Tourism Is Now Uganda’s No. 1 Export Earner

Written by Dana Sanchez

For the first time, tourism has bypassed workers’ remittances from abroad to become Uganda’s top export earner, according to a report in TheObserver.

Ugandan tourism generated $1.4 billion in fiscal 2013-2014, up from $1.1 billion the previous year, according to the central bank’s August monetary policy statement.

Workers’ remittances, long the dominant sector when calculating export receipts, are in the No. 2 spot, and coffee ranks No. 3, TheObserver reports. Remittances — the money sent home to Uganda by its citizens living in the diaspora — totalled about $800 million for the year and are expected to grow to $1 billion this fiscal year, according to African Development Bank.

Traditionally Uganda’s No. 1 cash crop, coffee earned about $415 million from April 2013
to March 2014, according to the Uganda Coffee Development Authority.

In 2012, Lonely Planet, ranked Uganda No. 1 of 10 top countries to visit that will come into their own on its list, Best in Travel: top 10 countries for 2012. Countries made the list based on votes by a panel of in-house travel experts, who considered “topicality, excitement, value and that special X-factor” in their decisions. Other countries that made the list included, from No. 2 to No. 10: Myanmar (Burma), Ukraine, Jordan, Denmark, Bhutan, Cuba, New Caledonia, Taiwan and Switzerland.

Among the reasons Uganda ranked No 1, Lonely Planet mentioned the following: “After all, this is the source of the river Nile – that mythical place explorers sought since Roman times. It’s also where savannah meets the vast lakes of East Africa, and where snow-capped mountains bear down on sprawling jungles…Uganda is Africa condensed, with the best of everything the continent has to offer packed into the small, but stunning destination.”

The Lonely Planet ranking had a big impact on increasing the number of tourists to Uganda, said Stephen Asiimwe, CEO of the Uganda Tourism Board. “It was a huge plus for us,” he said.

Uganda is regarded Africa’s best destination for birders with more than 1,058 bird species — 11 percent of the world’s total, and half of Africa’s, TheObserver reports.

Just as the Maasai have become a tourist attraction in Kenya, Asiimwe said there were many tribes and cultural events that could be developed as tourist attractions in Uganda.

“Tourism is not only about wildlife and nature,” Asiimwe said. “We have 56 tribes and all have different cultures and heritages and all are unique. This is something we are looking at.”

The Ugandan Tourism Board hopes to market Martyrs Day, observed June 3, along with the Imbalu initiation ceremony in Mbale, that attracts thousands of people.

Uganda is scheduled to host the Africa Travel Association conference in November, with more than 800 delegate expected to boost tourism.

“The delegates will visit almost every pocket of this country. This is an opportunity
for hoteliers, transporters, and entrepreneurs,” Asiimwe said.

Uganda plans to do aggressive marketing to sell the country with advertising on international media networks like CNN, according to the tourism director.

There have been challenges for Ugandan tourism, though. The Ugandan Tourism Board has insufficient funds to promote the industry, Asiimwe said. This financial year, it was allocated 5 billion Ugandan shillings ($1.9 million). However, an industry that is now a top export earner for the country needs at least double the budget.

Meanwhile, Uganda’s trade deficit grew to $2.34 billion last financial year from $2.12 billion in 2012-2013 and continues to deteriorate, according to Bank of Uganda’s monetary report.

“The deficits on the trade account and income account more than offset the surplus on the services and foreign transfers (remittances),” according to Bank of Uganda.

A widening trade deficit usually leads to depreciated local currency as importers pay more for foreign currency, and ultimately could put further pressure on the inflation rate, TheObserver reports. Private transfers have also declined from $976 million in 2012-2013 to $934 million.

The drop was partly down to the disruptive impact of the war in South Sudan, Bank of Uganda reports. Uganda earned about $240 million annually from South Sudan before war broke out in the country, according to TheObserver.