Mr. Stephen Asiimwe, the Chief Executive of Uganda Tourism Board, in an exclusive interview with Ehis Ayere of the African Leadership Magazine, gives insights into the colourful and unique offerings Uganda provides the rest of the world from the nature, culture, wildlife, accommodation, and hospitality of the country. He also discusses the improvement in infrastructures, health and security to enrich the lives of visitors in the country. Excerpts:
Uganda recorded over 1.3million tourist arrivals in 2014. Kindly tell us about the country’s unique tourism products and services.
Uganda is a country of diversity in its people, natural inheritance, lands, foods, weather—name it. It is pretty tough getting what is unique to Uganda because there are many products and services to fit that profile.
Uganda has 54% of all the mountain gorillas in the world. Considering that there are only 880 or so mountain gorillas, this is a significant contribution to world heritage. The mountain gorillas are found in the world heritage site of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (50% of world mountain gorillas) and Mgahinga National Park.
In addition, about 11% of the world’s bird species are found here in Uganda—a country about the size of Oregon in North America; or UK in Europe. There are over 1060 bird species in Uganda and one can literary begin birding right after departure from the airport or a step through the border.
Africa’s largest and highest mountain range, the Mt. Rwenzoris (Mountains of the Moon as Greek philosopher Ptolemy called them) are found on the western rim of the Great Rift Valley that goes through Uganda. Mt. Rwenzori, the third highest in Africa, has permanent snow and glacier through the year. It has the unique three horned chameleon.
Uganda is the source of the Nile, the world’s longest river that flows from the Lake Victoria, the largest tropical fresh water lake, and the world’s second largest fresh water lake.
With over 45 languages and dialects, Uganda is a rich cultural mixing pot right in the heart of Africa. The rich cultural diversity means variety in foods, dressing, customs and beliefs.
And it is for beliefs that Uganda today is known for the Uganda Martyrs. These 45 young men died for their Christian faith rather than submit to the Kabaka of Buganda between 1885- 1887. Today, over 3 million people from all parts of Uganda, Africa and other parts of Africa travel to pay homage in memory of these Christian martyrs.
Like the Batwa Trail, home of the Batwa people, tell us about other historical sites and homes to legendary tribes, most people don’t know about?
The Batwa Trail is not only about the Batwa people. While it goes through their former lives in the forests, considering they are believed to be the earliest dwellers in this part of Africa, other people live in the same area. You will find the Bakinga and Bafumbira who live in the same communities.
There are several historical sites in Uganda. In Buganda, we have the Kasubi Tombs, a world heritage site that has been the burial place for the kings (Kabakas) of Buganda. The kingdom of Buganda has been in existence for over 600 years.
The Bunyoro Kingdom, which has been there even longer, once stretched beyond Kisangani in DRC, all the way to central Uganda and way down to Northern Tanzania and Rwanda. Today, the Omukama of Bunyoro has his main seat in Hoima also the land where Uganda’s largest oil reserves are. In Bunyoro are historical sites of the kingdom with some of the tunnels the Bunyoro forces built in the fight against the British colonialists and their supporters. Fort Patiko in northern Uganda is one of the remaining forts built by colonialists in the bid to take over the people of Uganda.
In Kampala, we have the Uganda Martyrs shrine where 45 young men gave up their lives rather than give up their Christian faith. The shrines and the museum are a great attraction for 3 million domestic and international tourists.
Tribal conflicts in Uganda during the 1980’s and 90’s deeply affected the populations of wildlife in the country. Kindly tell us about wildlife in Uganda and the conservation efforts of the country?
There were no tribal conflicts in Uganda in the 1980s and 1990. Rather we had political instability with armed rebellions. This was to change in 1986 when President Yoweri Museveni’s government came to power. From then most of the country was at peace but for the north. The rebellions there finally ended. For the last decade or so, there has been peace all over Uganda.
That said, it must be noted that the political instability greatly affected the wildlife. Among the most affected were the great white rhino which was declared extinct in the 80s. The elephant population too suffered greatly through the 70s to the 80s falling from the tens of thousands to about 600. It must be noted that it was not only the wildlife that took a hit from the political instability, human populations too suffered.
Conservation without the involvement of humans is not sustainable. The political instability killed the economy and humans turned to poaching.
The tourism industry is expected to take appropriate measures to ensure the health, safety and security of tourists. What are some of the efforts towards improving security, and the measures in place to ensure the safety and security of tourists in Uganda?
Uganda is currently one of the safest countries in Africa. This is not by accident because the Government is very deliberate in maintaining the peace. To this end, Government has built a professional Police force, the Tourism Police, solely dedicated to the tourism industry. Their responsibility is to ensure all facilities are secure, tourists safe and specifically there to serve the industry.
Uganda Wildlife Authority, the government body in charge of the national parks and reserves, has also trained and increased the number of rangers that monitor the parks. Their responsibility is to ensure the wildlife and the tourists are safe.
These forces don’t work in isolation; rather they work together with other security agencies sharing information and resources. Because of this, it is easier to respond quickly to any need.
On the health front, the Health ministry and other bodies collaborate and coordinate all health matters. This collaboration extends to security and immigration.
While the ministry of health looks at the broader need, Uganda Tourism Board looks at the sanitation and standards in the hospitality industry. UTB regularly inspects and classifies hotels, restaurants and other such facilities to ensure standards and best practices are maintained. This work is done in collaboration with local authorities and other tourism players.
What is the state of improvement in infrastructure and the hospitality industry which is key to boosting tourism?
For a long time, the road infrastructure has suffered from the low investment, while the economy was growing rapidly and putting pressure on the transport sector. However, that changed in the last three years. Several new roads have been built and or opened around the country. In this financial year, Government has committed to upgrading key roads to the major tourism hot spots like the gorilla highlands.
In the hospitality industry, UTB and other sector players are working to see a reduction or removal of VAT on accommodation facilities, especially those in the rural areas. It is believed this will free up resources to invest in developing better facilities.
In general, the Government has and is investing heavily in infrastructure not only for the tourism industry but to spur development in all the other sectors too. Roads have been prioritized; Entebbe International Airport is being upgraded to handle greater traffic; there is a tourism police specific for the tourism sector. There are 1400 officers, probably no other country has such a specific police force.
More, Government has hired international firms to support the tourism sector by providing representation and marketing in key markets.
How hospitable are the peoples of Uganda?
Very friendly. Kampala has been named the best place to live in East Africa.