Monday, 2 March 2015

The sleeping lion emerges in East Africa

Lion on conservation drive by Corne Schalkwyk as part of Premier Safaris in Uganda 

We are all aware that last year was a very rough year for the East African tour operators as a barrage of negative press hit the East African region. This happened when Africa travel was actually at an all-time high and cough many of us off-guard, as a massive drop-off was the last thing east Africa was expecting. Especially the emerging destination Uganda, seen as the “pearl” of the East Africa offerings.

Uganda in 2012 showed remarkable growth in their tourism industry, even outgrowing major markets in Africa such as South Africa if taken as a percentage growth for the year in 2012. Lonely planet hailed it as the best destination for 2012. This was due to a sustained return in stability, security and a combination of some great marketing by the private sector investors in Uganda such as one of their larger tourism role players Marasa Africa as part of the Madhvani group of companies.  

Uganda Map
The country was finally on track and tourism became the single largest income earner for this "Pearl of Africa". This was followed by a great 2013 even throw there were worries about government implementing new taxis on Safari accommodation and how this would affect their forward bookings. In the case of 2013 calmer heads prevailed and government assisted the country and held back on implementing the tax. In many ways this assisted the private sector to invest in marketing and expansion of much needed new product offerings.  

Unfortunately 2014 turned into a bit of a horror show as government realized the potential funds that could be generated by taxing the small yet growing industry in this otherwise poor region and pounced on the fledgling industry when they were in need of funds, in some respects the tourism industry paid the price for the anti-gay bill that was introduced and then scraped in Uganda. Government funding dried up as external forces showed their dismay with the bill, and they made up the difference by taxing this emerging industry. 

Images that emerged as part of the Anti gay bill campaign internationally 
This new vat on accommodation at a hefty 18%, in turn sky-rocketed pricing and heavily impacted on the tour operators who tried to absorb the vat where possible to assist their clients and forward bookings into 2015. In some respects the industry that was most outspoken about the bill and its implications ended up paying the price of resistance.  

Unfortunately this was not the end of the regions problems. The Ebola crises hit the continent, and even throw the problem originated in West Africa thousands of kilometres away from Uganda. It hit the country already crippled by an anti- gay bill looming above its head and new taxes hard.

Combined with the new increased pricing, and an unofficial travel ban due to the gay bill in Uganda, Ebola became a last straw scenario, almost breaking the relatively new industry. Uganda also had to deal with some mostly irresponsible reporting on terrorism and security treats related to possible bomb blasts.....that never took place. We know that internationally there is an ongoing terrorism problem but east Africa didn't have the additional scope to overcome these in 2014. Although there were isolated threats to Uganda security in most part this was over-spill from their neighbour’s Kenya that was battling from serious security treats and bomb blasts that managed to bring its coastal tourism to its knees.
Premier Safaris experiential Lion conservation trip in Uganda 

 Mistakes and crises management from 2014, was harder to leave behind than expected and was clearly coming to the foreground in early 2015 when there was a serious lack of forward bookings due to cancellations and an almost unofficial travel ban to east Africa. Uganda was left with serious concerns related to closure of some tour operators, and downsizing within the industry. But the 2015 reality wasn't unforeseen by the larger investors such as Marasa Africa, that also has properties within Kenya. 
Marasa Africa clients #TravelToUganda campaign 
 By late 2014 larger private tourism investors in Uganda began to address some of the issues in response to the fact that they noticed that tourist sees Africa as one country, this was echoed by feedback from many tour operators. It was clear that people didn't know where Uganda was, especially in relation to West Africa. They also didn't know that in some cases Europe was actually closer to the hot zone than Kenya or Uganda. And unfortunately Uganda was also included with Kenya when it came to risk assessment done by potential tourists as it’s a major add on to Kenya Safaris. Marasa Africa tried to address this with an “Africa is not one continent campaign”, while sending out images of tourists enjoying their lodges without fear of Ebola.
Gorilla Safari experience as part of Uganda Tourism board and Marasa  - Photo by Peter Hogel 

For years Uganda was the Gorilla Safari add on to a Kenya migration trip. Jinja along the Nile, was the adventure and backpacker “White water rafting" section that can be combined with a Kenya Safari. As Uganda started too emerged as a stand-alone destination, it still had to deal with old perceptions and a lack of longstanding quality destination marketing.

This is starting to change and not only did the heavily underfunded country of Uganda make it through some of the worst times East Africa tourism has endured in recent years, it is showing signs of healing and new re-emerging .
Murchison falls in Uganda  
After having discussions with major tourism destination marketers around the world it became clear that it was only a matter of time and some much needed  investment in specialist skills needed to market the country, before this sleeping lion awakes. Hanna, the owner of the internationally renowned PR and tourism marketing company KPRN in Germany mentioned that we would be surprised as to what will happen if the right company gets hold of this lion and wakes such a sleeping lion.

It would seem that there is a nudging at this sleeping lion as last minute enquirers are coming in to the country and companies with good reputations and quality guides are once again coming to life in Uganda. Even the more skittish US market, is returning to Uganda to ensure they get a piece of the biodiversity the country offers.

Nile delta in Uganda close to the Marasa Africa lodge Paraa Safari lodge 

 It’s hard to match Uganda's range of biomes and activities and experiences elsewhere, even in east Africa. It’s long been described as the sample board of Africa, having pieces of almost every country within Africa in one small spot.
View over Guiding mountain from Clouds lodge used by Premier for gorilla trekking 

Uganda is bound to step out, and show Africa its plumage. It is after all the capital of Africa’s birding with a staggering more than 1000 species. This is the highest concentration of birds found in Africa (more than 50% of the total species found on the continent), and is the most accessible place to see the legendary Shoebill.
Kazinga Channel one of Uganda's hot-spots for birding by Corne Schalkwyk 

This abundance of species combined with its already well known primate offering including the largest numbers of the critically endangered mountain gorillas is going to be a force to deal with when it emerges from its sleep.
Remote, bespoke experiences awaits in unspoiled parks teeming with wildlife in Uganda 

 Hopefully we will once again see the old colonial safari destination that combined glaciers treks in the Ruwenzori with great outstretched savannah safaris along the Nile and the Kazinga channel in Uganda.
The sleeping lion is growing up and showing its teeth - Uganda Tourism by Jonothan Hen-Boisen

Kenya is also showing good recovery and it’s definitely “open for business” as usual, 2015 might just be the year of recovery for East Africa. 

Below are some of the exciting new products emerging form Uganda about to take the industry by storm. These include Hot air balloon Safaris over the crater lakes of the rift valley from Mweya Safari lodge, Specialist programmes by Premier Safaris that made it to the list of best Bucket list Safaris for CNN travel readers in 2015 and many more experiential travel options being released this year. 
Hot air Balloon Safaris over Queen Elizabeth National park with a bush breakfast from Mweya Safari lodge 

Premier photographic trips led by Albie Venter - These trips include night time searches for nocturnal delights of Uganda 

Intimate Gorilla with Premier and CTPH
Even the gorillas gave Uganda a thumbs up, as their numbers have been steadily increasing with the borders secured. This is an incredible success story for conservation that almost lost one of our most endangered species. The CTPH has even managed to reach the local community surrounding the gorilla sanctuaries and has reported a decrease in the human birth rates by means of an educational campaign to teach about contraception and the benefits of smaller households. 

Some links related to the information used for this blog update: 
Premier Safaris website

Premier Safaris conservation partner in Uganda CTPH - conservation through public health:

Marasa Africa Lodges:  
Uganda Tourism:

Intimate Gorilla Safaris with Premier Safaris as mentioned by CNN Travel  - Image by Jonothan Hen-Boisen