By Gerald Tenywa
When elephants fight, the grass suffers, goes an old saying. This becomes more realistic when it is literary played out by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the private sector engaged in tourism related business. The proverbial grass, the animals and related wildlife-based tourism, are suffering. Instead of working together as partners to promote tourism, the two parties are locked in endless conflicts.
As UWA rolls out innovations to improve services to clients, the private sector remains opposed, on grounds that they were not consulted and that what UWA is introducing will ruin their business. “We are going to strike because UWA has refused to listen to us,” Herbert Byaruhanga, the president of the Uganda Tourism Authority (UTA) told Saturday Vision in an interview.
When contacted, Jossy Muhangi, the UWA public relations manager, down-played the conflict, saying the cat-and-mouse game does not hold water. “I do not think it is a conflict, the terms are always clear,” Muhangi said, in reference to the recent development in which UWA will make gorilla permits accessible online, while booking will be done by registered Ugandan tour operators “We want them to take advantage of modern technology,” said Muhangi, adding that the different time zones mean that intending gorilla trackers would be able to know the number of available gorilla permits, even at night when tour operators are asleep.
Opposing online gorilla permits on grounds that it would lead to loss of employment, according to Muhangi, is counter-productive. He says more intending trackers would be able to see the gorilla permits online and then contact the Ugandan tour operators. “We know that tourism is private sector-led, that is why booking is going to be done through tour operators,” said Muhangi. “As the tour operators make more money from the increased gorilla trackers, UWA will also reduce on the losses incurred through unsold permits,” he said.
However, Byaruhanga cites the loss of business as the reason the tourism fraternity is opposed to online gorilla permit booking. He says when tourists physically contact tour operators to book gorilla permits, they can easily be convinced to visit our other parts of the country. “By taking gorilla permits online, tour operators lose their bargaining power,” Byaruhanga explained. In September, Maria Mutagamba, the tourism minister, set up a committee to resolve the matter.
Gorillas at Bwindi national park
The committee chaired by a commissioner in the tourism ministry has representatives from UWA, the Association of Uganda Tourism Operators (AUTO) and the communities, and a representative from the International Gorilla Conservation Programme. The committee is chaired by a commissioner in the tourism ministry Mutagamba ordered the committee to find a solution in three months, which elapsed in December 2013.
However, the matter remains unresolved because tour operators did not provide a representative. Apart from the online gorilla permits, the tour operators say UWA is introducing vehicles in national parks, which private sector players say is going to create competition and take away business. They also say the World Bank funded initiative in which UWA is expected to get buses to ply between Kampala and the protected areas, will undermine the earnings of tour operators. “Such services will compliment tour operators,” said Muhangi. “We are not competing with them. The tour operators target high end tourists, while our focuss is on domestic and budget tourists.” Muhangi cited groups organised under churches, Rotarians and families as some of the intending tourists who would visit the protected areas.
For long, he said many people have kept away from the protected areas because tour operators charge exorbitant fees. The conflict, which is fueled by greed, ignorance and arrogance, has rolled the names of the top leadership at UWA in the mud. “I do not know what is driving this man (Andrew Seguya, the executive director of UWA) You agree on one thing and he does something else,” said Byaruhanga. When contacted for comment, Seguya said UWA had formed what he called ‘the coalition of the willing’, comprising institutions willing to break boundaries to expedite the fulfilment of Government plans to build infrastructure. He said the Civil Aviation Authority, which is part of the “coalition of the willing” had introduced scheduled flights to the largest protected areas of the country.
Others include construction of tourism roads which will link the protected areas, such as Murchison Falls National Park in northern Uganda and the southern parts of the country, where Kibaale National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park are Experts say Kaddu Sebunya, representative of the Africa Wildlife Foundation UWA and the private sector need each other. But the conflicts that have emerged are motivated by fear of the unknown. The conflict is unhealthy, especially for the tour operators because 80% of their business is in the protected areas.
The Government does not adequately fund the Uganda Tourist Board (UTB). Even UWA does not get enough money from the Government and it cannot donate the money it uses for marketing to UTB, unless the law is changed. The private sector should reorganise and engage UWA over strategic interests and reforms. UWA keeps interacting with tour operators and lodge owners in clientele relationship. This should evolve into a partnership relationship. At the moment, the conflict is unhealthy and it does not help conservation and tourism