There are two categories of Ugandans currently frequenting the national parks: the budget travellers in groups, going for cheap accommodation and packages, and the ‘loaded’ vacationers used to flying to Dubai, Mauritius and other fancy places, now stuck at home due to the pandemic raging in most preferred destinations.
The latter, for whom money is not an issue, have put upmarket safari lodges in the national parks back into business, at top dollar too, even as foreign tourists remain few and scattered.
“Domestic tourism has picked up because of the lockdown; Ugandans that were flying out for holidays in Dubai and Europe have begun coming here, and they are really appreciative, and, some have made it a routine of visiting every month,” Stephen Nyadru, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) assistant warden in charge of tourism at Queen Elizabeth national park, told me last weekend.
I was on a private family visit to Queen Elizabeth in Kasese district – Uganda’s second most visited park. Murchison receives more visitors. The level of activity (or inactivity) at the Kabatooro gate, the park’s main gate, was enough to tell how hard the tourism sector has been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The numbers fell by nearly three-quarters as the aviation industry locked down,” a ranger manning the gate told me.
More than 86,000 tourists had visited the park by March 26, 2020, when President Museveni added tourism sites on the list of places
closed to the public.
To Nyadru, Covid-19 came like a tsunami with a direct impact on conservation efforts given that UWA, being a semi-autonomous government agency, largely depends on collections from park gates.
“Because the airports globally had been closed, we received only two visitors on that day [March 26], but when the savannah parks were reopened in June 2020, we got 117 visitors – many of them being local tourists and resident foreign nationals,” said Nyadru.
My visit coincided with the first anniversary of the park’s Covid-19-induced closure, and as we sat at the UWA-run Thembo restaurant waiting for our scheduled boat cruise along Kazinga channel, several other Ugandans drove in, while outside the park’s visitor information centre, another group of about seven youthful Ugandans was stuck after their car, a Toyota Wish suffered a mechanical problem.
They had driven all the way from Kampala and used the same car for the game drives around this 1,978 square-kilometer-park, named in commemoration of the 1954 visit by the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, days after she had commissioned the Owen Falls dam in Jinja.
Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) was also in the park with a team of filmmakers who were shooting the park’s attractions that will be showcased to travellers aboard Uganda Airlines’ A330-800neo aircraft.
Sometimes, Nyadru said, Mweya Safari Lodge gets booked out by Ugandans parting with $170 (Shs 620,000) per head per night over the past six months since the park re-opened. As the numbers continued to grow, the hotel has gone back to its normal price of $200 (Shs 730,000) per night, but this still has not chased away local clients with deep pockets.
“The perception of people thinking that parks are only for foreigners has changed because we [UWA] took a deliberate effort to make the parks very affordable to East Africans,” Nyadru said.
Since 2017, UWA has been establishing accommodation facilities in most of the 10 national parks it manages, with a view of offering alternative accommodation for domestic tourists. In Queen Elizabeth, for instance, there are lodging facilities for as low as Shs 26,000, but the price changes up to Shs 102,000, depending on the attached amenities.
“There are private lodges established within the park and most of those are high-end lodges such as Volcanoes Kyambura Gorge, which charges $750 (Shs 2.7m), but there are also middle-end and budget accommodation, which we [UWA] offer,” Nyadru said.
As the long Easter weekend rolled in last Friday, Uganda Museum grounds were indeed a hive of activity as young people boarded the UWA specialized tourist buses and headed to yet another national park.