Malawi: First Thoughts

To understand any place, you have to leave it. It’s only with a comparative perspective that you recognize the significance of things you take for granted on the one hand, or the things you lament daily on the other. That’s how I’ve felt, anyway, during this past year of working on my dissertation, based in Uganda and working briefly in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Burkina Faso, and now, Malawi.

I flew into Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe yesterday afternoon. From Kampala it’s a short trip, feeling much like the journey from San Francisco to Chicago, and making intra-continental travel seem easier than it normally does.

There are no immigration forms to fill upon arrival in Lilongwe (at least the day I arrived), but they do check for your Yellow Fever card. How did Yellow Fever, a relatively uncommon disease, become the single most common (only?) vaccination required worldwide? I was thankful I had remembered my aptly colored yellow Yellow Fever card, but others who didn’t have one seemed to get through just fine. While the card is ostensibly a requirement in lots of countries, apart from Malawi I can only ever remember being checked in Nigeria.

At the immigration counter, I was not asked what I would be doing in Malawi, or how long I would be staying. There were no forms to fill out, no visa fees to pay. My fingers were scanned, photo taken, and off I went. I bought a SIM card at the airport, no registration required, and got cash from the ATM. The road from Kamuzu to Lilongwe was practically deserted; a few homes dotted the otherwise empty roadside. The road was smooth, the air hot, the ground dry. I wasn’t sure we had arrived in Lilongwe proper until I started to recognize the names of lodges I had seen in guidebooks. By contrast, coming from Entebbe you may think you’ve reached Kampala, only to find yourself snaking slowly through the city limits an hour later.

The quiet and winding streets of the Lilongwe, lined with trees, remind me of Kigali, as does the relative absence of people. While Kampala, Lagos, Nairobi, and Accra are churning, bustling, and often overwhelming, Lilongwe has a distinctly understated presence.

Uganda’s economy is nearly five times the size of Malawi, Kenya and Ghana about twice that of Uganda, and Nigeria far bigger than all four combined. The largest bill you can get in Malawi $2.50, Uganda, $20, Kenya $11, Nigeria $6, Ghana $23. As you can see, there is no relationship between bill and economy size (or GDP per capita, for that matter), which makes spending and taking out money much easier in Uganda and Ghana than in Malawi or Nigeria. In both Nigeria and Malawi (yes, with my limited experience of one day in the latter),  ATMs appear to be frequently running out of money, and sometimes with very long queues. I’m no economist, but something about tiny bills seems very inefficient. Is there an upside? Any work on the politics of moneymaking, literally?

Finally, although I generally dislike the tradition (requirement?) of adorning the walls of every establishment with presidents’ photos, it is a welcome change to see — for once if not for long — a woman in the frame.

That’s all for today. More comparative musings soon.

Update: Relatedly, though I don’t fully agree: “Africa? Why there’s no such place” h/t to my partner in crime.

Winners and losers in Uganda’s 2013-2014 Budget

BTTB 2013-214

Winners (increased % of budget): Works and Transport, Energy, Public Administration

Losers (decreased total spending): Tourism, Trade and Industry, ICT, Social Development (what is that?), Education

Background to the Budget 2013-2014 available here.

Looks like we are focusing on physical capital at the expense of human capital. Will it pay off?

hotels: the tragedy of….

Sorry for the extremely sparse posting this week. I’m still trying to get my bearings on this side of the world.

I’ve written recently about writing reviews online for hotels, restaurants, etc., and in general the importance of an online tourism presence. Of course the quality of the posts matters though….

Hat tip @jchaskell24.

Now I’m off to celebrate the most amazing woman in my life. Happy birthday mama! You’re the best.

review this: Kampala online

Well, after 24 hours of the worst flu I’ve had since childhood, I’m back. There is a serious virus(es?) going around this town (Kampala that is); several people are reporting symptoms on twitter and a number of friends have been taken ill. Wash those hands! The good news is the worst symptoms (namely, high fever with the usual chills and aches) seem short-lived. But that’s not much comfort when you’re in the middle of the thing.

Anywayyyy… what I really wanted to share is an email I got from TripAdvisor after reviewing Endiro (coffee shop in Kisementi) online. After I wrote a post on Uganda’s online tourism presence, I decided I should do my part in sharing information online about the places I frequent. Ideally, there should be a forum other than TripAdvisor to do this, but I had a feeling more people would read reviews on that popular platform than elsewhere. It might be useful for the managers/owners of the restaurants/hotels/etc. to see what others are saying about them online as well (the second review of Endiro, for example, is rather scathing).

Yesterday, I got this email from TripAdvisor:

What I found most interesting, of course, was that there were “3,105 travelers looking for information about Kampala this week”.

I don’t know how they calculate the number of “travelers” (as opposed to clicks on Kampala-related sites on their page) but at least this gives us a clue as to how many people are seeking information about Uganda online. First of all, this figure is only for Kampala, and second of all, it is only for TripAdvisor, suggesting that the number of folks looking for information online on Uganda is in the multiple thousands every week.

I had not previously found data regarding online searches for Uganda tourism, but this at least gives us a rough idea, and provides further evidence that Uganda’s online tourism presence matters! Over to you, UTB.

On a related note, Bernard Tabaire (@btabaire) has an interesting column on Uganda’s tourism sector in last Sunday’s Daily Monitor, link here.

who visits Uganda?

Around 75% of all visitors to Uganda come from another African country (especially East Africa), and the remainder are Europeans (13%), Americans (6%), and Asians (4%)*.

The increase in visitors in recent years appears to driven mainly by an increase in visitors from the East African region, while the numbers of those from Europe, America, and elsewhere has stayed more or less the same. Approximately 60% of visitors arrive by road, while the other 40% arrive by air.

Visitors to Uganda by region and year

How many of these visitors are tourists?

Of the 840,000 visitors registered in 2008, only 144,000 listed “Leisure, recreation and holidays” as the primary reason for visiting, suggesting that tourists make up a relatively small portion of the visitors the the country. The number of visitors who go to national parks, around 138,000 in 2008, is also fairly good proxy for the number of those who are “tourists”, as opposed to those who are visiting family and friends, doing business, and the like.

For perspective, over 1 million tourists visited Kenya in 2009, and over 700,000 visited Tanzania (2009), and 68,000 holiday-goers visited Rwanda (2010).

Visitors to national parks in Uganda, by year

In Uganda, Queen Elizabeth and Murchison are by far the most popular game parks, and we should probably expect more interest in Murchison in the coming years now that the LRA no longer poses a threat in northern Uganda.

The Uganda Bureau of Statistics estimates that tourism expenditure was US$590 million in 2008. This year, the Ministry for Tourism, Trade and Industry was allocated Ush50 billion, or about US$18 million, which amounts to 0.5% of the total budget. The Uganda Tourism Board was allocated US$740,000.

*Statistics above can be found on the UBOS website here. Budget information can be found in the 2011/2012 Background to the Budget, available here. I used an exchange rate of Ushs2700 to the dollar for back-of-the-envelope calculations.

Tourism in Uganda: A rant and suggestions

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.

Welcome to Murchison

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!

In all honesty, at this point in time, TripAdvisor is probably your best bet. The Eye has pretty good reviews as well.

Solutions

What to do? Since I try to avoid criticism that is not constructive, let me offer some suggestions (particularly for the website):

  1. Make very clear who is a certified tour operator with the Uganda Tourism Board or MTTI as well as who is blacklisted
  2. Provide information about the cost of hotels, restaurants, etc., (the $, $$, $$$ ranking is good enough) as well as customer reviews
  3. 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)
  4. 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.
  5. Clean up the bathrooms at national sites like the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary and Source of the Nile. A little goes a long way.
  6. Prize and support the private sector.
  7. Overall, consider the customer. Look at everything from the perspective of the visitor – whether tourist, investor, or researcher.

Other suggestions?

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

Touring Uganda: Chobe Safari Lodge

A few weeks ago I took a trip with my family to Murchison Falls National Park, in northern Uganda. We stayed at Paraa Safari Lodge for two days before heading to the newly renovated Chobe Safari Lodge, both managed by Marasa, of the Madhvani family.

Murchison Falls, by boat

The two lodges provided a very interesting contrast (while keeping ownership constant! errr…). Of course, there is far more to do around Paraa, including game drives and boat trips up to the foot of Murchison falls (do falls have feet?), and the lodge at Paraa is much more antiquated than the sparkling new Chobe. But the clientele is different as well. During the two days we spent at Paraa, the guests were almost exclusively European (many German, in fact). At Chobe, by contrast, a majority (by my eyeballed count) were Ugandan.

Pool at Chobe Lodge, overlooking the Nile

Why? There isn’t much in the way of a domestic tourism culture in Uganda, though park fees for East African citizens are a fraction of the cost for non-East Africans (though not explored here, developing domestic tourism is a topic that deserves a post of its own). So, my guess is that, since Paraa is quite far from any towns, it is not so cushy that one would go out of one’s way just for the ambiance of the lodge.  It is mainly a comfortable, rustic place to sleep and eat between game drives and boating.

By contrast, it seems that many guests of Chobe are visiting from Gulu or other nearby urban centers, and are visiting for conferences and meetings, not to see sight-see — although there are some lovely sights to see (just not many animals). You can never get tired, for example, of the breathtaking view of the Nile. The hotel grounds and dining areas are also quite beautiful, and the rooms are much more elegant than Paraa (bed firmness notwithstanding). In short, the newly renovated lodge is a very comfortable place for those with the cash (politicians and NGOs alike) to get away for a weekend retreat. Chobe today could be considered the “Serena of Gulu”, for those of you familiar with the patrons of the Kampala branch of that hotel (h/t Angelo).

Plush bar, Chobe Lodge

The ambiance and clientele of Chobe may change as time goes on, and as the lodge develops more activities (a golf course has been proposed, for example). But for now it is a peaceful, if pricey, place to recharge for a few days. And the staff are fantastic.

Chobe is a short distance from Karuma falls, and is about 4 hours from Kampala, on good roads almost all the way. I’m happy to provide more details or a more extensive review to anyone interested in visiting.

Kasubi Tombs Burn

This is serious. A sad day for many, and a great loss to a rich history and culture. I was just the other day thinking that the kingdom should capitalize more on their potential to share Ganda culture and history with the rest of the world. I feel the Kasubi tombs, and many other cultural landmarks around Kampala, are under-appreciated by many visitors to Uganda. Buganda is in an excellent position to share its history and traditions as a way to show the world one of many beautiful and unique sides of Uganda that are often missed, especially in the international media.

Photo by New Vision

There is already much talk of how this tragedy could further fan the flames between the NRM government and the Buganda kingdom. The Buganda Post writes:

“Although there is no word yet on who set the sacred Baganda royal cemetery to fire a vast majority of Baganda lay the blame squarely on Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni. Many point out that Mr. Museveni has laid siege on Buganda since 2009, putting travelling restrictions on Kabaka Mutebi,  shooting dead  over 30 Baganda who protested when the Kabaka was stopped from visiting Kayunga (Bugerere), closing Radio Buganda and persecuting many of the Kabaka’s officials. ”

The Daily Monitor writes that President Museveni will visit the site today.

NYT Uganda coverage

Denise Grady explains how a woman who caught the Marburg virus in Uganda has become a medical celebrity. And Uganda tourism takes another blow. Damn.

“Michelle Barnes never imagined that her vacation to Uganda would make her a medical celebrity.

Ms. Barnes, 44, became ill in January 2008, a few days after returning home to Golden, Colo. At first, she seemed to have a typical case of traveler’s diarrhea, but she soon worsened. She broke out in a rash and developed abdominal pain, terrible fatigue, weakness and confusion. Blood tests found her white-cell count low and her liver and kidneys beginning to fail. She was hospitalized, still deteriorating. Her blood was taking too long to clot, and her pancreas and her muscles were inflamed…”

Not to mention, while demonstrating much concern for the doctors and staff in the US, there is zero discussion of the spread of the virus in Uganda from what I can tell.

Gettleman rafts the Nile

So my parents visit in one week and, as luck would have it, the first NYT Uganda travel article in four years (I think the last was in 2005?) was published Sunday. What timing! (and good looking out Mom!) Unfortunately the whole thing was about rafting, which my beloved mother and father are not particularly keen to do. Not to mention, rafting was the only activity of consequence in Uganda, Gettleman? I think we deserve better than that (ok, fine, you mention other activities in the fifth paragraph but that hardly counts). At least the commentary is pretty amusing.

My favorite line? “The whole experience was like riding a bouncy castle through a tsunami.” Hahaha. Not inaccurate at all.