Complacency is always risky when you are all chasing after the same thing. Eventually, you lose sight of the prize and end up in regrets rather than sharing in the rewards.
During a recent interview with a leading local daily, Lilly Ajarova, the Chief Executive Officer of the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) did not mince her words.
“I hear people celebrating that the tourism sector is getting an increase in the budget, what budget? Most of this money goes into administrative costs and leaves us with nothing for marketing. We need the marketing budget prioritized,” she said.
Government spending proposals for the Ministry of Tourism during financial year 2023/24 have been pegged at UGX89 billion compared to the UGX194 billion allocated the previous year and UTB is to specifically get UGX23 billion.
From her vantage point, where she can see the bigger picture, you have to sympathise with Ajaravo’s frustration. There is a misguided impression, amongst people who should know better, that attracting tourists, even to such a picturesque country like Uganda, is easy. It is not.
A couple of days following this published interview, flamboyant and popular CNN business journalist, Richard Quest got married. That in itself is not unusual except for the fact in the Ugandan context, he is gay.
In announcing his nuptials, Quest threw some barbed comments about Uganda’s proposed anti-Homosexuality bill now waiting for President Museveni’s signature.
Quest is a major influencer who has a global audience. His comments carry some weight irrespective of whether you agree with him or not. The point is, his latest comments have a direct impact on many people’s perception about visiting Uganda and it is UTB’s job to counter them.
On the other hand, the rousing performance of the Ghetto Kids in the Britain’s Got Talent competition and their automatic qualification to the semi-finals is just the kind of stuff that acts as a counterpoint.
Tourism promotion is a hard job. For those involved in it, it’s all about national pride, passion, patience, persistency and the constant need for buckets full of cash. Uganda has plenty of people both in the public and private sector who are fired up by these admirable traits, but their efforts are increasingly thwarted by the lack of enough buckets.
With countless destinations available, you need the money to access the most appropriate marketing channels to entice visitors that a trip to Uganda is well worth their time and expense. Different markets require different strategies.
Complacency in this fiercely competitive industry, which globally generated total revenues of $1.2 trillion during 2022, (down from $3.5 trillion in 2019), is risky.
Aggressiveness is part of the game. Those who dither, like we so frequently do in Uganda, eventually end up being ditched.
Latest figures provided by the Ministry of Tourism, show that in 2022, Uganda earned $700m compared to the $1.6 billion in 2019. Last year, Uganda received just over 800,000 visitors, a 59% jump from the previous year when arrivals dropped nearly 50% from the high of 1.5 million visitors recorded in 2019.
Ungracious as it may sound, but nevertheless true, most tourists are like sheep. You have to herd them in the direction you want them to go and the shepherd needs to be facilitated if the herding is to deliver the desired outcomes.
Due to the economic impact of the pandemic and the geo-political uncertainty triggered off by war in Ukraine, today the stakes are higher. According to the United Nations
World Tourism Organisation, (UNWTO), although a recovery is taking place, tourists are expected to increasingly seek value for money and travel closer to home in response to the challenging economic environment.
In line with UNWTO’s scenarios published in May 2022, international tourism recovered 63% of pre-pandemic levels. Africa and the Americas both recovered about 65% of its pre-pandemic visitors, while Asia and the Pacific reached only 23%, due to stronger pandemic-related restrictions. By sub-regions, Western Europe (87%) and the Caribbean (84%) came closest to their pre-pandemic levels.
Up until the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Uganda’s tourism sector was surging ahead. Total annual earnings were regularly surpassing a billion dollars during the three years before the pandemic struck.
A large measure of the momentum arose from access to new funding provided by the five-year World Bank $100m Competitiveness Enterprise and Development Program (CEDP) which was launched in 2015. CEDP is administered by the Private Sector Foundation Uganda (PSFU).
Tourism was earmarked, among other key sectors, as an industry offering quick returns and significant considerable economic spin-offs along its supply-chain. The sector remains a leading beneficiary under the extended CEDP-AF that focuses on scaling up successful interventions.
All those subsequent positive reviews about how fantastic Uganda is to visit were a direct result of targeted marketing paid for by the CEDP disbursements to UTB.
In the meantime, government policy makers also picked up a stronger interest in tourism potential and from a relatively low stating base it must be said, steadily increased budgetary allocations to the sector. Not only is tourism development listed as a key sector in the National Development Plan, but also defined by the Uganda Investment Authority as a priority area for both local and foreign investment.
However, according to those in the business, notably tour operators and hoteliers, the government’s financial allocations to marketing and promotion, does not tally with the stated importance it attaches to the tourism sector.
Not long ago, Civy Tumusiime, the chairperson of the PSFU tourism and hospitality sector committee spoke for many when she said, “Underfunding the marketing of Uganda’s tourism is putting the country at a disadvantage.”
Next week the Pearl of Africa Expo will make a welcome return as an in-person event after the pandemic had halted all physical gatherings. It would be a great morale booster for stakeholders if key senior government officials turned up in large numbers and got to hear first hand updates about the most pressing challenges facing the tourism sector today.
Selecting government priorities is often subjective, depending on which interests are to be served, but the case for tourism promotion is not hard to see. An annual return of one billion dollars-plus is not bad at all. We have all seen that once the political will is cast in concrete, the government can move mountains to get things done.
For example, at considerable cost and seemingly overnight, Uganda Airlines was re- launched. A five-year tourism promotion strategy will cost substantially less and probably impact much more.
As much as some people persist in thinking, a national airline is not a tourist attraction,but it does help to ferry them in. The magic pill is constant marketing. Uganda’s visibility in the market place and how the country is portrayed internationally allows consumers to make informed decisions that hopefully lead to booking a ticket on that same Uganda Airlines.