Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Rwanda: Hospitality sector reaps mixed fortunes

Despite the fact that the hospitality sector has grown by 60 percent over the past two years, industry players say they are choking on taxes and high bank lending rates. Tourists tracking Gorillas: Tour operators and hoteliers are facing hard times. Tourists tracking Gorillas: Tour operators and hoteliers are facing hard times.

According to the Rwanda Travel and Tours Association, the harsh tax policies and rising bank lending rates are making it hard for tour agencies and hotels to operate profitably. The seasonal discrepancy in tourist numbers is also affecting the businesses.

Denis Manzi, the in charge of hotel reservations at Rwanda Travel and Tours Association, said 98 per cent of the hotel and travel agencies were servicing loans and were having problems meeting their loan obligations to banks due to high rates. “This constrains us, especially when the number of tourists visiting the country is sometimes very minimal,” Denis said in an interview with The New Times.

Tax policies, especially payment of value added tax (VAT) on basic consumable products, is another issue challenge that is causing unease in the sector. “We pay VAT on about 80 per cent of our kitchen products, this forces us to raise fares, but tourists are not willing to pay,” Fabrice Ngabo, an hotelier, said.

Ngabo also said having few local professionals and setting up better hotels remained a big challenge for the sector. However, the association and the Rwanda Development Board were in consultations to try and find solutions to some of the challenges facing the industry, they added.

But not all is gloom; the sector is positioning itself to reap from the huge market presented by the East African Community bloc despite these challenges. The country is also attracting a big number of regional visitors, thanks to its many tourist attractions.

“With the East African Community, more visitors are finding it easy to cross from one country to another in the region. This, coupled with the many tourist attractions, make Rwanda a must-visit place for many tourists,”

Last year, Rwanda attracted over one million tourists, earning the country $281.8m (about Rwf178b). There are over 86 travels and tour agencies registered with the Rwanda Development Board. The director of tourism and conservation at the Rwanda Development Board, Rica Rwigamba, admitted that “getting tourists to stay longer in Rwanda was still the biggest challenge to the tourism industry”. “Therefore, having travel agencies bridging the gap is good news to the country’s tourism,” she noted.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Kampala City Tour most interesting using Boda boda

I hope you do not mind my photographer riding with us, for I need some professional photos,” I tell Michael Obwana, a boda boda cyclist, who has been sent by a Walter Wandera to pick me up.

Wandera is the genius behind Walter’s Boda Boda Tours, a rather eccentric tourism service that has not only become a favourite among visitors to Uganda, but is also getting lots of international attention. Boda bodas, of course, are those little passenger-carrying motorcycles that populate Ugandan roads.

Surprisingly, Wandera’s messenger will not ride my photographer and I on the same bike. “We do not approve of carrying two people on a boda boda, for safety is paramount with us. I have to call Walter to arrange for another rider,” Obwana says, placing the call to Boss Walter, 25. A few minutes and another rider pulls up. “I am Amon from Walter’s Boda Boda Tours and I am here to serve you.”

See, the story of Walter had recently gained social media buzz and I was keen on seeing if he was really worth the hype. Blogs by European tourists claimed that Walter was the best person to show you kampala“But why would anyone pay for a tour of Kampala?

                                                    Heading to Lubiri

For the likes of me, I walk the sidewalks everyday, have visited friends in various suburbs and Kampala has not exactly been a national park. Just how much touristic action can one squeeze out of a city like Kampala?” I mused, for it seemed unsettling to tour my own city.

But out of journalistic curiosity, I just took the damn boda boda tour — with mixed feelings. Because even though we love boda bodas for weaving in and out of heavy traffic, we also hate them for all the traffi c crimes and lawlessness the riders have when it comes to traffi c laws.

These Walter boda bodas though, both the riders and bikes, seemed cut from a different cloth. The bikes were sleek, and clean – same as the riders, who even had cool smartphones. “Please wear your helmet,” Amon said as he handed me a grey helmet with a Walter’s Boda Boda Tours sticker.

As the motorcycle roared to life, Amon  asked me what nationality I am. See, I am Ugandan, but to get a real kick out of the tour, I needed to approach it from a foreigner’s point of view. As we approached Kololo Airstrip, I became Kenyan.

“You are free to ask about anything on your way,” he said. I did not think there was anything about the Kololo Airstrip I could learn from a boda boda rider, but I was positively surprised by the amount of information he could pack into a briefing about the airstrip. On the way, Obwana, the other rider with the photographer, suggested that he and Amon switch passengers, for he had seen me taking notes, and Amon was not yet fully equipped with all the information.

        Capturing a moment

We chatted all the way up, on the dusty Mawanda Road in Kamwokya, through the slum-flanked Kyebando until we arrived at the peaceful gates of the Bahai Temple in Kikaya village. I had not heard of Kikaya before. But that was not the only thing I would learn about the Bahai Temple the moment Solomon Busobozi, another rider joined us with a Finnish tourist probably in his early 20s aboard his boda. Solomon was full of accounts the history books would never bother to tell you.

For starters, I did not know that the Bahai Temple had dormitories anyone in need of quietude and peace can go and use – at no fee. Neither did I know that this is the only Bahai faith temple in Africa. We toured the temple and even had a walk through their cemetery, whose tombs, I must say, look beautiful, with all sorts of shapes, including the map of Africa.

 From the Bahai Temple, we were speeding moderately on the Northern Bypass enroute to Gaddafi Mosque in Old Kampala. We accessed Gaddafi Road via Sir Apollo Kaggwa Road and Makerere Hill.

At the second largest mosque in Africa, a pleasant surprise was all the trivia you do not find floating mosque by the late Col. Muammar Gaddafi , the fallen Libyan leader also dedicated himself to helping out the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council with the upkeep of the site,” Ashraf Zziwa, a tourist handler at the mosque, says.

 Now that there was a “new arrangement,” as Zziwa prefers to call the situation in Libya, the mosque has had to look elsewhere to facilitate its upkeep. One way has been by levying some fees on those who get married, and tourists, who pay sh10,000 per head – locals, however, do not pay as a way of  promoting local tourism.

 At the mosque, we were joined by two other riders from Walter’s company, who  came bearing a friendly Dutch couple.We all marvelled at this architectural accomplishment.

The climax though, had  to be when we scaled over 300 steps up the minaret. From that point, the wide expanse and tapestry made by the roofs of the downtown Kampala buildings, the rushing citizenry, the cars, the roads and the greenery, formed an amazing kaleidoscope.

 Our ‘history book’ Solomon took us round the tower and told us the story  of the origins of Kampala, with wowing anecdotes on Ganda culture. The Dutch tourists kept on referring to a map which they had laid out before them. It was simply spell-binding to be at a spot that harnesses such a 360-degree spectacle of Kampala.

From the mosque, we were now rushing towards the Kabaka’s lake.  There was a brief pause in front of the Buganda parliament before  we headed down towards the lake. Just before the lake, we had a brief stopover at a joint where we sampled mwenge bigere, a local brew made from bananas.

Tiny Tax, the Dutch lady, loved it, and actually questioned me when I took a sip of it. “Are you drinking on the job or that is
strictly for journalistic purposes?” she asked. We all laughed to that.

The brew was uniquely sweet and favoured. After marvelling at the man-made Kabaka’s lake, we were at the gates of the Lubiri royal palace. We headed straight for deceased Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s torture chambers, which were down a path, sandwiched by cassava gardens and sweet potato patches.

Solomon introduces tourists to mwenge bigere (local brew) in Lubiri

Idi Amin trivia and banter ruled the brief walk. Idi Amin had a torture chamber here? Why didn’t I ever know of that? Well, it turned out to be a go-down like structure, eerie and intimidating, perhaps because of its bloody history.

On one of the walls, scribbled in mud (thank God not in blood), were hate words, and a legible: “I will never forget, my husband was killed (here) (by) people of Obote.” There were several other indelible etchings on the wall.  Emma Kavuma, the guide, explained how the chambers worked, and spoke of atrocities committed here in the past by different regimes. Getting out of here  was such a relief, as could be seen off everyone’s countenance.

Meanwhile, Solomon, who had been missing from the group, resurfaced outside at a mini-museum with a photohistory of Buganda royals. In tow with him were rolex, a sought-after quick-fix snack of eggs rolled in chapatti – the foreigners loved these as we sat there imbibing just how much we had seen and got told of how much more we could see around Kampala alone. “What a nice way to see Kampala! You smell it, hear it and see it. We get our money’s worth. They pick us up from anywhere and drop us where we want when the tour is done. It is perfect,” says Corne Van Aert, Tiny Tax’s companion.

Unfortunately, the day’s tour ended here – all at sh90,000 for a foreigner and between sh60,000 and sh70,000 for a local, based on the tourist’s preferences. And yes, Kampala is my hometown. But I felt like an unwitting visitor when listening to the guides. Suddenly, I have this desire to probe the history of every edifi ce I come across. Now that I know a good bit about my city, I can now hit the national parks.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Uganda cultural tourism to restore Luo culture through art and craft

Thomas Opio and Timothy Ocen display some of their paintings of the Acholi Traditional home setting. The two are seeking to educate the youth in the area about their past.

The twin brothers are using their skills to teach the youth about the past.

While their age-mates are troubled, looking for jobs, Timothy Ocen and Thomas Opio, the 33-year old twins, have found solace in art and craft, making pieces that depict the Luo culture.
When I meet them, Ocen, the director of AfriArt Gulu, is finishing a drawing on the nativity of Jesus Christ, on a two-metre piece of cloth, in a grass thatched hut which also acts as an office.
A qualified secondary school teacher of art, Ocen taught for only six months at Gulu Army Secondary school in 2005 before turning to start his own business.
When peace returned to the once war ravaged region, Opio who had studied brick laying at Lugogo Vocational Institute and later, Counselling and Guidance, joined his brother in 2010. Though Opio is not a qualified artist, he has learnt the skills from his brother.
“Art is inborn. Opio and I used to compete in art and when we started the business, it was just to supplement on what he already had. Our grandfather does pottery and we are following in his footsteps,” Ocen says.
Many of the youth in Gulu grew up in camps and were not able to see traditional homesteads, but through their art and craft, the twins are trying to educate the community.
Some of the paintings show the Acholi homestead, with animals tied, in the compound, a granary and the head of the family doing some domestic work with his wife and children.
They also have a painting of an African woman, half dressed to portray her beauty. However, the people in the area are yet to appreciate their work.
Mr. Ocen says, “The region is still ignorant about paintings, and many just walk by them. But we are optimistic. With time, people will get to understand its beauty.”
Their largest market are the hotels and their customers include Chobe Safari Lodge, Paraa Safari Lodge, Palema Hotel, Golden Piece and Acholi Bar hotel They also supply restaurants, schools, churches and local crafts shops within town. Festive seasons like Easter, Christmas and New Year are the periods they sell many paintings, as well as in August when many tourists visit the region.
More than 70 pieces have been taken to the USA for exhibition. A painting on a two-metre piece of cloth goes for Shs250,000 and above depending on what is drawn. The smallest piece costs between Shs20,000 and Shs50,000. Sculptures on walls and compound designs go for Shs80,000 to Shs120,000.
Other items they make include earrings, bangles, necklaces and sign posts, with some of their the raw materials being, snail shells, paint and cow horns.
The hard work seems to be yielding results as Ocen says they earn profits of between Shs320,000 and Shs500,000 monthly.
Hurdles they meet
He, however, notes that the business is slow due to low appreciation in the region. The twins point that out as a reason to the limited market, besides, local leaders have been stopped from having paintings that depict the region’s turbulent times. Also, lack of enough capital and the expensive materials escalate the problem.
In 2011, there seemed a ray of hope and Ocen was very excited when the government in partnership with specific banks in the country made available a venture capital fund worth Shs25b for the youth. However, like many, he has not been able to obtain money from it, due to the strings attached.
The fund was to support and promote venture capital debt to finance viable projects proposed by the young entrepreneurs such as Ocen, as well as enable them benefit from associated mentoring services from the participating banks to help avert unemployment. Such vocational jobs, Ocen contends, can go a long way in easing pressure on government should the industry be given a conducive environment to thrive.
Ocen and Opio are also in the business of teaching people their craft. “We also teach women and youth how to make art pieces, beads, bangles and bracelets,” Ocen says.
They currently directly employ 12 people so far.
Ocen hopes to open an art gallery and a website to market their products and perhaps a school of art and design in the region so that people can appreciate and also compare the pre-colonial life and the present.

Uganda wildlife education centre plans first floating restaurant in East Africa

The first phase of the Shs5 billion Uganda Wildlife project is expected to be complete by September.
The idea of a restaurant on water may, for many, have been a thought for Uganda@100 but no, by September this year, the first phase of this high-end, luxurious facility will be complete.
This is after the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre announced plans to build the restaurant on Lake Victoria, as well as develop a multi-purpose white sand beach on the lake shores. The both shut-eye and eye-popping development will be the first “floating” restaurant in East Africa, according to the Uganda wildlife education centre’s executive director, Mr. James Musinguzi.
Officiating at the restaurant’s ground breaking ceremony in Entebbe last Friday, the Minister for Tourism, Ms Maria Mutagamba, said the project, to be executed in three phases, would cost Shs5 billion.
“I am aware that under the National Development Plan, the Pier Restaurant and Beach Development project is one of the anticipated outputs of the ministry. Therefore, the ministry pledges continuous support to Uganda wildlife education centre but more specifically this project because the government is keen to see it take off,” Ms Mutagamba said.
The whole project is expected to be concluded within two years, according to Mr. Joel Aita, an engineer from Joadah Consults, the company that made the plan of the facility, which will be called Pier Restaurant. The restaurant’s foundation was laid in 2007 and government has so far contributed Shs615 million.
To address the unpredictability that often comes with construction on water, the Ministry of Works carried out a series of surveys.
“Our design was adequate but you can’t gamble on nature so we needed a series of tests and the results were impressive,” Mr. Aita said, adding: “We needed concrete strength of C30 to be safe here but the Ministry of Works found that our structure was C40 which means we exceeded the standard.”
The restaurant will be divided into four floors, with the first one housing the main restaurant, the second housing 16 rooms while the top floors will be multi-purpose. The restaurant will have a docking area for boats going to various destinations on L. Victoria.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Uganda Wildlife Authority to mark 150 years since Sir Samuel Baker visit

Tourism is one of Uganda’s strongest attractions. Other than the famous silverback gorillas, 1,050 bird species, panoramic views, the Source of The Nile and diverse cultures, Uganda is endowed with a wealth of history.
In line with this, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is planning to celebrate 150 years since Sir Samuel Baker set foot in Uganda.
UWA’s executive director, Andrew Seguya, said preparations have already started.
“We are organizing celebrations to mark 150 years since Baker first set foot in Uganda. It is going to be such a big event and will trigger modern explorers into action,” Seguya said.
He added that they expect revenue from touris m to double in the near future.
“The onus is upon us to market our stunning attractions, like underground forests in Queen Elizabeth National Park and now Sir Samuel’s View,” said Maria Mutagamba, the tourism minister.
“Tourism is destined to be in the lead as a foreign exchange earner for the economy,” she added.
She made the remarks at the Media Centre on Friday while presenting details of Sir Samuel Baker’s expedition, dating back 149 years.
“I have been to the place where Lady Florence Baker (Sir Samuel Baker’s wife) fell so ill that the hosts began digging her grave, but she mysteriously recovered,” said the leader of the expedition, Julian Fisher.
“I am hereby correcting an impression created by some writers that Sir Samuel Baker was the first person to see Lake Albert,” he said.
The author and photographer of repute, Fisher, argued that there were fishing communities with tribal leaders that existed long before Baker’s trip to Africa.
“Guided by residents, he made its presence known to the rest of the world. And this expedition is not the last one, I am coming back to circumnavigate Lake Victoria. I will be retracing Sir Henry Morton Stanley’s route as well. I am sure this will become another attraction for an exodus of tourists to the Pearl of Africa,” he said.
While here, David Baker, Baker’s grandson and his daughter Melanie, read excerpts from the explorer’s personal diaries at MurchisonNational Park recently.
“I feel privileged to be part of this expedition. I have met traditional leaders like Solomon Gafabusa of Bunyoro and Rwot Acana II of the Acholi. I am lucky they speak English today, but I wonder how Sir Samuel Baker used to communicate,” Baker said.


Friday, 8 February 2013

Rwanda Government’s efforts to grow tourism sector get boost

A local aviation company has launched an air emergency medical evacuation service targeting tourists, a move that will boost Rwanda’stourism sector.

Akagera Aviation

Akagera Aviation said the service would provide rapid response rescue and medical care to subscribing tourists, who may experience a serious health problem while in the country.  This development will not only boost the tourism and hospitality sectors, but will also enhance the healthcare system in country, sector players predicted.

“The air ambulance service will cater for tourists in cases of medical emergencies, where evacuation via ground ambulance is not possible,” Bonita Mutoni, the Akagera Aviation commercial manager, said at the launch of the initiative at Mille Collines Hotel in Kiyovu, Kigali on Monday.   The airline has partnered with King Faisal Hospital, the Rwanda Tour and Travel Association and the Rwanda Development Bank to offer the service.
Tourism is currently the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner, having generated $232m (about Rwf153.1b) by October 2012 compared to $204m over the same period in 2011. The government is working on various ways that could help Rwanda become the top tourist destination in the region.
The government has, for example, carried out a customer care awareness campaign to improve service delivery in the services sector. It is also working on a plan that will expand the medical and cultural tourism sub-sectors.