August 17, 2005

Insecurity looms over booming Uganda tourism

By Daniel Wallis

BUNYARUGURU CRATER LAKES, Uganda (Reuters) - Serving cold
drinks to rich vacationers at a luxurious retreat in the hills
of western Uganda, barman George Kaganda says tourism has been
good to him.

"I have 12 children and because of my steady employment
they will all have land when I am gone," the 51-year-old says.

Once holding the dubious honor of being the late dictator
Idi Amin's favorite waiter, Kaganda says the hotel industry has
freed him from the poverty suffered by millions of Ugandans
living in remote rural areas like this.

With attractions such as gorilla tracking and white-water
rafting, tourism is now beating fish and coffee as the
country's top foreign exchange earner, and the government is
increasingly beginning to rely on it too.

It wants to develop alternatives to big game safaris and
gorilla-tracking vacations to boost growing numbers of

But violence in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo
and at home pose significant challenges to building the sector
in the country once dubbed the Pearl of Africa.


Insecurity is the industry's biggest threat, coupled with
Uganda's image as one of Africa's most violent states during
the 1970s and the bloodshed of Amin's rule.

"We are still portrayed as a brutal country because of our
history," Tourism Commissioner Moses Okua said in a recent
interview with a state-owned newspaper.

"Our priority .... is aggressive marketing of Uganda
because it may be a long time before that is totally cleared."

Officials say a vital part of the campaign is improving
security for tourists visiting its far-flung national parks.

Ugandan tourism suffered its worst blow in 1999 when
militiamen crossed from Congo and hacked to death eight
foreigners after kidnapping them in Bwindi, a forest reserve
home to mountain gorillas.

Officials insist the parks are now safe, but clashes have
taken place in recent months in neighboring parts of Congo.

There have also been damaging reports from northern Uganda,
where Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels killed seven game
rangers three years ago in Murchison Falls national park, which
is famed for its elephants, hippos and crocodiles.

Residents have reported renewed LRA activity along the
northern edge of the park in recent weeks.


Uganda rivaled neighboring Kenya and Tanzania as a wildlife
destination in the 1960s before it was hit by decades of
insecurity, social unrest and bad government.

But visitors are slowly coming back, and officials say
tourism contributed more than $200 million to government
finances last year -- nearly the same amount brought in by its
key exports fish and coffee combined.

For many tourists, Uganda's top attraction remains the
chance to track rare mountain gorillas on the jungle-clad
slopes along the borders with Congo and Rwanda.

"It was absolutely sensational. A life-changing
experience," says an Australian vacationer after climbing for
three hours to catch a glimpse of the endangered primates in
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest national park.

A day's tracking costs at least $360, and the government
hopes to lure other affluent visitors with rafting trips on the
River Nile, climbing in the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains and
world-class bird watching.


Along with insecurity, Uganda's image has also had to
contend with the mass killing of hundreds of followers of a
doomsday cult in 2000.

At least 780 followers of the Movement for the Restoration
of the Ten Commandments of God were slaughtered and buried in
mass graves after a prediction the world would end at the start
of the year failed to come true.

Also in 2000, there was an outbreak of the deadly Ebola
virus in the north of Uganda.

East African tourism is still recovering from the 1998
bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that were linked to al Qaeda.

But Ugandan officials remain confident the industry will
continue to play a leading role in the country's economic
growth, and have approved the building of at least three new
multi-million dollar hotels this month alone.

At the lodge overlooking the spectacular Bunyaruguru crater
lakes, dinner is finished and waitress Allen, one of Kaganda's
colleagues, is using $12 of her wages to take a taxi 15 miles
to a nightclub in Fort Portal town.

"I like working here so much," she says. "Tonight I think I
might pay to go into the executive lounge."