Thursday, January 2, 2014

UGANDA NEEDS TO MAKE THESE TOURISM MILLIONS COUNT

This week the tourism ministry will be seeking to have a $25m (sh65b) loan approved. The loan is meant to boost the country's tourism potential through boosting hospitality training, the ministry's internal capacity and for marketing the country abroad.

In the global tourism picture Uganda is one of the world's best kept secrets. 

According to tourism evangelist Amos Wekesa we as the source of the river Nile are earning next to nothing compared to Egypt's $3b; one in three tourists last year left home in search of good weather, Uganda's location on the equator tempered by our average height above sea level means we have the ideal weather for tourism; we have five of the top ten highest peaks on the continent and a recent National Geographic survey had the Rwenzoris as one of the top 15 hikes globally and the only one in Africa.

And we haven't even started talking about the national parks with all their game, bird varieties and natural attractions.

It shouldn't come as a surprise maybe. We have invested very little in the industry probably because we are so well endowed we take it for granted.

So in terms of the pushing Uganda to its rightful place at the head of leading tourist destinations in the world, the money will come in handy.

But as with all good news in Uganda there is always is a catch. 

Of the $25m loan, $12m is earmarked for boosting the Crested Crane Tourism training school in Jinja, $3m is for boosting the ministry's capacity to do its job and $10m is for marketing Uganda abroad.

Experience dictates that all these expenditures should be gone over with a fine comb -- before, during and after they have been made, but there is reason to believe that the usual suspects are sharpening their knives to get at $10m marketing budget, school is not as specific as the other two votes.

Wekesa on his Facebook page raised the alarm last week that some private players in the industry want to appropriate all this money for their own needs, arguing that Uganda Tourist Board (UTB) the official marketing agency lacks capacity to utilize the money optimally.

First off, these connected officials should be stopped from getting their grubby fingers on the loot by whatever means necessary.

There are competing needs for these funds but the best use of this money would be in kicking off a sustainable , self propelling marketing drive, which at the bare minimum will raise awareness about what Uganda has to offer.

Whereas we have severe limitations in infrastructure near or in our major attractions -- we have 1500 beds in our national parks compared to 7000 in a single Kenyan park, the Masai Mara, once the tourist numbers start to roll in investments by the private sector will follow.

Out reaches to media houses in the countries of major tourist origin -- including China, would be a good start. Putting our country on the radars of some of the major tour agencies that serve Africa can follow. The early adopters would soon follow, before the groundswell follows years evens decade later -- the point is we have to start somewhere and now.

One can understand the seduction of million dollar ad space on a major international media house but nothing beats word-of-mouth marketing or third party endorsement to sell the gospel abroad.

It is amazing that we have ignored tourism all this time especially given its ripple effect through the economy, in terms of jobs created, boost to production and foreign exchange earnings, for the relatively small investment required. 

And despite this our tourism numbers have continued to inch up -- we now have 70,000 tourists wheezing around on boda bodas annually.

But it's as they say, God gives meat to those who don't have teeth.

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