By Carolyne Muyama
On May 16, President Yoweri Museveni endorsed and launched three Public Relations (PR) and Marketing Firms to represent, promote and seek tourism investment on behalf of Uganda, particularly in North America, the United Kingdom (UK), Ireland and German speaking markets. President Yoweri Museveni pointed out that the good geography of Uganda is the biggest wealth the country has. He also added that Uganda is the easiest country to sell because it has numerous tourist attraction sites. Indeed in 1908, Sir Winston Churchill called Uganda the ‘Pearl of Africa’ because of its beauty and endowment.
One would therefore think Uganda as well-endowed as it iseasy to market but tourism operators don’t agree. I have friends who are in the tourism business and I have listened to their stories and seen them cringe whenever there are negative stories flying around about Uganda. Even when riots happen so far away from tourism sites, and situations are handled it is still reported as if the whole country is at war. In fact Mr.TomOkello the Area Manager of Murchison Falls Conservation Area echoed this while he addressed Government Communications Officers visiting the part on May 21, 2016. He said, “The media does a disservice to our tourism sector because whenever they publish those alarming headlines tourists stay away and the country loses money.”
The fact that the tourism sector still gets a very small percentage of National Budget doesn’t help matters.Tourism only gets 0.4% of the national budget although it contributes UGX 270.5b to GDP as of 2015. But of late the President and Government have picked interest in the sector hoping the when fully developed it will provide employment to the youth and also earn more foreign exchange for the country. Perhaps this is the reason the President opted for international PR and Marketing firms to sell Uganda to the world.
At least the NRM Government has addressed the issue of security and on several occasions the President has re-affirmed those coming into the country that there is total peace adding that there is nobody who can destabilize the peace in Uganda. He said that the only challenge is the alarmists who report negatively about Uganda but promised to address that challenge.
On May 21, 2016, Uganda Wild Life Authority in collaboration with Office of the Prime Minister organizeda tour for Government Communications Officers to visit Murchison Falls National Game Park. Needless to say, majority of the members on the trip were visiting the park for the first time, which is common for Ugandans. Ugandans don’t attach so much value to touring their country. Most of us know the city and our home districts, where we come from and that is it. It’s rare to find a Ugandan who has visited every part of this country. And yet, we pay millions of dollars to visit other tourist sites in other countries.
Murchison Falls National Park is Uganda’s largest game park and one of oldest conservation areas. The park covers an area of 3,840 square kilometres and it’s bisected by Victoria Nile, a tribute of the River Nile. It is found in Buliisa and Nwoya districts. The two districts are on either sides of the Nile. The park derives its name from magnificent falls found on that tribute of the river.
The two day trip saw us take a game drive in the park, enjoy a boat cruise on Victoria Nile where we saw animals and birds, and take a hike to the top of the magnificent falls. Murchison or Kabarega Falls as they are locally known are the largest in Uganda and a key tourism site in conservation area.At the top, the falls the divide into two and then join at an inverted triangle to force into a 7m gorge before tumbling 43m below and continuing westwards into Lake Albert. It’s such a magnificent sight. We were told the bypass formed in 1962 to formUhuru Falls.
The Nile cruise took us 2 hours to reach the starting point of our hike. Here we could see the falls from a distance. The boat has a fixed time which is 09.00hours and 14.00 hours everyday. The falls can also be accessed by a boat ride from Paraa to Papyrus delta to up to Lake Albert so even those who aren’t able to hike can see the falls.
The hike is 1 to 2 hours according to the speed of the hiker. It is involves a normal walk, ascending and going down the valley. Halfway during the walk it begun to rain and of course there was nothing like taking shelter. We hiked on in the rain and it only stopped only when we got to the top an hour later. It is so breathtaking to watch Kabarega Falls at such a close range and to walk through the water splashing from the falls as they squeeze into the gorge. At the top, our bus picked us and we drove back to our dormitories which involved crossing the ferry. The ferry crosses from Bulisa to Nwoya. It crosses 3 times in a day and it follows a given schedule. The ferryis used by UWA staff, tourists, employees of the park and the locals to connect from one side of the Nile to the other.
On our game drive we were able to see several animals. We saw elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, hartebeests, antelopes, waterbucks, warthogs, baboons, crested cranes, enormous species of birdsand those with sharp eyes saw the lions.
Accommodation in the park is at Paraa Lodge although the rates are too high for local tourists. The available dormitories although habitableneed a lot of improvement and thankfully the Area Manager Mr. Tom Okello told us there are plans to construct modern dormitories for local tourists and provide alternative accommodation for the park visitors.
Mr. TomOkello also decried the negative publicity the media in Uganda gives the country at the expense of tourists. He said the media elsewhere is cautious of what they publish for the protection of the images of their countries and it’s high time we emulated them. “It’s not that other countries don’t have negative stories, their journalists are cautious, “said Mr.Okello.
He revealed that tourism is the second biggest income earner in Uganda and it needs a lot of support. Murchison Falls National Park has contributed UGX 6b to the surrounding districts as they entitled to 20% of the gate collections.
Our Tour Guide Ms. Martha Acha said that communities around the park have got employment on several facilities in the park, they are given free game rides to appreciate wild life and why conservation is important and also get firewood from the park and fish in the lake.
“There is a problem of poaching in the park. Many people pretend as if they are fishing yet they are laying traps for animals. Hippos are speared and many of them target elephants for their tusks.”
The Area Manager also confirmed that elephants are the most sought after animals by poachers in the park because of their tusks which cost a lot of money. He said just one tusk weighing 45kg costs over USD 45,000.