Following the latest American kidnap incident, President Yoweri Museveni assured both Ugandans and foreign tourists that his country is safe and vowed: “to deal with these isolated pockets of criminals.”
KAMPALA - The release of a kidnapped American tourist, Kimberley Sue Endicott, and her tour guide, Jean-Paul Mirenge, on April 7, did not only send a rippling sense of relief to her family and friends but also to officials in Kampala.
The duo, kidnapped on Tuesday, April 2, from the remote Ishaka sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda, was released after a $30,000(about sh112m) ransom was reportedly paid to the kidnappers.
The release left officials in Uganda heaving a sigh of relief and thumping their chests for what they called a successful rescue mission despite criticism that paying a ransom could easily fire-up more criminal acts.
Since the incident, eight suspects have been arrested in connection with the crime and one suspected kidnapper, Onesmus Byaruhanga charged this week. Supposedly, they were identified after a tracking device was planted in the ransom bag.
Weeks before the kidnap happened, the Ugandan government had embarked on a vigorous campaign to promote the country's tourism sector that is Uganda's leading foreign exchange earner with 1.32 million tourists annually. In 2016/17, tourism brought in $1.4 billion, 4.3% GDP and 26% of exports.
One of the tourism campaigns dubbed Tulambule (let's tour) aimed at awakening local tourism by encouraging Ugandans to visit tourism sites that many perceived for outside-the-country visitors.
Another campaign, "Miss Curvy Uganda," backfired. It marketed female Ugandans with well-curved bodies as a tourist attraction. The Church protested it. Church leaders, including the archbishop of the Church of Uganda, Stanley Ntagali, observed that it exploited females and violated women's values.
It was amidst this controversial campaign period that kidnappers struck and abducted the American tourist, infuriating the leadership in Kampala that boasts of securing all the borders of the country. Note that tourism in Uganda is as important to this small East African country of 47.5 million people as oil is to Saudi Arabia.
The country's main tourism sector has features such as game parks, freshwater bodies like Lake Victoria (the biggest in Africa), River Nile (the longest in the world) and mountains such as Elgon and Rwenzori.
What is more, a recent survey conducted by InterNations an, international community and information site for people who live and work abroad, indicated that Uganda ranks fifth among the top 10 countries globally where expatriates easily make new friends and generally feel at home.
Gifted by natural beauty, Uganda was in 1908 christened "Pearl of Africa" by Winston Churchill, a former British prime minister. In 2017, it was named the fourth-best tourism destination in the world by Rough Guides, a leading travel publisher.
The kidnapers touched Uganda's heart, which explains why the government responded the way it did not only to rescue Endicott but also its cash cow, the tourism sector. As soon as the news about the kidnap started circulating, Police deployed some of its best commandos to the game park that borders the lawless eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Between March and May 2018, 81 cases of the kidnap of Ugandans were reported to Police in the country, according to a report produced by the defunct Flying Squad and the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID). At that and with the recent focus on an abducted American woman, few were looking at the fact that roughly 100,000 people are kidnapped worldwide each year.
Is Uganda safe?
Whereas kidnaps of ordinary Ugandans for ransom have become a growing concern in Kampala, for decades tourists visiting Uganda have been safe from the kidnappers. Tourists routinely roam the streets in Kampala and upcountry freely without any incident.
Following the latest American kidnap incident, President Yoweri Museveni assured both Ugandans and foreign tourists that his country is safe and vowed: "to deal with these isolated pockets of criminals."
Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) chief executive officer, Lilly Ajarova, also issued a statement saying the abduction at the Queen Elizabeth National Park was a "one-off" incident that doesn't adversely reflect the security situation in parks and the country.
And despite the latest kidnap incident, safety and security-Uganda travel guidelines assert that this country is safe to visit as the risk zones particularly in the north are clearly defined and can easily be avoided.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) also insisted that tourists moving out on a drive in the park should always go with the armed ranger guides even as game parks are heavily protected by Uganda People Defense Force (UPDF) soldiers well aware that the facilities could attract wrong elements. At the time Endicott was kidnapped on a drive, she did not have armed escorts.
The travel guidelines indicate that "Uganda's tourism highlights are located in safe areas, and the risk zones are easily avoided without compromising your safari."
Queen Elizabeth national park, one of Uganda's most famous wildlife reserves, borders the Virunga National Park of DRC, the oldest in Africa. Harm to tourists has occurred in the Congo.
While Ugandan officials are certainly more diligent now and watching borders since the April incident, there are nine other national parks worthy of visits and away from the DRC border. Tourists are urged to come to any of those.