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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.