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World economic meltdown hits Uganda’s safari tourism

By Vision Reporter

Added 10th May 2009 03:00 AM

National Park

As the sky begins to bruise, an indigo haze descends on Uganda’s “mountains of the moon,” and a solitary lioness limps through the savannah in the valley below. Few foreign tourists see it.

National Park

As the sky begins to bruise, an indigo haze descends on Uganda’s “mountains of the moon,” and a solitary lioness limps through the savannah in the valley below. Few foreign tourists see it.

According to Amos Wekesa, president of the Uganda Tourism Association, the economic tempest in the developed world has stripped the wallets of would-be safari-goers.

Against previous projections of 30-40% growth this year, he says tourism, which alongside coffee is Uganda’s biggest foreign currency earner, may see revenues drop 20-30% from last year’s $450m.

“We are seeing a meltdown,” Wakesa said.

“We may have about 20% of operators closing if this trend continues for the next 12 months.”

Typical of many developing nations, Uganda’s tourism-dependent economy is likely to suffer heavily as cost-conscious holidaymakers opt for less exotic destinations.

Relaxing in the bar of a new budget lodge, overlooking the cactus-strewn Queen Elizabeth National Park, Robert Pinter explains that many friends in the US are cutting back on foreign holidays, preferring to take cheap “stay-cations.”

He recently lost his job at Toyota which, like the rest of the American car industry, has suffered severely.

“Stay-cation is when you stay home for a vacation. People are doing more activities a short driving distance from where they live,” he said.

Pinter, by contrast, seized the opportunity of extended time off to experience Uganda’s mountain gorillas, track chimpanzees and indulge in a low-cost safari.

Until recently, Wakesa said, Uganda had been experiencing a tourism boom with arrival numbers soaring.

Wars, rebellions, military coups, droughts and despotic regimes have plagued many African countries since independence, scaring off potential tourists.

Uganda, like much of the continent, is now peaceful and rebel-free, but the reputation for violence and instability is tough to shake off. Furthermore, Wakesa explained, pitiful tourist receipts haven’t been the only problem over the years.

“Uganda in the 60s was the top destination in East Africa.

“Unfortunately for us, Idi Amin takes over power in 1971, and there's chaos with the killing of all the animals,” he said.

Amin’s troops and disenfranchised locals poached so vigorously that Queen Elizabeth National Park’s 8,000-strong elephant population fell to just 200 at one point, said park ranger Janet Okwel.

Many animals fled across the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The eastern borderlands of DRC have since been ravaged by a deadly constellation of militias fighting a 15-year conflict in which an estimated 5.4 million people have died. Okwel said the elephants are once again fleeing violence, and returning to the safety of Uganda’s national park.

Two hours’' drive north in Kibale forest, along a road flanked by men pushing bikes laden with clusters of green bananas, live the world’s largest concentration of chimpanzees.

Wakesa said a drop in revenues could spell disaster for conservation.

“The worry is that if you don’t protect these national parks, and the people living around the parks don’t see the value of alternative sources of income, what they will do is go into these national parks and poach,” he said.

“If we don’t have the tourists coming into the country and seeing the primates that we have within the forest, then people will think about chopping down the forest for charcoal.”

Poacher-turned-chimp-tracker Aston Biahanga isn’t so worried.

He said local people have seen the financial benefits of maintaining the forest for tourism.

“History is unlikely to repeat itself,” he said. “You get more money from tourists.”

Robust economic growth has fostered a middle class in Uganda which tourist chiefs hope will help buoy tourism.

“If you are born next to a national park, you take it for granted ... but we are seeing the numbers of local people increase,” Wakesa said.

“Many countries are trying to increase domestic tourism to cover up for the numbers they are going to lose because of the credit crunch.”

Sitting among the debris of his unfinished luxury lodge, investor Robert Byakutaga echoed that.

Above the growl of electric drills he said when he began building, he couldn’t have anticipated the global downturn.

“That is putting all our hopes to a standstill, but we think (we’ll look at) encouraging local tourism,” Byakutaga said.

Such measures are important, but what Uganda really needs, those involved say, is for the global economy, like the lonesome lioness, to find a panacea for its limp.


World economic meltdown hits Uganda’s safari tourism

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