Africa has always been blessed with landscapes and wildlife that are too achingly beautiful to put into mere words; that have attracted tourists almost despite what we have done to each other, and to our countries, over decades of conflict and political instability.
As such, much of the travel has been leisure based on eco-tourism. But this is changing rapidly as economies expand on the back of greater industrial activity and a more stable political playing field. What this means in effect is that the tourism sector mindset of placing only a small focus on business travel, needs to change immediately.
At the moment, in Africa, we’re a lot better off than most of the rest of the world in economic terms. Much of this continent has historically very loose trading ties with the Western world, so there was far less recessional fallout than in Europe, the US and other first-world countries.
In fact, most West and East African countries have projected economic growth this year set at between six per cent and eight per cent, vastly superior to that of countries such as South Africa, which in the first quarter of this year showed growth slowing rapidly to less than one percentage point.
So, where does this leave Uganda and the rest of the East African Community (EAC) member states?
It leaves this region in a strategically advantageous place, according to economists at the Harvard Centre for Economic Development. Ricardo Hausmann and César Hidalgo not long ago produced their new Atlas of Economic Complexity, and in their global ranking of GDP growth to 2020, Uganda comes out number one.
Global leaders saw it as a bit of head-scratcher because Uganda is a landlocked nation. But what might be described elsewhere as even more perverse is that the Harvard prediction includes in the top 10: Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Senegal, Malawi, and Zambia.
Among the big changes for Africa this millennium has been the hard lessons learnt in the 20 years after the 1970s commodities bubble burst. The continent is now using investment to grow infrastructure and the manufacturing and technology sectors, which will create economies without the need for financial aid.
Uganda, for a number of years, had very passionate but disparate groups working independently to develop the tourism sector, but that landscape is going to change substantially in the next five years as the country’s business sector grows alongside oil production and – ultimately – export.
Business should, therefore, be viewing Uganda’s economic future with optimism – as should the African hospitality industry. In hospitality industry terms, the old adage, “build it and they will come”, has become obsolete in many countries, but as Uganda stands on the brink of a new age of business travel, that is precisely what is about to happen.
Developing hotels in Hoima district (where the Protea Hospitality Group currently has a hotel under construction) is a no-brainer because of the need for quality accommodation as the construction of an oil refinery moves ever closer. The Ugandan government and the three international oil companies have agreed to build an export pipeline and refinery, ending a deadlock that has delayed the development of large oil discoveries on its western border for almost two years.
During the construction of the refinery and after, hotels of international standard will be in demand, which will create sustained employment and a relatively predictable level of forex flowing into the region. Indirectly, this will also have a very positive spin-off for business and hospitality in Kampala, which will remain the country’s international transport and finance hub.
That said, the World Bank’s caution on future development, should not be ignored because while the country’s oil reserves will bolster the economy, it cannot be the only thing that defines prosperity going forward. The World Bank report says: Uganda can grow its economy by developing deeper links between its domestic producers and external markets.
“To unleash the potential of service exports, Uganda should eliminate restrictions in the strategic sectors of tourism, transport and logistics, and education and professional services. Uganda should diversify exports beyond food commodities, improve infrastructure and reduce transport costs.”
It is a fact that capital investment by international companies such as the Protea Hospitality Group, which hopes to see at least five more hotels built in Uganda in the next five years, is not entirely without challenges.
Like Mount Kilimanjaro, we’re here to stay.
Arthur Gillis is CEO of the Protea Hospitality Group, the largest hotel group in Africa with some 130 hotels in 10 countries.
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