Please take a minute to check out the “Results of hotels in western” – Western Uganda that is. I am using the “official” online tourism guide provided by the Uganda Tourism Board to find a decent place to stay for a hypothetical trip to western Uganda. Helpful? Decidedly not.
While Uganda holds a lot of potential in the tourism industry, the sector today is currently extremely user-unfriendly. If you have never been to Uganda, it is not only difficult to figure out what you should see in a limited period of time, but more importantly, how you will see it. Currently, guidebooks are probably your best bet (I have found Bradt’s most useful), but these can be quickly outdated and often do not contain enough detail about the various lodges, tour operators, restaurants, and other attractions.
Most tourists today will buy the odd guidebook, but turn to the internet for the most up-to-date and detailed information when planning their travel. Thus, maintaining a well-designed and user-friendly national tourism site is critical. Visitors need help sorting through information regarding pros and cons of various parks and other attractions, finding accommodation that matches their expectations and budget, and getting in touch with a tour operator they can trust with their lives and money.
Currently, if you go to a site like “Ugandatourism” – the second search result when googling “Uganda tourism” – you can find a (very incomplete) list of hotels with no indication of relative price or quality. The Uganda Tourism Board website’s list is slightly easier on the eye, and more comprehensive, but again you would not have any way of determining which of these many hotels would be best for you. (But hey, at least their site is working, which is more than can be said for the tourism department of the Ministry for Tourism, Trade and Industry).
On yet another site, the Uganda Tourism Guide suggests: “A little research in [sic] necessary to establish the reputation of the Uganda tour operator you choose to take care of your vacation. Take time to discover the membership of that operator in different Tourism organizations such as AUTO, Africa Travel Association, ATTA, Nature Uganda and so much more.” Let’s face it, this seems like a daunting task to those thousands of miles away and with no contacts on the ground. Very few people are going to “take time” to investigate and evaluate dozens of tour operators. More likely they will just give up and look elsewhere. Weeding out briefcase tour operators is not the job of a tourist, it is the job of government!
What to do? Since I try to avoid criticism that is not constructive, let me offer some suggestions (particularly for the website):
- Make very clear who is a certified tour operator with the Uganda Tourism Board or MTTI as well as who is blacklisted
- Provide information about the cost of hotels, restaurants, etc., (the $, $$, $$$ ranking is good enough) as well as customer reviews
- Discuss the pros and cons of various parks and other attractions (where will you see lions? Giraffes? Where can you go boating? Fishing? Birding? Even a basic chart will do)
- Set up a help center where interested visitors can email or call with questions or concerns, and are assisted by a real person with expertise in the sector. There is already something like this here, but I’m not sure how well it works.
- Clean up the bathrooms at national sites like the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary and Source of the Nile. A little goes a long way.
- Prize and support the private sector.
- Overall, consider the customer. Look at everything from the perspective of the visitor – whether tourist, investor, or researcher.
Again, I haven’t even touched the domestic tourism sector, which, as far as I can tell, is not promoted effectively either. Even if you live in Uganda, you are forced to rely on word of mouth for recommendations on where and how to visit any of the many beautiful sites around the country. Tourism is not just a way to showcase Uganda, but is also (potentially) a major source of revenue. Competition with Kenya and Tanzania is high, and Rwanda is getting there too. The sector may not be the highest priority of government, but it’s high time to get serious about tourism in Uganda.
Let me stop there for now, and end with some stats on the sector, available here.
- In 2009, there were 1.08 million visitors to Uganda, a 5% decrease from 2008
- Of the 800,000 visitors coming through Entebbe airport in 2009, only 16% listed “leisure and holiday” as their primary reason for visiting
- The greatest number of visitors to the national parks are non-resident visitors, followed by Ugandan students, and citizens of Uganda