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Tourism expo starts today as game park visitor numbers soar

The number of visitors to Uganda’s national parks rose by 14 per cent in 2016, the first time the country has registered a double- digit jump.

According to the ministry of tourism, wildlife and antiquities, at least 245,725 people visited the parks last year, compared to 215,558 in 2015, and 200,000 in 2014.

For Stephen Asiimwe, the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) chief executive officer, this shows that the country is reaping dividends from aggressive marketing.

“And it is going to get better,” Asiimwe told us on Wednesday, ahead of the Pearl of Africa tourism expo that opens in Kampala today. “Every dollar we spend in marketing and promoting Uganda has a corresponding increase [in the] rate of return.”

Most of the visitors were foreign non-residents, followed by students and East African residents (including Ugandans). Foreign visitors grew from 77,206 people in 2015 to 95,949 last year.

Queen Elizabeth national park led the pack, with 85,905 tourists (35%) preferring to spend their time. It was followed by Murchison Falls national park, with 75,360.

These numbers pale in comparison with what is recorded as tourist arrivals at Entebbe airport. An average of 1.2 million people are recorded at the airport and that close to three quarters of these don’t visit the country’s national parks means a lot still needs to be done on the marketing part.

Government has hired public relations firms in Germany, UK, and USA to sell brand Uganda. In 2015, the country hosted former football stars of Barcelona FC to push the country’s visibility.

The Pearl of Africa tourism expo at Sheraton hotel gardens, which starts today and ends on Sunday, is expected to showcase more of what Uganda has to offer to travel enthusiasts.  UTB says the expo will feature hosted buyers –people who link potential tourists or travellers to the country.

Themed Tourism is everyone’s business, the expo is meant to show that the sector’s success benefits everyone: from a tomato or mango farmer in Kasese to a woman selling fish in Karuma or Jinja. More tourists breathe life into the hotel industry, transport and pay taxes for government. 

“What we’re saying is that if everybody does their part, we shall surpass the figures we have [now] and that means we are going to get value visitors – tourists capable of spending a substantial amount of money whenever they visit,” Asiimwe said.

Official estimates show that Uganda earns at least $1.3bn annually from tourism, almost thrice the income from coffee exports.

“Despite some upheavals, including what happened in Kasese, the perception about Uganda has changed. People were insisting to come to Uganda. [It is] true some people cancelled their bookings [but there was not much impact],” said Vincent Mugaba, UTB public relations officer.

Last year, the World Economic Forum ranked Uganda among the fastest growing destinations for leisure travel spending between 2016 and 2026. It said Uganda would grow at an annual rate of 7.5 per cent.

Uganda has of late been seizing every opportunity to market itself. Last month government spent 15,000 pounds on animated gorilla stationed at Trafalgar square in London.

The response was immense, said Asiimwe, revealing that it generated up to 1.1 million pounds in publicity value after it was picked up by different media houses.

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