Africa: UTB moves to crack down quacks in tourism sector
The next time you decide to embark on a safari or tour in destination Uganda, be selective in your choice of tour operator, guide or accommodation facility. With the recent clampdown on dishonest tourism businesses that fleece potential tourists using the internet, collaborative efforts are desired to enhance the country’s image.
l British East Africa Company (IBEScams are getting more sophisticated, particularly when it comes to targeting holidaymakers, but Uganda Tourism Board(UTB) has vowed to leave no stone unturned.
Samoramachell Semakula, the Quality Assurance manager of UTB says among the many cases, one involves Mushira Travel Agency which received $5400 for an extended trip to Tanzania. When clients crossed from Uganda to Tanzania, the ground handler in the neighbouring country had not received any payment, hence they got stranded.
In the second case, four American tourists paid $ 21,000 to the same company for a 15-day experience in Uganda, but were defrauded. The third case involves Mambo Gorilla Safaris, a Kabale based Tour Company which in August 2018, booked a client for a safari worth $ 3,000, but the client erroneously sent $33,000 ahead of the tour.
The director of the company was reluctant to refund, but upon intervention from UTB, he allegedly confessed that he had used the money and a payment plan was established in which he refunded $12,000 in October 2018 with an outstanding balance of $ 21,000. The fourth case involves a tourist who raised a concern against an immigration officer at Entebbe Airport.
“The tourist complained to UTB that he paid for a Visa, but did not receive a sticker. Upon investigation, we realized the tourists were paying $50, but could only receive stamps as the officers pocketed the money. Currently, eight immigration officers are behind bars,” reveals Semakula.
Following the accusations, on February 4, Micheal Ahebwa Mugerwa, the contact of Mushira, a Rubaga division based company was arraigned on charges of obtaining money by false pretense, a case he denied before asking the Nakawa Grade One Magistrate to release him on bail, on grounds that he has children and aging parents to take care of.
Court deferred the case to February 11, for ruling on his bail application and the accused remanded to Luzira Prison. Meanwhile, Didan Atukunda of Mambo Gorilla Safaris is atJinja Road Police Station and waits to be presented to court.
The new Uganda Tourism Board has come up with creative and innovative measures to put an end to the conduct of rogue operators that brings the entire industry into disrepute. Among these is a close collaboration between the marketing agency and the private sector.
“We have all the private sector associations on the same page. Through this we have created a joint security committee to handle tourism cases. The committee membership comprises of both government agencies and private sector associations, and is chaired by Commissioner of Police Frank Mwesigwa, the commandant Tourism Police. Every organization has two representatives,” explains Ssemakula.
He also reveals the vigorous trainings in partnership with local government.
Ssemakula adds that in abid to protect tourists, UTB is embarking on licensing of tour operators, guides and accommodation.
“We are currently training district health inspectors in the country to understand the tourism sector trends because they are mandated to do inspection of tourism facilities, but also to work closely with them just incase of any negative occurrences”.
“After licensing, we shall display a list of reliable tourism businesses that clients can book with. The list will be published in newspapers, and on websites of the Ministry and Uganda Tourism Board so as to create confidence among tourists”.
With the growth of internet marketing in the Pearl of Africa, UTB is procuring technology that identifies grievances against tourism service providers. Ssemakula says the ReviewPro software will avail all the reviews from over 126 online media sites.
“It will tell us what tourists say about our tour companies, hotels, guides, hence influencing our decisions because it is easy to leverage feedback and monitor tourist experiences. This will be backed with a 24/7 contact in case any need arises and will also enable us take immediate action as a joint committee,” he elaborates.
According to the Uganda Tourism Act, 2008, section two stipulates the functions of Uganda Tourism Board among which are to enforce, and monitor standards in the tourism sector are to inspect, register, license and classify tourist facilities and services.
Tour operators react
With these interventions, private sector can finally breathe a sigh of relief. The Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) Secretary Farouk Busuulwa says tourists have been cheated for a long time without any redress from associations and Uganda Tourism Board.
“For a long time, quack tour operators had taken clients for granted because their complaints fell on deaf ears. Tourists turned the anger and disappointment on destination Uganda, but after meeting with the new UTB team, we have received over 40 cases of fraud in the last three months and unfortunately, 75 per cent are Kabale-Kisoro based cases,” he explains.
He quickly reveals that among these cases, one involved an AUTO member who had barely spent a year in the membership.
“Upon receiving two serious accusations against him, AUTO indefinitely suspended his company. We aided Tourism Police to apprehend him using our membership database,” Busuulwa discloses.
Following the growing number of fake tour operators, AUTO no longer renews membership certificates without revisiting them.
“Whoever has cleared the subscription fees, there is a committee that follows up and the moment a tour company has a case, they are advised to clear the accusations with the complainants first, unless if we find you genuinely innocent! But if you are guilty, you face the law because our core principle is to protect the country’s image,” warns the Association Secretary.
AUTO is optimistic about the newly established joint security committee that has effectively handled three cases within two weeks. Busuulwa further states that AUTO has a very good constitution, only that before we were not doing enough to follow up with wrong people in the sector.
“Right now, neither a full and associate member nor board member is above the law if they abuse the constitution. The current AUTO executive is not shielding any dishonest person in the sector, however, we have planned trainings for our members on how to run their companies, keeping proper books of accounts and how to have necessary permits in advance. We hope this will make them better” he alerts.
The UTB Quality Assurance Manager warns the sector players against fleecing foreign visitors if the industry is to accelerate tourism growth to attain middle income status and achieve the ambitious target of four million arrivals by 2020.
He however, applauds the tourism associations for the smooth operations, but notes major challenges with businesses that do not belong to any association. Samoramachell Semakula urges all main sector players to belong somewhere for self-regulation.
“It makes work easy whenever we are ensuring quality of an institution. It is very difficult to work with an individual, but easier to work with Uganda Tourism Association(UTA).
Most importantly, UTB is working closely with private sector associations to look and review procedures of recruitment”.
Mwere James, MJ Safaris director is confident that sanity will prevail, but is quick to task UTB on licensing which was last done in 2014.
“Let the agency as the mandated government agency inspect, register and license all tour operators and guides. Without a valid license someone should not trade in tourism,” he suggests.
Meanwhile, Germany tour operators who were recently hosted by UTB on a seven-day western circuit through KPRN, the country’s Market Destination Representative urged UTB to enhance on the image of the country. This was echoed at a farewell dinner held at Cassia lodge in Buziga. In the same vein, Busuulwa calls upon government to hire more PR companies to double the current marketing efforts.
“The PR firms have done a great job. Awareness is not how it was before; Uganda is getting better known in Europe, but I am sure we can do better. Our neighbors such as Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania are more known than Uganda because they have been doing PR marketing for a long time. We need bigger companies to compete favourably,” he argues.
Extensive marketing and promotion is highly needed in Uganda. This will help open up and unveil Uganda’s uniqueness to the potential travellers. It has been realized that the insufficient funds and the misplaced priorities by the government bodies in promoting and marketing tourism has been the major cause for the draw back in the tourism sector.
Joint marketing and promotion of Uganda tourism products by the Uganda tourism board together with private sectors such as hoteliers, local communities and tour operators is highly encouraged. There is need to devote more resources to the marketing and promotion of tourism particularly on the international front where percapita income is the greatest. All these strategies are in danger of being failed by a bad reputation.
It is hoped that once the quacks have been weeded out of the industry, there will be progress in terms of tourism growth and development. The advancement in the tourism sector has been eased by the potential and exceptional attractions in all parts of the country, which attract millions of traveller different corners of the world.
By Eric Ntalumbwa