Sam Mwandha, the executive director of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, spoke to Bamuturaki Musinguzi on how the pandemic has impacted the country’s travel and tourism sectors
The government recently eased the Covid-19 restrictions and reopened Entebbe International Airport. What does this mean for the country’s travel and tourism sector?
We can now have visitors come into the country and travel out freely. However, many tourists are likely to postpone their travel for many reasons including loss of income and also the pandemic is still not under control. There is limited travel so it will be a while before we get the tourism numbers up again.
In UWA's assessment, what impact has the pandemic had on the travel and tourism industry in Uganda?
Covid-19 has had a major impact on the tourism industry in Uganda to a level never experienced before and this will continue to be the case for a long time. Transport costs have gone up because vehicles and planes take fewer people, thus raising the cost.
Hotels have to provide for standard operating procedures (SOPs) and can only handle a few number of visitors, yet their operational costs remain high. There is a lot of uncertainty about how long this pandemic will last and therefore many people are being cautious with their expenditures. The travel and tourism industry has therefore been highly affected negatively.
Unfortunately, many sectors of our economy that are linked to the travel and tourism industry, including the food industry, labour and insurance among others have also been impacted. It will take a while to recover.
How is the Covid-19 pandemic affecting UWA in terms of revenue collection?
UWA is currently losing over $2 million in tourism revenue per month. This has affected our operations and put us in a state of uncertainty. With the little resources we had saved, we have had to prioritise key activities of wildlife protection (law enforcement), human wildlife conflict management and animal monitoring.
What measures has the government put in place to support the travel and tourism sector?
The government granted a waiver of some of the taxes related to accommodation facilities in rural areas to encourage investments. The same goes for tourist vehicles. It has also worked with partners such as the European Union to provide grants (up to 6 million) to tourism players to support their businesses. Unfortunately, there are issues on how the grant is to be accessed, which has made it difficult for the most vulnerable businesses to access the funds. I am however aware that some discussions are ongoing to make this grant accessible.
What measures has UWA put in place to ensure the safety of its workers and visitors?
Right from the start of the pandemic, we provided guidance to our staff to remain alert and observe the Ministry of Health guidelines. UWA also developed its own SOPs, in line with those of the Ministry of Health to make them more applicable to our situation. We procured and distributed personal protective equipment, including provision of sanitisers and washing equipment. Staff members were trained in the implementation of the SOPs. Luckily SOPs have been part and parcel of our work even before Covid-19. We have SOPs for patrols, for handling offenders/poachers and traffickers, for mountain gorilla tracking and for chimpanzee tracking, among others. We continue to observe and implement the guidelines and a visit to any of our protected areas is safe.
Although we were not receiving visitors until the partial lifting of the lockdown in June, our day-to-day activities for protecting wildlife and attending to human wildlife conflicts continued. This is especially because the government included UWA as part of essential services.
Has the wildlife been safe from poaching during the lockdown?
The wildlife is safe. While we saw a spike in April and May, the figures in June show poaching numbers have already started going down.
The government is promoting local tourism to revive the sector, is this sustainable in the long run?
Yes, domestic tourism is sustainable in the long run. If we had a strong domestic tourism base, we would not be as badly affected as we are now. Therefore, a campaign to boost local tourism is the way to go.
Current position: Executive director, Uganda Wildlife Authority since 2018.
Previous positions: Chief of Party, African Wildlife Foundation (2013-2017)
Executive secretary, Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (2011-2012)
Director for conservation, UWA (1996-2010)
Uganda National Parks (1994-1996).
Education: Bsc (Forestry), Makerere University
MSc (Natural Resource Use and Planning), University of Twente, Netherlands.