Tourism is the single highest foreign currency earner in Uganda.
By Kyetume Kasanga
Four gunmen kidnapped American tourist Kimberly Sue and her Ugandan driver, Jean Paul Mirenge in Queen Elizabeth National Park on April 9, 2019.
For the duo’s release, the terrorists received $30,000 (sh112m) after protracted negotiations. The money was a refund of costs the kidnappers purportedly incurred during five hostage days in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Helped by the US military, Ugandan security later arrested eight suspects. The gig drama was mouth-watering because it will surge the country’s tourist arrivals as it captivated international media coverage. As well as highlight Uganda’s tourism to the outside world, none of the international press slipped into the habitual despondency about the country or her government.
Even Canada, who validated travel advisory to her citizens four days after the rescue mission, warned them only to “Exercise a high degree of caution in Uganda due to muggings and theft, especially in urban centres.”
Tourism is the single highest foreign currency earner in Uganda. Uganda Bureau of Statistics reports show the country received 1.8 million tourists last year, up from 1.4 million in 2017. This year’s target is 2.8 million. The 1.4 million arrivals ploughed in $1.4b (sh5,243b), up from $1.35b (sh5,056b) in 2016, contributing about 24% of total exports and 10% of GDP.
The international press mentioned that 67-year-old Queen Elizabeth which is one of 10 National Parks is the most popular safari destinations in the country, home to over half of the world’s endangered mountain gorillas. It offers opportunity to see dozens of enormous craters carved dramatically into rolling green hills, as well as coalitions and prides of about 50 rare tree-climbing lions sleeping the day away hidden in the fig and acacia trees, ready to pounce on herds of unsuspecting Uganda kobs.
Habituated chimpanzees steal the show in Kyambura Gorge, obstinacy of 10,000 African Cape buffaloes and parades of 3,000 elephants walk leisurely in the sprawling savanna grasslands that are set against the backdrop of jagged Rwenzori Mountains. International media also captured a crash of 5,000 hippopotami that line the banks of panoramic Kazinga Channel and 619 bird species in easy watch.
The media also picked good comments by Indigo Ellis, the lead DR Congo analyst for Verisk Maplecroft, a UK-based research firm specialising in global risk analysis, who said that cases of tourist kidnap are extremely rare in Uganda. The statement has a ripple effect to encourage Uganda-destined tourists.
Like Canada, the US ranks Uganda as a Level 2 Travel Advisory Nation, the same level with France and Belgium. The level asks US citizens to be alert about petty crimes, but should not be alarmed (while in Uganda). At Level 3, they are warned to “Reconsider Travel”, while at Level 4, which is the highest level of alertness, they are stopped from travelling.
Favourable coverage was by the influential American Cable News Network (CNN) which is available in over 100 million US households. CNN broadcast coverage extends to over 890,000 American hotel rooms, as well as carriage on subscription providers throughout neighbouring Canada. It is also available to about 96.4 million US pay-television households (82.8% of households with at least one television set). Globally, CNN programming airs through CNN International, which is viewed in 212 countries.
Paris-based Agence France-Presse (AFP), the world's oldest news agency at 187 years and now the third largest news agency, also fairly covered the incident. Through six languages it transmits in 151 countries via multimedia. The British Reuters with coverage in 16 languages around the world was also in the fray. Each day, over one billion people worldwide consume its news through multiple platforms. It is subscribed to by over 750 television broadcasters in 115 countries, 1,000 newspapers including 13 of the top 15 globally, 33 million monthly unique visitors to their website Reuters.com and two million active viewers of Reuters TV.
The incident also attracted good coverage from Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), a New York-based television and radio service. CBS owns or is affiliated to more than 240 television stations throughout the US. Some of them are also accessed in Canada via pay-television providers or in border areas over-the-air.
Expectedly, Voice of America had a direct interest in the kidnap and rescue. It is a dynamic broadcaster in over 40 languages. Serving an estimated global audience of more than 275 million, VoA is a US government-funded international multimedia agency working as the Federal government's official external broadcaster. It is the largest US international broadcaster, with several affiliated media houses. These include Mynet, a leading internet portal in Turkey with over 6.5 million registered members and 38 million monthly unique visitors.
President Donald Trump who keenly followed the events in Uganda tweeted shortly after the rescue announcement was made: “Pleased to report that the American tourist and tour guide that were abducted in Uganda have been released. God bless them and their families!” The tweet garnered about 23,000 re-tweets, 118,000 ‘likes’ and 5,600 replies. Trump has over 59.6 million twitter followers, according to Socialbakers.com, a digital marketing platform for social media.
Statistics from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime pitch Mexico as the most dangerous countries with reported kidnaps. There were nearly 1,200 in 2017 but almost 11 million Americans vacationed there. Brazil had around 1,000 kidnaps in 2012 but about 5.7 million visitors went there.
Likewise, in the Philippines 27 foreigners were kidnapped in 2018 but there were 7.1 million visitor arrivals. In its recorded history, Uganda has not had as much abduction.
The international exposure through aggregate media coverage of the Kimberly incident is rare but great mileage for Uganda’s tourism sector growth. The sector should pick traction to be robust, marshal employment and rake in more revenues.
The writer is the Principal Information Officer at the Ministry of ICT & National Guidance