Tour operators under their umbrella body, the Association of Uganda Tour Operators(AUTO) have revealed that the recent fracas before and after the Arua Municipality by-election has had diverse effects on the country’s tourism sector.
A number of people including legislators Robert Kyagulanyi, Kassiano Wadri, Francis Zaake and Paul Mwiru were last month arrested for allegedly throwing stones at the presidential convoy but it later emerged most of these people had been tortured by security agencies during and after their arrest.
Meanwhile, there were protests in various parts of the country in demand for the release of MPs Kyagulanyi and Zaake in which a number of people were arrested whereas four people were shot dead during the protests.
Speaking during a news conference on Monday, AUTO president Everest Kayondo said the events had a big impact on the tourism sector with a number of tourists cancelling their trips to Uganda over the same.
“The recent happenings had a great impact on the economy because they were covered by both the local and international media. Once it was watched and read all over the world, the tourists were influenced,”Kayondo said.
“Many countries issued travel alerts for their citizens intending to come to Uganda and many of them got scared and cancelled their trips.”
Citing an example of Amos Wekesa’s Great Lakes Safaris company, Kayondo said the tour company lost over US$300,000 in refund for already booked trips to Uganda, a thing he said impacted in a similar manner to other tour operators.
Uganda earned over US$1.4bn in 2017 which reflected 10 percent of the Gross Domestic Product last year from tourism whereas the same sector contributed 24 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.
However, according to tour operators, the gruesome scenes of tortured MPs and beating up of people including journalists during the aftermath of the Arua by-election painted a bad picture for Uganda and subsequently impacted on the number of tourists coming to the country.
“Tourism money is good and sweet because the country remains with its product but it is shy money. Once there is a small risk to tourists, the money goes away,”Kayondo said.
Asked to comment on the exact figures of money lost following the Arua by-election saga, the tour operators’ body said they could not do that because most tourists book their safaris a year or two prior , but noted the effect could be reflected in the future.
They said the violence might have influenced many would be tourists to Uganda to change their decisions.
The tour operators however urged government to always handle such situations like the aftermath of the Arua by-elections in a professional manner so as to avoid similar scenarios.
“We should not continue seeing such gruesome acts. If government is taking lead in torturing and beating people, then it is appalling and will have a big impact on the country’s image,”Kayondo said.
“Why should government stop MPs flying out to get medication? Such things precipitate a bad image for our country.”
The tour operators said government paid a lot of money to firms to do public relations for Uganda but the country risks having the money go to waste.
“If such scenarios continue happening, the money we paid to PR firms will be a waste. We ought to improve the country’s image right from here,” Benedict Ntale, the Association of Uganda Tour Operators’ Vice president urged.
The remarks by tour operators however come on the backdrop of assurances by government that it is handling the situation noting that there is no need to worry.
“Recently European and American countries issued travel advisories about terrorists in Uganda in a similar trend but we were able to restore that in a short while. We believe even this one will be restored in a short while,” government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo said recently.
Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) recently announced that they target to earn US$2.7bn (shs9.8 trillion) by 2020 from the US$1.4bn got in 2017.