Uganda's opportunity

OUR PLANET 10.1 - Tourism

Uganda's opportunity


says that the country, by-passed by mass tourism because
of its past troubles, is now pioneering a new course


The world is littered with the social, ecological and economic debris of commercial opportunities that have been greedily seized, consumed and later abandoned. Tourism is as much to blame as any other industry. The pandemic outbreak of 'touristitis' in the last few decades has left gaping wounds in many of the world's most pristine and beautiful natural environments.

Nevertheless tourism has also become an efficacious panacea for many countries: a newly discovered cocktail of social development, commerce and foreign exchange earnings that produces huge macro-economic benefits. The general prognosis is that the wounds are acceptable as a way of promoting well-being of the 'whole'.

But here it all starts to go horribly and cumulatively wrong. Tourism is a very young industry that has grown with exponential ease. Cultured on human needs and fed by socio-economic circumstances, there has been little time or inclination for any effective critical appraisal. The excitement of tourism is all-consuming. Its power lies very firmly with ethnocentric developed world markets. Some 80 per cent of all international travellers come from just 20 countries, which control, create - and evaporate - demand for developing country products. This dependency has been thrust upon nations desperate for economic answers, but Uganda is determined to avoid it.

Last August 1998, President Museveni announced the start of a countrywide sustainable tourism programme, the culmination of two years of preparatory work by the Ministry of Tourism and the Uganda Tourist Board. He said that Uganda 'has a unique opportunity... to conceive an initiative that has sustainability at its very heart... We wish to combine ecological and social benefits with a welcome boost to our local economies and thus to the status and well-being of Uganda as a whole.'

The opportunity is this: Uganda's economic 'vital signs' are relatively stable and tourism is just a small component of an otherwise diverse revenue base. President Museveni has always been adamant that this is the way forward for the country.

Marketing is critical in this idealistic, but ultimately attainable, matrix for sustainable tourism development. If Uganda is to display its wares, it must be in the right place at the right price - and have a guarantee. So we must understand who our suppliers are, and what their capabilities and limitations are. We must know who our customers are, what they want, and how much they are prepared to pay. And we must understand what we are selling and how we are packaging it. While this may seem obvious, it is usually put into very profitable practice by transnational companies that recognize and seize such opportunities. How many governments, particularly in the developing world, have made an effort to evaluate these kinds of challenges and consequences before selling to the bidder with the biggest wallet?

Holistic foundations

Uganda is trying to redefine the expectations of tourism, and its emoluments, and to relate them to the principles of sustainability and to the realistic potential of human and environmental resources. President Museveni refers to 'the benefits that sensitive tourism development can bring to Uganda'. Holistic foundations are being prepared incorporating protected area management and development, forest resource management, rivers and lakes, community tourism, private and public sector capacity and expertise in an integrated programme. The target is to develop the number of tourists visiting these areas to the critical mass that can allow them to function without subsidies from the Government or donors - and to develop effective management capacity at the same time.

The European Union, the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development, the United Nations Development Programme, and British, Danish and German bi-lateral aid agencies have come together for the first time in Uganda to discuss and enhance overlapping programmes. They and the Government of Uganda will be investing over $100 million in the environment, wildlife and tourism during the next five to seven years. This, it is hoped, will assure the long-term viability of these natural and cultural resources. But these interventions have no hope of succeeding unless there is a parallel strategy for long-term funding.

The low-key development of community tourism is a good illustration of Uganda's philosophy. The recently inaugurated Uganda Community Tourism Association (UCOTA) is being supported through its members to establish quality handicraft producers - mainly women and disabled groups - as a precursor to other more marginal revenue-earning micro-projects. The members understand that they must carry on with their bread-and-butter activities but can supplement their incomes with specific, well-chosen products that UCOTA will help market and distribute. The emphasis is on establishing UCOTA's capacity to manage its activities sustainably.


Interactive participation

Community tourism is widely promoted but seldom really works for long and usually creates more community tensions than ever existed before. By giving the power to UCOTA, rather than a range of single local communities, Uganda believes that genuine interactive participation is more likely to take place, and communities are less likely to be susceptible to manipulation.

Moving away from external dependency is at the core of sustainable tourism interventions in Uganda, and is what President Museveni means by the conception of ' initiative that has sustainability at its very heart from the beginning.'

Some 5,000 tourists visit Uganda each year, and 10,000 or so resident expatriates participate at various times of the year in touristic activities: these two groups generate about 90 per cent of the occupancy of lodges or tented camps in protected areas. With so few tourists, revenue generation - and therefore tax collection from the industry - is fairly minimal. Only money left behind by tourist spending has any lasting benefits: this is what pays the bills and the salaries.

It was not always like this. The numbers of tourists were far greater in the late 1960s. Murchison Falls National Park, one of Uganda's 10 National Parks, alone had nearly 90,000 foreign visitors in 1969: last year there were about 7,500. Two of three huge old lodges that used to cater for these visitors now lie in the middle of the Park like crumbling Ozymandian relics.

Much has happened in Uganda since the late 1960s. Tourism numbers declined from about 110,000 in 1970 to a low of 450 in 1975; the numbers of large mammal populations were reduced by up to 95 per cent in most 'protected areas' by uncontrolled poaching and gratuitous killing by assorted militia; the economy took a massive dive into the drudgery of debt; institutions deteriorated in disarray; the transport infrastructure disintegrated and industries died. Such was the enormity of the catastrophe that it took the present Government a full decade to get inflation under control, reducing it from a staggering annual 280 per cent to an acceptable 3 per cent a year.

Undeniable opportunities

Anybody who has ever visited Uganda will attest to its tremendous and spectacular natural diversity as well as to the genuine world-class hospitality provided. There are undeniable opportunities - and the more other African destinations promote the spread of mass tourism, the more significant and rare those undeveloped natural resources will become. The internal strife in Uganda during the 1970s and 1980s and the current residual stigma have 'banked' its natural habitats as resources for the future, and allowed the country to look at its tourism opportunities from a very different perspective - starting in the 21st century and looking forward.

President Museveni points out that 'the growing international debate about what is generally called "ecotourism" has tended to focus on repairing damage caused by ill-planned schemes.' He adds that Uganda has avoided, albeit by default, exposure to 'the dramatic growth in mass tourism during the seventies and eighties'.

Sustainable tourism development is nascent and still experimental. Its governing premise is to examine consequences before one acts. The consequences - economic, environmental, social, cultural and political - should all subscribe to a set of criteria for sustainability.

Shaun Mann is tourism product and market development advisor to the Minister of Tourism, Trade and Industry in Uganda.

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