jobs. Tourism, after coffee and tea, is the highest foreign exchange earner for the country, and the upswing of demand has seen more and more international airlines fly to Entebbe, connecting Uganda to the world and the world to Uganda.

Said a leading stakeholder yesterday to this correspondent: "The opposition lost the plot when they started to incite violence amongst their supporters. They cannot deny this. It is on public record that the main culprit has even ruled out the use of force when asked before the elections. Does this not show what is going on in his mind? Ugandans have rejected him, three times in a row. I, and many of my colleagues, welcome our government’s response. Ok, some measures were poorly executed and the responses seen on TV were unproportional here and there, but in the final analysis, those blocking roads, throwing stones, looting, and stealing in the midst of what they created were getting what was due to them. No government can just look on when rented hooligans and criminals are unleashed on the people, and the motives behind it are clear - it is an attempt to grab power by illegal means.

"Already our hotel occupancies are down, restaurants have empty tables, hire cars are left parked, and less safaris go on the road to the parks. Business leaders now must speak out and stand up, support government in reasonable measures to restore quiet on our streets, and demand of the opposition to make their case in parliament when it is inaugurated next week. Politics in Uganda is no longer for the streets, it is for the institutions we have created for that purpose. You yourself have struggled with us for many years to make tourism what it is today, and I and my colleagues sincerely hope that this political madman is not allowed to destroy what we built by hard work and determination. We have to tell them ‚Äėno you can't' stop the violence and stop going on the streets before you ruin all of us, otherwise expect no sympathy when you get arrested again and thrown in jail; you are no martyr, you are by all means a political failure and hooligan now."

Similar sentiments were expressed in varying degrees by other stakeholders in regular contact with this correspondent, showing how fed up the tourism industry, and also the business community in general, have become with these attempts to rock our peace. It can only be hoped that after the formal swearing in of the president today and the announcement of a new government, calm will return to Kampala allowing our visitors from abroad to peacefully walk our streets, sightsee, and shop, as has for long been our hallmark.

Quo vadis Uganda tourism?
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