By Najib Mulema

Uganda’s tourism sector, which has emerged as the country’s leading foreign exchange earner for three consecutive years, is expected to rake in a record Shs 9.4 trillion each year by 2020.

Tourism, which now contributes 10 per cent of the county’s GDP, has seen steady growth from income of Shs1.4 billion in 2007 to Shs4.9 trillion currently.

Among measures expected to boost the sector is government’s imminent move to allow direct international flights to game parks, construction of roads, improvement in security and the move to reinstate the national carrier, Uganda Airlines.

In June, government earmarked a staggering Shs32bn for the tourism sector which is expected to attract at least four million tourists annually by the year 2020.

“By 2020, tourism is targeted to earn USD2.7 billion annually and tourist visitors are expected to reach 4 million per year, compared to 1.3 million today,” said Finance Minister Matia Kasaija.

He said this would be realised through sustained conservation of tourism resources to “guarantee the viability” of the sector.

Poaching, under-funding and poor awareness campaigns have been at the heart of Uganda tourism’s poor performance.

According to Uganda Bureau of Statistics’ Statistical Abstract, International visitor arrivals to Uganda increased from 1,302,802 in 2015 to 1,322,522 in 2016, indicating a 1.5 per cent increase.

About 18 per cent of the total visitor arrivals to Uganda in 2016 visited for purposes of leisure, recreation and holiday, while 22 per cent visited for business and professional conferences, 38 per cent were visiting friends and relatives whereas 22 per cent visited for other reasons such as transit, education and medical among others.

The industry’s robust growth can be partly attributed to the Tourism Ministry and Uganda Tourism Board’s (UTB) industrious marketing drive.

Over the years, the country’s tourism industry regulator has effectively utilised some of the most efficient marketing channels and subsequently putting Uganda on the world tourism map.

Uganda’s tourism renaissance began 10 years ago following the end of the LRA and ADF wars that, for a long time, ravaged the northern and western parts of the country, stifling tourism growth in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In 1990, for instance, Uganda welcomed just 69,000 visitors, but the number skyrocketed to 642,000 in 2007 when the war lords were finally driven to Central African Republic.

The industry has since enjoyed an unwavering upward trajectory, year after year, save for 2009 when arrivals slumped from 844,000 visitors the previous year to 806,000.

The industry bounced back in 2010 with a bang, registering 946,000 international travellers, and in 2016 Uganda bested all its East African neighbours in terms of visitor numbers, attracting over 1.4 million tourists – and $1.4 billion of their cash.

In the past decade, there has been a steady increase in national park visits, according to data from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the government agency that overlooks the country’s 10 national parks, 12 wildlife reserves, five community wildlife management areas and 13 wildlife sanctuaries.

Uganda’s tourism sector growth has been driven by a number of factors such as enhanced infrastructure, country’s resilient aviation sector, favorable government policies as well as Ugandans hospitality.

Though the sector has grown drastically, there are still some challenges that are limiting it to progress to the level every Ugandan is yearning for.

Factors such as high competition from neighboring countries such as Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania, lack of a national carrier, lack of trained personnel among others.

Apparently, Uganda is still at the bottom in terms of tourism and therefore any growth sends shock waves to the industry.