UGANDA (eTN) - As 2012 is waning now, and with it Uganda's accolade as the Lonely Planet Guide Books' Number ONE Destination for the year, and the hype fades of reaching the half century mark of independence from Britain, the country is getting an unexpected but well-deserved boost from none other than National Geographic.
The Washington-based magazine and scientific research society has put Uganda in their top 20 global destinations, while lamenting that The Pearl of Africa is often bypassed when visitors make decisions for their safari destination, with some neighboring countries favored over Uganda.
Only last week was Uganda named as THE birding destination, with over 1,000 species found in the country, and the National Geographic mention will undoubtedly boost interest in the country for 2013 and beyond.
âLike many times before, Uganda gets praise for nature, parks, wildlife, and birds. But has this ever translated in government making us a priority sector? NOT ONCE!â said a regular source yesterday afternoon as the news began to emerge before continuing, âWhen we compare marketing budgets in Kenya, in Tanzania, or in Rwanda with our budget in Uganda it is a shame. I am not even talking of Egypt or South Africa or Morocco. I am just comparing to our direct neighbors who are also our closest competitors. I know they have issues there, too, but their marketing budget is making things happen there.
âTheir tourism boards can afford to be omnipresent in all key trade fairs and tourism shows. We as Uganda should be attending those, but UTB [Uganda Tourism Board] has only got money for ITB and WTM [World Travel Market] and maybe one or two others. I heard that one of our companies was for the first time flying Uganda's flag at a show in Singapore last month. Those are growth markets. We have daily flights from that part of the world directly to Entebbe with Emirates and Qatar. I think if we had the funding for stands from government we could attend those Adventure Travel shows in the US because that really is our market.
âUganda is a top adventure destination with so many things to do. From primate tracking to rafting, from mountain climbing to big game safaris, and now we have acrobatic flying and parachuting, too. We spend as much money as we can afford but besides our tickets and hotels and all, if at least UTB could absorb the cost of the stand at such events. We are pushing finance to include a greater budget for tourism next financial year and give UTB at least a million US Dollars. Our sector can repay that with more arrivals and a lot more inflow of forex. We are also banking on EAC, COMESA, and IGAD initiatives to push tourism to the top of the economic agenda. But we could do so much better if we just had better facilitation.â
But it is not just nature, wildlife, birds, and adventure which brings growing numbers of visitors to Uganda. Vastly-improved meeting and conference facilities, created for the Commonwealth Summit in November 2007, have boosted Uganda's ability to host major global and continental events, and here in particular it is almost entirely the private sector carrying the burden of promoting their facilities abroad, while government, however, is putting up the relevant bids to be considered host nation as many global meetings are awarded on a rotating basis.
The main city hotels in Kampala, like the Kampala Serena Hotel with their adjoining Serena Conference Center, the Kampala Sheraton Hotel with significant meeting capacity and the now under construction Kampala InterContinental Hotel all eye the meeting market, but it is undoubtedly the lakeside resort and conference complex of Munyonyo which is offering the widest range of meeting facilities available today in Uganda.
The 450+ rooms and 2 main conference centers will soon in fact see a major expansion drive. The present horse riding center, created as one of the first facilities when the complex was still emerging from a lakeside wilderness, is due to be shifted to the periphery, making space for another conference facility which will drive overall capacity to host parallel meetings to the 10,000 mark. A new accommodation block is due to be added with another 200 rooms but word from the grapevine has it that the owners are eventually eyeing 1,000 rooms, which would make it the largest such facility in the entire Eastern African region, ideally located outside the city center by some 15 kilometers on the scenic shores of Lake Victoria. And if that is not enough, the new Entebbe highway, for which ground was broken two weeks ago, will see a major branch from the Lweza, Kajjansi area towards Munyonyo, avoiding all the traffic jams as vehicles reach the closer suburbs. Once complete in a few years, Uganda will have top-rated facilities in the city, near the city, and across the country with safari lodges and safari camp inside and outside the national parks and game reserves, or along the upper Nile valley, able to meet the expectations of visitors from around the world, both seeking luxury as well as those traveling on a budget.
Added the same source in closing: âYou are right, of course, we also have a growing number of conference visitors coming here, and if the Munyonyo facilities are expanding the way you say, we will have to send the UTB people also to MICE trade fairs to tell the world what great places we have here. That is a big market and we cannot leave it to our neighbors who have big conference centers in their cities and like in Kenya want to build another one in Mombasa. We must be more active but again, this takes money. I hope our new minister will be more successful to make her cabinet colleagues listen to what she, and the private sector, have to say when the resources are distributed for next year's budget.â
A bright future for Uganda's tourism industry? Time will tell.