Uganda's troubled tourism finds women saviours

Posted: 7 June 2002

Author: Crespo Sebunya

A rescue effort for Uganda's declining tourism industry has come from an unlikely source - rural women.

These rural women provide accommodation and food to poor tourists. At the same time, they also make and sell mats and pottery items to back-packers who constitute 90 per cent of the tourist arrivals in the country.

What makes the contribution of these women even more significant is the fact that while the Government saw tourism revenues drop from US$ 107 million in 1997 to US$ 50 million in 2000, these women and the organisations they work for continued to make good money.

For instance, Zubeda Nanjobe is a member of the Buhoma Rural Tourist Enterprise in western Uganda. Through this enterprise, she has sold mats to backpackers and expatriates and is partially responsible for the increase in the money made by this enterprise from Shs eight million (US$1 = Shs 1,800) in 1994 to Shs 60 million in 2000.

School project

In its eight years of existence, the Buhoma Rural Tourist Enterprise has generated Shs 200 million through small efforts. This money has not only boosted the confidence of the rural women, it has also led to a lot of progress with schools being built, the largest of which is the Rubona Parents School with 290 students.

The Mgahinga Women Enterprise is another group of rural women doing good business. Ruth Nakibudde who belongs to Mgahinga, uses a different way of making money. She performs the traditional dance in front of tourists who marvel at her effortless skills. A part of the money that she has earned over this year has been spent on completing the building of a primary school, a clinic and to pay school fees for some orphans.

Realising the success of these organisations, the Uganda Community Tourist Association (UCOTA) has now stepped in and is planning to popularise Ugandan culture amongst tourists.

Kings trail

Formed in 1998 as a non-governmental organisation (NGO), UCOTA was assisted by USAID to improve the skills of 62 women tourist organisations in the country which popularise Ugandan culture and strengthen community identities.

Ellisa Williams, the UCOTA coordinator believes that women promote tourism following a low-cost, effective strategy, which ultimately improves the country's image, which has suffered a setback because of two decades of misrule.

In keeping with capitalising on the efforts made by these rural women, in November this year a cultural 'Kings Trail' was started by UCOTA to give the more affluent foreigners a cultural feel of Buganda, the largest of the 56 Ugandan tribes.

The brainchild of UCOTA and the UK-based Action for Tourism, Kings Trail allows those tourists who have money to visit numerous cultural sites, to enjoy Buganda music, dance and drama and buy handicrafts. In the process these tourists also help the Buganda community to earn money.

Declining wildlife

Selling Ugandan culture marks a prominent shift in the attitude of the Ugandan Government. When Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986 he embarked on restoring tourism through game viewing and eco-tourism enterprises - the country has seven per cent of the world game and 11 per cent of the bird species.

The Government also encouraged the construction of hotels, which resulted in planned investments of US$300 million in this sector and also liberalised the foreign exchange market. This strategy deliberately ruled out backpackers. Government officials envisage a US$100 million investment in environment and wild life tourism over the next seven years.

According to the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, this approach is not going to work because wildlife like black and white rhinos, which were found in thousands in the 1960s have been wiped out and the numbers of white elephants and lions too are decreasing.

The liberalisation of the foreign exchange market has also had its drawbacks and made Ugandan tourism services more expensive than they are in the other countries of the region.

The problems of following this approach of targeting only rich tourists are also being borne by the private sector which realises that the investments in hotels and industries has not worked. "I feel that I have wasted four years and lots of money in setting up the lodges without getting any returns," says Zahid Alam, proprietor of Afri Tours and Travels whose safari lodges had a 60 per cent occupancy before the 1998 massacre of eight western tourists in western Uganda. Today the occupancy is next to nothing.

Help needed

The biggest drawback of the official Government policy towards tourism has been that all along it has ignored the bulk of tourist traffic to the country -- the backpackers.

Tourist strategists now agree that the answer to this problem lies in concentrating on low cost strategies. "Development of tourism opportunities, policy and infrastructure will become necessary only when tourists start coming to the Uganda. At the moment, we have to focus on using limited resources for maximum gains," says a World Bank task force led by Nathalie Weier Johnson.

And this is where the efforts of UCOTA come in. Analysts feel that in terms of self-reliance, the best example is provided by UCOTA.

Yet this self-reliance as being propagated by UCOTA has its limitations. For instance, UCOTA is operating on a shoe string budget and cannot give out loans to its members. Lack of substantial donor support also makes building a strong foundation difficult. And these factors could well threaten its sustainability.

Moreover, these rural enterprises operate in areas, which do not have facilities like telephones, running water and electricity. Also these enterprises are run by the rural poor with limited skills, social standing and education who face difficulties in lobbying with the Government for institutional support. And it is here perhaps that the Government needs to step in so that these rural initiatives can be made more profitable both for the people and the Government.

Crespo Sebunya is a freelance journalist with a special interest in Uganda.This article was reproduced with kind permission from the Women's Feature Service (WFS) based in Delhi.