Uganda records boom in domestic tourism

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Nestled on an island in the rushing waters of the River Nile, Lemala Wildwaters is a very special holiday destination.

This year it was voted the world's second most Instagrammable hotel by travel website Luxury Travel Advisor.

And with its lush greenery, raging torrents and picture perfect thatched cottages, it's easy to see why.

The resort has started attracting a whole new kind of visitor - local people.

As the pandemic shut down international travel, Ugandans have woken up to the beauty they can find within their own borders.

Isaiah Rwanyekiro, CEO of tour operator Breathtaking Uganda, says it's a big shift in the market.

"Previously, there was not so much travel by Ugandans around Uganda. Many people believed they have been born here, they have grown up here and there is nothing exciting to see," he says.

"But eventually we started showing them so many of these beautiful locations like Wildwaters, like Chobe, like Murchison falls, like Kidepo National Park, like Queen Elizabeth National Park, and every time we go there with photographers, with videographers, with cameramen, and we have these amazing picture, amazing videos, everyone kept asking are you sure this is Uganda? And we are like yeah this is Uganda, this is our country, this is how beautiful it is. So the more we have done this, the more we have shown people out there how beautiful Uganda is, the more people have appreciated the beauty of this country, the more they are moving more in and around Uganda."

This island paradise offers exciting views from every angle.

Travel addict Gitahi Wangeshi has been to many destinations around the world.

She's visiting Wildwaters for the first time with a group of friends.

"I have been to South Africa - beautiful place, but there is something about Uganda. It's green so you have the nature, the people are friendly, the food is fresh so you get fresh fish - it is divine," Gitahi says.

Dedan Ochele is General Manager of Wildwaters.

He's seen a huge shift from before the pandemic, when most visitors were foreigners, to now.

"Looking at the numbers we are getting, 70 to 65 percent are local Ugandans. And again COVID opened our eyes. You cannot depend on foreign tourists anymore," he says.

"I am happy because of social media, the kind of guys who come here, they spread the news, they spread the word to their friends and we are definitely literally surviving because of the local Ugandan market."

This East African Region is home to a huge variety of tourist attractions, from the source of the Nile, to its 10 national parks which are home to the so-called 'BIG 5' safari animals.

The government says it is actively promoting the parks and wildlife to get Ugandans to holiday in their own country.

"If you look at the December figures for instance around 41,000 people visited the national parks," says Hon. Martin Magarra Bahinduka, State Minister for Tourism.

"But the biggest percentage for the first time are Ugandans which had never happened before. So it's very promising and we hope that as we continue our focus on the domestic market definitely the numbers will grow. And that's what we are encouraging, that Ugandans need to travel this country, love their country but also through that then we can create a sustainable tourism sector."

One of the biggest barriers for Ugandans is the cost of visiting such places.

So the government has allowed more competition in a bid to drive prices down.

"What we have done deliberately as a ministry with our partners in UWA (Uganda Wildlife Authority) is to actually give out more concessions for more people to construct accommodations within the protected areas so that we can make accommodation a little bit more competitive and also create availability," says the minister.

"The prices will automatically go down but I can assure you that there is accommodation in the parks starting from 30,000 shillings 50,000, 80 to 100. So everyone is catered for, the one who wants to pay 1,000 dollars, we have that accommodation, 300 we have."

The boom in the tourism sector is also helping to bring down unemployment levels that spiralled during Uganda's pandemic lockdowns.

For places like Wildwaters, giving jobs to the local community is a major key for sustainability.

"We are still employing as many local communities as possible, we train them, so we always also look at talents as they are working with us, we spot the talent, we train them and we promote them higher," says Ochele.

"Of course, we belong to the community we are only doing this basically because of the community and to keep up our standards that you come to Africa, you come to Uganda, you come to Lemala Wildwaters, you see this kind of difference."

From adrenalin activities to majestic landscapes, Uganda hopes to keep more of its citizens at home for their holidays.

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