Since its inception in 1991, gorilla trekking in Uganda has always been associated with bazungu (white) tourists.
Despite being the country’s tourism Holy Grail, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which plays host to half of the world’s endangered mountain gorillas, is typically visited by international tourists from beyond the African continent.
Now as the Easter holidays approach, social media is awash with banner adverts by Ugandan tour operators offering discounted trips for local holidaymakers wishing to track Bwindi’s world-famous mountain gorillas.
During this season, the Uganda Wildlife Authority is offering gorilla trekking permits at a 43 per cent discount for all Ugandan nationals, from $70 to $40, and luxury accommodations within the vicinity of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park have slashed their rates significantly.
Discounted offers have been part of Uganda’s tourism sector since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold at the start of 2020 and paused international travel. Tourism industry players had to turn their focus to the erstwhile overlooked domestic market in a bid to keep the sector afloat.
Spike in domestic travel
The Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), the country’s industry regulator, recorded a rise in domestic visitors to national parks between July and December last year. The increase was partly fuelled by the state-run agency’s robust promotion of domestic tourism as one of its recovery plans after the losses on account of Covid-19 measures.
“East African visitor numbers to national parks grew from 574 in Quarter Two of 2020 to 20,887 in Quarter Four of 2020. This represented a 3538.8 per cent increase in that period,” a March 2021 UTB report reads in part. (Ugandan visitors to national parks are recorded as East Africans).
According to the UTB report, the source of River Nile, a quaint beach destination in Jinja, about 80 kilometres east of Kampala, was also one of the most popular destinations among Ugandan travellers after lockdowns were lifted in July 2020, registering 9,394 local visitors – up from 133 in Quarter Three and none in Quarter Two.
“From July 2020, many Ugandans decided to take trips within the country as a way of relaxing after weeks of stressful confinement at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic-induced travel restrictions. Many were just itching to go outdoors and relax, and this trend has continued into 2021,” says Isaac Irumba, a freelance tour guide based in Kampala.
Some industry players say the spike in domestic travel has also been fuelled by the fact that Covid-19 trapped many would-be outbound holidaymakers on home soil.
“Some Ugandans who had previously planned to take trips abroad but failed due to limited international travel also found themselves swapping their foreign trips with domestic vacations,” says Agnes Kemigisa, founder of Trails Africa Tours and Travel, a travel company based in Fort Portal City in western Uganda. “For instance, at the beginning of this year I had some eight women who cancelled their planned trip to Mombasa and instead decided to tour Fort Portal.”
From beach locales like the source of River Nile in Jinja to exotic wildlife safari destinations like Bwindi, Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls national parks, it is clear that Ugandans are exploring their country in bigger numbers than ever before.
So, can domestic travellers save Uganda’s limping tourism sector? Well, even as the industry rides that wave, stakeholders say Uganda’s tourism faces a tough outlook as it heavily relies on international visitors.
Over 1.5 million international tourists injected about $1.6 billion into the Ugandan economy in 2019. But in 2020, with international tourists locked out since March, the country lost an estimated one million visitors and $1.06b of possible revenue, according to a report by the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities.
And locals are not filling that gap, tour operators say.
“The spending power of local travellers is too low to sustain the industry,” Irumba says. “Both hotels and tour operators have had to give locals large discounts to entice them to take trips… Ugandans always want to pay half the price that foreign tourists are usually willing to pay.”
A year into the Covid-19 pandemic, Irumba and many other tour operators are struggling because their tour packages are designed for international travellers — the big spenders.
In a good year, Irumba receives more than 100 international clients, but in the past year he has had only two, one from Kenya and one from Norway — the lowest number in his decade-long career. And yet, even though Covid-19 has kept the big-spending international tourists away, Irumba has opted not to venture into domestic tourism because of its lack of profitability.
“Even with discounted rates, Ugandans are the kind of travellers who go for shorter vacations and only during holiday seasons like Christmas and Easter. Making a profit off local travellers is a tall order.”
As the Covid-19 pandemic drags on, he says a return to work feels like it’s a long way off. “I don’t see the industry getting back on the road quite soon. With new waves of Covid-19 being reported in Europe, which is Uganda’s major source market, I think it’ll take about three years from now for the tourism industry to get back to the old normal.”
In the meantime, the Ugandan government announced a stimulus package of $272.86 million to help small and medium size enterprises in tourism, agro-processing and manufacturing to stay afloat.