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Wolfgang’s East Africa tourism report

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No sooner had South African Airways announced, that they would add another flight between Johannesburg and Entebbe from the beginning of February, are news coming out of the airline’s offices in Kampala that from March 2008 they intend to fly daily on the route between South Africa and Entebbe. In view of the downturn of traffic between Johannesburg and Nairobi this may be a re-deployment of traffic to the non-stop route, and the aircraft used will continue to be a Boeing NG 737-800. The present timings will be maintained, allowing SAA network connections both ways. This will be a further boost for tourism and trade relations between Uganda and South Africa but also allow long haul traffic passengers from the global SAA network and their alliance partners to fly seamlessly on to Uganda.

Kenya’s national airline has announced that effective April 01st (no fool’s day joke) they will cease paying commissions to travel agents across East Africa for ticket sales, following the international trend started some years ago in other parts of the world. KLM / Air France, which own a major stake in Kenya Airways, has made a similar announcement a few days ago. The airline had paid 6 percent for the past two years, after reducing commission levels by one and then two percent respectively at the time from the initial 9 percent standard rate. Travel agents had sufficient warning of these developments and will now charge a service fee to their clients, while the airlines promote on line bookings to further lower their own distribution costs. However, some airlines, i.e. Virgin, flying to East Africa, continue to pay a modest commission, which under the circumstances is also very likely to be phased out in coming months, finally eliminating the main past source of travel agency income.

Further consolidation in the travel industry is now expected across the region with mergers, buy outs, take over’s and even outright business closures and many smaller agencies are expected to find the going probably too hard to survive, unless they managed over the past to widen their range of paid for services. In the meantime, KQ has also increased the fuel surcharge for flights out of Entebbe due to the scarcity of aviation fuel, supplies of which have still not reached pre-crisis levels.

The public accounts committee of the Ugandan Parliament has now taken the CNN publicity deal of 2005 into their cross hairs, with the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry the first high profile individual having to appear before the panel. It was also reported in the local media, that a letter attributed to the then Minister had strongly warned that the US$1.35 million equivalent drawn from the ministry’s accounts for the activity “would cripple” other projects and commitments in the absence of finding the money from other sources. The parliamentarians also took issue with the fact that a company linked to an in-law of the president was receiving allegedly some SS$350,000, acting in their capacity as agent for CNN. Judging by the mood of the committee they will call other personalities linked to the expenditure to testify before them and seek out culprits for appropriate sanction.

The campaign at the time developed a new tag line and branding for Uganda, shifting emphasis from ‘Uganda – the Pearl of Africa’ to ‘Uganda – Gifted by Nature’. The CNN campaign of advertising for Uganda ran for a period of 6 months in conjunction with CNN’s ‘Inside Africa’ program, but then expired in the absence of sustainable funding, something much decried by the tourism sector since then. Other critics also bemoaned the fact that the screening of the commercials did not take place globally but only in markets of lesser importance for Uganda, which as everything connected to this matter will be arguable. The results measured after the initial campaign did show improved visibility of Uganda as a tourist destination and yielded results in rising visitor numbers, but the effect – by general consensus of the tourism private sector and industry observers and analysts – has since then completely evaporated, in the absence of follow up and in the face of constant heavy advertising by other tourist destinations competing for tourist dollars and euros.

The failure of government to bring the draft tourism bill – which incidentally was ready for submission to cabinet in 2005 – to the law makers in parliament, is also being cited as a main reason for lack of funding for the Uganda Tourist Board, which presently lingers in a near broke state, unable to fulfil its mandate. The bill was to create a “tourism development fund levy,” from which marketing and vocational and educational services linked to the tourism industry were to be paid. None of this however has materialised inspite of assurances given by government to the tourism private sector, leaving the tourist board and the national hotel and tourism training institute chronically underfunded. Donor support has also largely expired for the sector, as government has not made tourism a priority with the country’s development partners, as a recent EU evaluation of their tourism support programme has candidly revealed.

The parliamentary public accounts committee has become increasingly assertive over, what they term “unauthorized government expenditure” and “investments” such as payment to hotel companies ahead of the Commonwealth Summit in November or the shareholding in the failed Victoria International Airways in 2006, none of which the committee says has been sanctioned by parliament and its vote on the country’s budget. Watch this space to follow this emerging story.

In the same meeting of the PAC it was also revealed, that due to lack of funds Uganda’s membership at the UN World Tourism Organization – UNWTO – has lapsed and the country been suspended, denying Uganda all the benefits from marketing and training support it would be entitled to as a member of the LDC group of nations (least developed countries). This benefit ordinarily amounts to a great multiple of the annual membership fees. The tourism private sector has been demanding compliance from government on this issue for years now, but other than lip service never saw concrete action. Other key memberships in global bodies are also hanging in suspense, as substantial dues arrears have accumulated over the past years – owing to lack of adequate funding of the Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry.

The Ministry of Works and Transport has now advertised a tender for highway distance markings cum advertising signs. Across the major roads and highways in the country signs are to be erected at one or two kilometre intervals, showing distances to the next major town or rural centre, in exchange for advertising opportunities. At the same time new direction signs are going up all over Kampala to direct traffic towards their destination like key places of interest (Museum, Kasubi Tombs), the Entebbe International Airport, the Kajjansi Airfield, the main stadium and city exits to the major upcountry towns.

Following reports of targeted violence against Ugandan trucks, ferrying fuel from the pipeline head depots in Eldoret and Kisumu, transporters and drivers have at least for the moment reduced operations, until full security is guaranteed and provided by Kenyan security forces. Subsequently, fuel in some stations is again being rationed or has run out. Truck drivers arriving at the Ugandan border showed journalists broken windscreens, windows and other damage to their cars and trucks by stones and rocks thrown at them by thugs and goons – the area between Eldoret and Kisumu to the border being the heartland of the political opposition and most prone to outbreaks of violence. They also reported vehicles being looted and burned while in transit to the border. Opposition leader Odinga’s recent public call for an end to violence sounded hollow and was described by sections of the media as ‘too little, too late’. Parallels have now also been drawn between the 1982 coup attempt supported by Odinga and similar tactics today, to turn his whole tribe – the Luo – against the rest of peace loving Kenyans, prompting calls even by the US administration to end ‘ethnic cleansing’ – although presently stopping short of calling it ‘genocide’ – witnessed in the aftermath of the elections in opposition areas. Watch this space as news break.

The forthcoming Africa visit by US President Bush is once again avoiding Kenya during its East Africa loop, as already done by him in 2003. State visits this time will take place in Tanzania and Rwanda. This means that for the last three times a US president came to Eastern Africa, Kenya has found herself excluded from the visiting programme, always reportedly over the US’ concerns about domestic political issues in Kenya at the time. Prior to the December 2007 elections there was some hope to have Kenya included in the visiting schedule, but the outbreak of ongoing post election violence has put paid to that.

In the meantime, visiting former UN Chief Kofi Annan expressed his shock over, what he termed ‘systematic human right abuses’ of which he saw evidence when visiting the main problem areas in Western Kenya, where in particular the members of President Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe were relentlessly hunted down and their homesteads and businesses looted and burnt. The tense political situation in Kenya has now also spread to the Rift Valley provincial capital of Nakuru, globally known for the Nakuru National Park, which is home to millions of flamingos. The hitherto peaceful Nakuru saw some serious violence over the last weekend, again perpetrated largely against members of the Kikuyu tribe and most likely carried out by opposition goons loyal to election loser Odinga, who remains ambiguous about the ongoing crimes against humanity and ethnic and political cleansing. Retaliatory ‘strikes’ by the Kikuyu tribesmen are now also starting, said to be in defence of their people, but clearly inflaming the cycles of violence some more in an area hitherto largely peaceful, and to make it worse being home to key tourist attractions in the rift valley. Kofi Annan and his team of eminent African personalities subsequently called for ‘hard choices’ to me made by the two opposing camps, a halt to all violence, for political leaders to reign in their supporters and for police investigations and prosecutions of the perpetrators of political violence, which they could see first hand and close up.

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