Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Earlier this the year CNN Travel, a television magazine program watched by millions of travelers, voted Kidepo National Park the third best tourist destination in Africa.

While launching a new product last week, the Ik On Moru Engole nature walk Johnson Masereka’s the area conservation manager said, numbers to the park had spiked since the nomination.

The CNN Travel magazine described the park as “Uganda’s most beautiful, remote and least explored park …. Those who take the trouble to get here are rewarded with phenomenal wildlife sightings and a level of exclusivity that can rarely be had at any cost in neighbouring countries.”

Its main attractions they say are spectacular landscapes and great buffalo herds.

"The interesting thing about Kidepo is that its probably the least developed in terms of infrastructure. In fact visitors to the park report that it is a cause for more than worry when it rains in the area and churns the roads into a muddy morass, impassable by even the sturdiest offroad vehicles...

Kidepo is just one in numerous tourist attractions in this country, many of which we nationals take for granted and if  the inaccessible, park is being feted around the world one wonders what will happen when they see our other parks.

This kind of effortless endowment is at the heart of many of our problems. They say that God gives meat to those who don’t have teeth.

Country with not even a tenth of our natural beauty are drawing in millions of tourists who shell out billions of shillings a year.

In a recent survey of the most popular tourist destinations, 2013 by Business Insider magazine it had Bangkok at the top with almost 16 million tourists expected this year who will shell out more than $14b.

Not to downplay the country, but a religious attraction here and there and that exotic Asian appeal may account for its popularity among tourists. But how do you explain Riyadh, Saudi Arabia or Taipei, Taiwan or Shanghai, China or even Dubai? In terms of natural endowments all of these cities put together do not even come close to Uganda, yet all of them pull billions of dollars in revenues annually.

But we shouldn’t look too far for the answer.

Compared to these cities, Uganda is generally an inhospitable country for a tourist.

One thing that these countries have mastered is how to provide a likable experience for their guests. It goes beyond the toothy but sincere smiles we flash around as Ugandans.

Coming into Entebbe Airport after marveling at the approach over the shimmering lake, you are met by long lines at customs, a long wait at the conveyor belt before wading through unruly taxi drivers jostling for your attention.

"If you land at night you drive out on an unlit narrow highway, arriving in Kampala where the traffic laws as you know them count for nothing and there are no road signs to tell you where you are. If you are not a high flyer you want to live in a decent hotel, not the high end names, but there is no way of telling this unless you visit the hotels and test the taps and light switches for yourself. Then how do you get around this town? There is no bus service, no underground. And the taxis? You really don’t know whether you can trust them...

This before you try to get out to the parks and there are any number of tour guides and agencies operating out of hard to verify premises, it’s a miracle we haven’t had more tourist horror stories.

For us Ugandans we know how to maneuver through this mayhem, but for a visitor, on their first visit to Uganda it can be a testing experience.

A regular globe trotter would argue that this is not an unusual experience wherever they land, but the leading tourist destinations have institutionalized small things like updated city maps, road signs, information services, public transport to make these experiences as painless as possible.

How else do you explain that Singapore, a barren rock in the ocean, attracts 12 million people annually, about three times their population, who willingly divest themselves of $13.5b – or more than half Uganda’s GDP, while last year barely a million visited us?

It’s a scandal.

Word of mouth endorsement is more powerful than any million dollars spent on a dodgy tv ad campaign; if the tourists are happy here they will not only return but they will recommend it to their friends and relatives and they in turn will pass on the message.

"The billions we are planning to spend on an airline that will be dead on arrival, will be better spent improving the Entebbe airport experience, lighting our streets, improving the security, specifically in our towns and around the tourist attractions, generally working on making our visitors feel at home...

It is all very nice that Kidepo is top of the range but we need to move beyond just banking on our natural resources and invest to attract the tourists who are so attracted to our wonders --- but only from afar!

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