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Uganda dancing to the beat of the wrong drummer

Will Uganda's bureaucrats kill tourism and aviation?

Wolfgang H. Thome, eTN  Jul 25, 2011

UGANDA (eTN) - Only recently was it reported here, that not only did the international airlines express their dissatisfaction with the service levels provided by the international airport in Entebbe, but then went ahead and dared to give open advice on how to stimulate travel to Uganda. They suggested for instance doing away with expensive visa fees or making life for airlines easier by offering them, at least the home-based ones, "self handling status" to escape from the clutches of hugely overpriced handling services.

Meant honestly and offered with a keen concern over the future of Uganda’s tourism and aviation sectors, and having to fill their seats between their home hubs and Entebbe, of course, some thought this was an unprecedented explanation which would be the seed for better things to come, stimulate debate and discussions, and result in a brighter future.

And a seed indeed it was, but the little sapling now looks quite different, as if smuggled into the nest by a wayward evil cuckoo, and caused yet more dismay to airlines and the few in the tourism sector who have even picked up on this development, arguably very few indeed beyond the airlines, that is.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) earlier this week called the air operators to a meeting and confronted them with demands that the already regionally highest airport tax of US$40 per passenger, would become effective July of this year, in other words, backdated by several weeks, and be subject to an 18 percent surcharge for an 18 percent value-added tax. That would bring the airport tax payable on the ticket to a whopping US$47.20 for international passengers, besides which they are forced to shell out US$10 for security – the latter the greatest insult to them as they have to get out in a small and disorganized car park, come rain or shine, and lug their baggage either up the sloping ramp, now only available for VIPs to drive up to the terminal, or else across the road to the point of the stairs – yes there are no elevators even for the disabled anywhere near those points – and are either lucky to find a porter or else, in the rush to get upstairs and to the check-in, carry it themselves.

And then upstairs they are met normally by an extended queue already outside the terminal during peak times when several flights depart at once, particularly enjoyable when the rain lashes the area, before then snail trailing their way through the often single screening machine. Admittedly there are two, but this frequent traveler has rarely seen both in action at once.

We all know that security is a major concern in this day and age, but unlike the much busier Jomo Kenyatta Airport, where passengers are still dropped in front of the departure terminals 1–3 and cars can be parked nearby, or at the Kanombe International Airport in Kigali, the Ugandan security, emboldened by untouchability and never really keen on true and meaningful dialogue with their airline customers at Entebbe International Airport, simply refuse to review this ludicrous arrangement – after all, departing passengers are going away, and by such experiences surely they are less likely to ever come back for a second such dose of inconvenience and hardship, especially for the elderly.

Airlines participating in said meeting earlier in the week, held in the CAA city conference room in their offices in Worker’s House, were reportedly livid over the suggestions, and a series of Tweets and emails from Blackberry phones of several participants came instantly to this correspondent, knowing that the matter would receive attention while the local media would equally likely ponder what even to do with such information, short of understanding its impact to start with.

Making flying out of Uganda even more expensive than it already is, most fares are higher to Entebbe that in comparison to Nairobi and by often substantial margins, the latest attempt to make the cost of a ticket even dearer spells badly for the country’s efforts to promote tourism. Airline executives are uniform in their off the record responses that they have referred the issue to their head offices to discuss current and future plans for Entebbe – a thinly veiled reference not to expect more flights should this actually materialize.

On the other side of the equation comes the growing disillusionment of the country’s private sector with the "government tourism setup." While a new ministry of tourism was formed, it has no own premises at present nor its own permanent secretary – Amb. Onen still shares his time with Trade and Industry – nor do most staff in the formerly joint ministry of tourism, trade and industry actually know to which entity they will be transferred to. The budget for the current year, while setting aside the barest of financial necessities to the sector’s new own ministry, has again left the tourist board hanging out to dry, now barely able to meet recurrent expenditure and having little left thereafter to do much else.

In addition, government has failed to make tourism a priority sector with development partners, so that the sector could be considered for major funding initiatives, leaving the European Union (EU) and regular European government bilateral discussions to focus on other sectors but not tourism. It is presently only USAID with a major program in support of tourism and conservation in place, but with the budget deadlock in Congress, no one really knows where USAID’s programs are heading to either.

Faced with underfunding on one side, a fragmented private sector to add to that, and this latest attempt to "milk the cow yet more without giving more feed," the signs are ominous. While Uganda's neighbors Rwanda and Kenya are beating their drums and working the globe to get more tourists, while the Seychelles revels in the global spotlight as a result of a determined government policy of a true private-public partnership in support of tourism, Uganda seems to be heading into an altogether different direction.

If the sector leaves the decisions to the bureaucrats, those who want to add another US$7.20 on the departure tax for instance or those who for too long have hamstrung and disabled the tourism industry by giving funding to other "more deserving sectors," as has on occasions been stated to this correspondent when challenging finance ministry officials over their bias against tourism, the outcome will be bad. Bad for the sector and bad for the country overall, as tourism has shown elsewhere that as the fastest-growing global industry, it can generate jobs faster than most other sectors, can attract foreign direct investment with greater ease, and can support the worsening gap in the balance of payments of Uganda by earning more and more foreign exchange.

The choices are clear for the powers that be to make - throw their weight and support behind tourism and ensure that sufficient, not extravagant, funding is put into place, or join those who, knowingly or not, are about to kill tourism and aviation by their shortsighted demands for higher taxes, less incentives, and shrinking funding.

Will Uganda's bureaucrats kill tourism and aviation?
Rafting the Nile in Uganda / Image via

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