Tickling the monkey on the back of Shs290bn tourism budget

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Tickling the monkey on the back of Shs290bn tourism budget
Tourists in Queen Elizabeth National Park.

ANALYSIS | The government plans to spend Shs289.6 billion on tourism development programmes in the 2024/2025 financial year.

The tourism development envelope has been increased by slightly more than Shs50 billion from the Shs248.7 billion in the 2023/2024 financial.

Two years ago, the envelope hardly floated beneath the Shs200 billion mark and an increase of Shs100 billion in two financial years would impress many sector players.

But that is far from it.

Tourism stakeholders argue that the current budget fails to address key priorities, potentially undermining the effectiveness of the proposed tourism initiatives.

Despite Uganda's resurgence as one of the top 10 global tourism destinations, stakeholders contend that such rankings, though useful for attracting tourists, may be misleading unless the government demonstrates a genuine commitment to enhancing the sector.

In 2023, international tourist arrivals surged by 56 percent to 1.274 million, up from 814,085 in 2022, yet still below the peak of 1.52 million in 2019.

Correspondingly, international tourism revenue reached USD 1.03 billion in 2023.For the 2024/2025 fiscal year, the tourism sector was earmarked as a priority for sustainable development, with Shs289.6 billion dedicated to tourism development programmes.

This budget aims to bolster both international and domestic tourism through marketing and promotional activities.

Additionally, the budget outlines several projects, including completing the pier and associated infrastructure at the Source of the Nile, upgrading the Uganda Museum, constructing 8,000 metres of climbing ladders and boardwalks on the Rwenzori Mountains to enhance hiking safety, and finishing the upgrade of the Uganda Hotel and Tourism Training Institute's facilities.

However, Ron Kawamara, the vice chairman of Uganda Tourism Board, says the budget is a missed opportunity for the sector because it doesn't reflect the priorities of the sector.

"For those of us in the tourism space are extremely disappointed, everyone says the government has said that tourism is the second most important sector in Uganda after industrialisation," he said.

"We have said it can give us the highest return on investment but when it came to investment, it's not there. Everyone is talking about 289 billion invested in tourism but the question is where is that investment in.

"It's very easy to say all money spent on roads is tourism money, all money spent on embassies is tourism money but not the tourism we are talking about, that's not the tourism investment that people in tourism, business owners, lodge owners tour operators are looking for," Kawamara said.

"The investment they are looking for is investing in the development of tourism products, making sure our national parks have guest centres, making sure that the source of the Nile, lake Victoria all the products have been invested in, making sure that all the national parks have landing sites, have aerodromes that people can fly there directly," he added.

Herbert Byaruhanga, president of Uganda Tourism Association, said same old marketing strategies will never position Uganda as the best tourist destination but rather keep Uganda in the sink of the region as others member states thrive.

South-western neighbour Rwanda allocated over $24 million (about Shs89 billion but the Kigali administration lays focus on conference tourism and mountain gorrilas.

"We need to improve tourist mobility and creating alliance with bigger airlines and hotels from other countries who will keep our content about our tourism products in their premises and enterprises for them to get attracted to visit Uganda and that will attract premium category of tourists," Byaruhanga said.

In particular, an additional Shs55 billion was apportioned to Uganda’s Missions Abroad to support the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) to market Uganda and her exports to potential tourists to attract more investors.

Kawamara says UTB receives only shs17bn to promote tourism, he asserts the Shs55bn for missions abroad is money in wrong hands.

"We have not invested anything in marketing, UTB has a budget of Shs17billion, out of that only Shs5 billion has been approved for marketing," Kawamara said.

"You can't promote a country of our size with a brand equity that we don't have with 5 billion. Our neighbors like Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda who have better brand equity for the tourism products are spending ten times, twenty times more."

Kenya has earmarked KShs23.7 billion (about Shs68 billion) for tourism sector marketing and recovery efforts in 2024/2025, while Tanzania is coming off a TShs2.38 trillion (Shs2.4 trillion) spent in the sector in the ending financial year.

Despite constrained budgetary resources and ineffective marketing strategies, Uganda remains one of the ten premier tourist destinations with a return on investment.

Whether the current budget allocations will modernize and improve tourism products and sites to attract the primary target remains to be seen.

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