Last year was a difficult year for the tourism sector and particularly Uganda Tourism Board (UTB). Things are starting to look a little better but still there are challenges that continue to pose a threat to an industry that has been battered by Covid-19. Edgar R Batte had a chat with Lilly Ajarova, the UTB chief executive officer to understand how the industry is coping and the plans on which it will seek to achieve better in 2021.
Covid-19 and elections. This must have been impacted tourism. What extent are we looking at here?
Yes, there has been a serious impact, especially resulting from Covid-19. This has been inevitable but with the elections, there has been an impact, especially on the image of Uganda. But as a standard, we shall continuous do market research to find out what the market is really saying about destination Uganda so that we are able to align our activities, work plan and strategies domestically and internationally.
What does your lineup look like for 2021?
There are major things. At the moment, we have started on the project of refreshing the brand “Pearl of Africa” and we plan to launch something later this year, both nationally and internationally.
We also have another edition of Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo as one of our big calendar projects as well as renewing contracts for market destination representatives in the source markets.
There will be some additional ones besides the main ones that we have been having to boost our presence within Africa.
Talking about refreshing the Pearl of Africa brand, what effort are you undertaking?
Of course the brand has been there and we have been using it but it is about I think we can use it better. We are developing the brand elements such as the logo. Right now if you go and Google ‘Uganda, the Pearl of Africa’, it is being used differently with no uniformity yet it is supposed to be a destination brand.
Have you set the dates for the Pearl of Africa Tourism expo and how different?
We are looking at the end of April as the timeline. It is definitely going to be different. We are going to have a hybrid expo in a sense that a bigger component of it is going to be virtual, especially for the international participants. We will also have the local participants participating physically.
Last year’s expo was focused on improving intra-Africa tourism. What is your focus this time around?
Yes, we are still focusing on regional and African market at large. We plan on having representation in our main markets, for example in Kenya, South Africa, just like we have representation in Germany, UK and US.
These efforts are meant to push our presence in the markets. It is different being there than occasionally going there and leaving. With permanent presence, we are taking the opportunity to easily be found and contacted.
Covid-19 has slowed inflow of tourists. How do you plan to recoup what has been lost?
We are building on what we have been doing to improve tourism products. For example, we have set up standards and regulations in the hotels and accommodation facilities.
This has been ongoing and we are going to try and give it a bigger push by working with the tourism operators along the value chain.
We need everyone to be registered, inspected, licensed, classified and graded so that the standards can be pushed.
In all these, there are no new things but advancing and refreshing what has been there before to make them better, expand so that we may be able to establish ourselves better as a destination.
In March, you make two years in office, what would you say have been your gains and challenges?
You should be able to tell me. The best assessor should be you from outside. Maybe you should tell me what you have seen or observed and I continue from there.
Building coffee tourism as a product
Last year, UTB undertook efforts to promote coffee tourism in Uganda, have you made strides?
We have some establishments in western and eastern Uganda where we have facilities and farms with coffee shops.
Tourists are taken into the farm and taken through the whole process from planting to how coffee is taken care of and harvesting, among others.
So should we say that it is largely eestern and eastern Uganda that are key points for coffee tourism?
For now, yes. There are tour operators like ‘Let’s Go Travel’ pushing this. From my discussion with them toward the end of 2019, they wanted to identify farms across the country from the different regions.
For example, if they had their tourists going to northern Uganda, they should also have an establishment around Murchison Falls or wherever they are taking their visitors so that they can have the coffee experience.
In the central, they had sent some of the farmers for training in Kenya but when Covid-19 broke out a number of things had to be affected.
Are there things we can benchmark from Kenya as probably an established market with these agro-tourism efforts?
Yes, they are big with coffee tourism. They are more established than we are. That is why ‘Let’s Go Travel’ was benchmarking them specifically as a private investor interested in that. Even the whole farm and agro-tourism concept is better established in Kenya.
However, last year we found out that there is an association of local farmers who are interested in agro-tourism. They call themselves the ‘Agro-Tourism Association’.
They are 64 in number and come from all the regions in the country.
To be systematic in developing this, we are right now working on developing the guide for the establishment of an agro-tourism establishment so that one is guided.
It is not a matter of having a nice farm like the ones we visited in Bushenyi, Isingiro and Mbarara where agricultural tours can take place.
With coffee tourism, we want tourists to expereince and participate in things such as picking the ber-ries, drying, roasting and grinding.
We have establishments such as those in Kasese and Sipi, from which we are working and from our stats, we seem to see a gain in interest. However, we need to promote them and the product. That is why one of our efforts last year was to try and create awareness about agro-tourism, giving it the broader understanding beyond only coffee.