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For upcountry hoteliers, recovery is agonizingly slow

Lucia Villas Mbale

Lucia Villas Mbale

"If this was not [my] home, we wouldn’t be here anymore,” Martin Oik said, depicting irrefutable sadness in his voice. Oik runs Lucia Villas Mbale, a medium-sized hotel in the heart of the eastern Uganda town.

Until 2019, Lucia’s prospects were bright. Visitors, both local and international, came in droves.

“Bikers rode motorcycles from [different countries], stayed here for two or more days and continued to other countries,” he said, recollecting the good old days.

This is long gone now. Two successive shocks – the Covid-19 pandemic and Ebola – have brought hoteliers, especially those outside the capital to their knees.

Oik’s predicament is a portrait of what is happening across the country – from Jinja to Gulu to Mbarara – the hospitality industry only counts the day the passes, a year after the end of the pandemic. It is a Monday midday and to illustrate how hard the times are, Oik asks us to look around to notice the missing indicator of good business for upcountry hotels: towels and bedsheets drying outside.

Most upcountry hotels still wash by hand and hang their materials to dry. Today there is none, an indicator of slow business or inactivity. The passing of the anti-homosexuality bill in February added salt to the wound. A couple of hoteliers say they have been notified of cancellations by visitors from several countries who cited the new bill for their actions.

Between March 2020 and December 2021, save for the education sector, tourism experienced the highest number of days where it saw partial or complete closure of business premises, according to the Economic Policy Research Centre and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada studies that have, for the last three years, followed these enterprises to establish the pandemic’s impact on them.

The sector cut 34% of jobs and was observed to have the weakest resilience ability after the education sector. EPRC studies depict a complete drop from a once high-flying sector to a big fall and now one whose future remains uncertain. In March 2023, EPRC researchers moved around the country, observing what’s going on for many enterprises.

At some, their premises are so quiet that one can feel one’s footsteps walking through their corridors. Others have resorted to doing minor and major repairs, praying that quicker business returns soon.

The return of employees has been phased and slow. Some hoteliers indicate they have managed to call back just a half of the staff they had before Covid-19. Staff pay hasn’t improved much either, with many opting to wait and see before paying pre-pandemic salaries.

It may take a while, going by what the preparations for the next financial year – 2023/24 – budget indicate. See, government has indicated cuts to social events for its agencies, travel – both domestic and international – for civil servants, and major limitations on workshops.

In a country like Uganda where government spending remains the biggest driver of economic activity, these cuts spell doom for the tourism sector. This also cascades down to the confidence of ordinary Ugandans to travel and spend too. Many tourists are postponing their travels for later.

WHERE IS THE HELP?

Government had promised affordable loans from Uganda Development Bank to resuscitate the enterprises in tourism and hospitality sector. However, the general view in the industry is that this has not helped because of the conditions attached.

For instance, one hotelier told us, Government was prepared to give you money if you promised to keep all your employees. This was hard to swallow given that tourist numbers are not improving fast enough and, therefore, one can’t be paying workers who are doing nothing.”

Another help would be on taxes. For a foreseeable period, hoteliers think they can have a conversation with the taxman to see where to squeeze or relax for the sake of the sector’s survival.

The anti-homosexuality law, while good politically, was a bad addition to the already fragile financial situation. The publicity around it paints Uganda as a no-go area for moderate travellers. There is need to counter this with positive publicity.

Will Oik navigate the tide? Maybe, but it will be a very painful voyage. A little bit of help from government will make it less painful for him and his employees.

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