The Chinese outbound travel market represents a potential new growth area for Uganda and East Africa’s tourism sector in general, but policy makers will have to find quick solutions to perceived high costs of travelling to and from the region, and the language barrier.
Making a first time bid for the Chinese market, Uganda was one of a handful of African countries that attended the China International Tourism Mart that ran from August 29 to September 1, in Guangzhou.
The Uganda Tourism Board led a delegation made up of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, legislators from the House Trade and Tourism Committee and private tour operator Gate One Travel.
While the Uganda stand at the fair attracted a lot of traffic and won one of the best exhibitor awards, feedback from the event later cited the high cost of air transport from China to Uganda and the communication barrier since most Chinese do not speak English as issues that needed immediate attention.
Uganda is pitching its nature-based, cultural and adventure tourism product. However, speaking during a separate event organised for them by the Ugandan consulate in Guangzhou, Chinese tour operators said compared with destinations in South East Asia that are frequented by Chinese tourists, most found the $1,500 ticket to East Africa on average, was a disincentive to travel.
“In addition, the absence of Chinese language guides in Uganda means that tour operators would have to foot the bill for an additional person to accompany the groups from China,” said Cathy Ye who led a group of Chinese tourists to Uganda in 2012.
“Chinese are more comfortable seeing a Chinese face so it would be a plus for Uganda if they employed Chinese to guide tourists.”
With the exception of Burundi, Uganda Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania have secured China Approved Destination Status, which is a prerequisite for guided group tours to the region, but there is no record of how much business has been yielded by the arrangement.
The Approved Destination Status scheme is a bilateral tourism arrangement between the Chinese Government and a destination whereby Chinese tourists are permitted to undertake leisure travel in groups to that destination.
With the exception of Dar es Salaam’s Julius Nyerere International Airport which has introduced signage in mandarin, Chinese travellers to East Africa find a challenge in navigating their way around.
According to John Ssempebwa, the deputy chief executive of the Uganda Tourism Board, Chinese had also reported cases of missing their connections at transit airports because they could neither read nor understand common languages in Africa, an issue that could partly be addressed by direct flights.
Kenya Airways which flies to a couple of points on mainland China has, for instance, employed Thai and Chinese cabin crew on these services.
Uganda is, however, embroiled in an internal debate over whether to re-establish a national carrier liquidated at the start of the last decade or encourage more competition by licensing more operators.
Uganda’s Minister for Works and Transport Abraham Byandala who was also in attendance said he was in Guangzhou to convince China Southern Airlines to introduce direct flights to Uganda.
A search on airline booking engines revealed that the most direct routing between Guangzhou and Uganda cost $1,400 for a return flight on Kenya airways via Nairobi, a figure that rose to $1,700 and above if one used middle eastern carriers that serve the two points daily.
Transit times could also see travel time stretch to as much as 21 hours.
According to the China Tourism Administration, China’s outbound tourism reached 98 million travellers in 2013, with a corresponding expenditure of $128.7 billion.
Uganda, which has often had to live with adverse travel advisories from traditional source markets, sees this market as a good candidate to diversify its tourism that reached just over 1.2 million visitors in 2013.
“China is coming up as a good alternative as we seek to diversify our market,” said Mr Ssempebwa adding that plans were underway to begin Chinese language classes for Ugandan tour operators.