By Denis Jjuuko
Power couple Kanye West and Kim Kardashian is in Uganda for a holiday. For the uninitiated, Kanye is a multi award winning US rapper while his wife Kim is famous for her reality TV show and her backside (which by the way isn’t comparable to what Ugandan girls have got but then I digress). Kim and Kanye are one of the most recognizable couples in the world and have a combined following of 71.2 million followers on Twitter alone. Their legion of fans has made them a fortune to the extent that they can close off Chobe Lodge to themselves for a couple of days.
Some of the photos that have been circulating feature a backdrop of a Ugandan military chopper. I am assuming the couple arrived in Chobe in the Murchison Falls National Park on this military chopper. I have also seen some other photos of small civilian aircraft. So I am not sure which of the planes they used. If they indeed traveled on a military chopper that brings some issues that we as a country must address.
A tourist who doesn’t have the profile of the Wests won’t be able to access military choppers or won’t afford an expensive ticket for just one hour and also send 4X4 vehicles to wait for them on arrival. The majority of tourists are not powerful extremely rich couples — they are ordinary people who sometimes save for years to enable them make the trips to destinations of their fancy.
There is an airstrip in Pakuba in Nwoya District that isn’t very far from Murchison and indeed Gulu has probably a bigger one. And one can catch a flight from Entebbe to the park. However, most tourists who visit Uganda’s national parks arrive there by road. If you drive from Entebbe to Kidepo or Queens Elizabeth for a safari, and drive back to Entebbe, you may need another holiday to recover from the trip.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) should significantly invest in these airstrips or airdromes (whatever they are called) so that they can handle bigger and more comfortable aircraft. Flying on tiny aircraft is a very uncomfortable experience. And because some people fear them, they prefer to drive long distances than flying there. This technically means that tourists spend more time in Uganda than they should. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the economy but where somebody doesn’t have many days, they will prefer to go somewhere else.
In fact, some tour operators tell me that some people who love trekking gorillas in Bwindi fly to Kigali and drive the short distance across instead of flying to Entebbe. If we had reliable affordable air transport from Entebbe to Bwindi, those tourists wouldn’t be lost to our neighbours. When a tourist flies to another country to access another country, the economy of the neighboring country benefits more than the country that they actually intend to visit. For example, restaurants, airports, and tour companies of the neighbouring country would benefit. A tourist will just drive to Bwindi in the morning, trek the gorillas and drive back to a hotel near the airport. That is if they go to Bwindi at all because Rwanda has gorillas as well. So a tourist may only consider Uganda if the Rwandan permits have all been booked.
The CAA should also build an airport in Ssese Islands so people have an option of flying there instead of traveling on makeshift ferries that are common on Lake Victoria.
After these airdromes have been significantly improved, Uganda Airlines, which I hear is being revived, should first concentrate on domestic flights before going international. As a national airline, they can afford to offer affordable flights to all these national parks in relatively comfortable planes. Since they will be operating using our taxes, they don’t necessarily have to turn huge profits. The model used for the ferries on Lake Victoria could be also be used on air transport albeit with people paying something to keep the airline afloat. At the moment, according to tourism website Lonely Planet, it costs USD263 to fly from Entebbe to Pakuba. That is very expensive. Domestic flights should be affordable.
With affordable flights, more tourists will be able to fly to Entebbe and within an hour, they are in Kidepo or Kasese vacationing. That would also ensure that new businesses develop in those areas. Tour companies would set up, more jobs will be created and it will become easy for tourists to enjoy their vacations.
Today, even if you fly to Pakuba or Moroto, you will still need to pay costs to send Safari vehicles to wait for you at the airfield and these vehicles may have to come from Kampala. Most towns near the national parks don’t have many tour companies with the necessary vehicles to transport tourists into the parks so they get them from Kampala. The Wests visit gives us an opportunity for long term planning.
The writer is a communication and visibility consultant. firstname.lastname@example.org
*Photos from the internet