Uganda is struggling with a public relations disaster that could put in disarray paid efforts to revive the tourism sector, its biggest foreign exchange earner, after suspected rebels killed a visiting British couple on honeymoon and their driver in a national park.
Following the attack blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) on Tuesday, the government deployed the army, erected roadblocks and beefed up patrols.
The killings happened in the Kasese area of Queen Elizabeth National Park. The attackers also burned the victims’ vehicle.
The news shook the sector, that was just getting back to its feet after being impacted by the Covid-19 crisis.
Before the pandemic, Uganda recorded about $1.6 billion from tourism. Recent statistics by the Ministry of Tourism show the country recorded a 59 percent increase in international visitor arrivals to 814,508 in 2022, signalling recovery. The report indicated that visitor exports generated $736 million, representing 12.2 percent of total exports in 2022 and 41.4 percent of service exports.
Authorities and sector players now worry that this trajectory could be curtailed by the attacks, as some tour operators and hotels reported cancellations.
“I have so far received about 20 cancellations and refunded about 15 in a space of two days. I am not a big player; you can imagine what is happening to the bigger companies,” said Joachim Lubuulwa, a safari operator.
Key source markets such as the UK have issued travel advisories to their citizens on visiting Uganda.
The Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) termed the attack as an isolated incident.
“We are fully committed to maintain and improve the safety and security of our visitors. All tourists are encouraged to continue visiting Uganda and its various attractions” said Lilly Ajarova UTB chief executive.
President Yoweri Museveni assured the country that the army, the police, UWA and intelligence agencies were keen to ensure “these mistakes do not happen again” and that ADF is wiped out.
Authorities agreed to increase motorised patrols within the park.
“The wiping out is moving very well. What needs to be done is to ensure that the remnants do not commit these atrocities,” he said.
Sam Mwandha, the UWA executive director, said that the agencies has deployed more rangers around the park in conjunction with both the army and police to ensure total safety.
In discussions held in Kasese, Visitors who have over time freely moved within the park will now be required to move with an armed ranger for security although this could come at an extra cost.
Tourism police and the army are to monitor park edges and thwart any entry by remnants of the rebels who could come in from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Although the idea of arming guides is being discussed, police spokesperson Fred Enanga said that at this point the issue is still farfetched but is part of the considerations.
“All our parks remain open to visitors and we continue to work with other security agencies to ensure that all people who visit our protected areas are safe,” UWA said.