BERLIN – Haphazard preparations blamed on the lack of funds saw Uganda fail to sell the country’s full tourism potential to key markets in Europe during the just concluded international tourism exhibition (ITB) in Berlin, Germany.
The ITB Berlin, an annual tourism exhibition, which brings together business organizations from all over the world, offers a great opportunity to sell a nation’s image and attract tourists.
But instead of demonstrating how Uganda is “Gifted By Nature”, the five day exhibition exposed the country’s poor marketing skills and the level of government’s neglect to this money-minting sector.
But Rwanda and Kenya, knew what kind of opportunity that lay before them the minute they stepped in Berlin. With strong government backing, Rwanda’s exhibitors grabbed the attention of tourists when they wiggled to their local dance. That vigor from the Rwanda’s dancers almost brought work at their stalls to a standstill as potential visitors rushed in to catch a glimpse of the show.
That vitality from the dances, a well-decorated grass thatched stall, but more importantly a more organized preparation for the exhibition saw Rwanda scoop the top honor for the best African exhibitor. It was followed by Tunisia, South Africa, Namibia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Uganda did not feature among the top ten.
For fair assessment, Uganda’s store at Hall 21 Stand 114 was dull. By the time The Weekly Observer visited Uganda’s stall on the first day of the exhibition on March 5, two big pictures of Lake Bunyonyi and Murchison Falls faced the stall’s entrance. Save for those pictures, there was hardly anything special about Uganda. For example, the tagline, ‘Gifted By Nature,’ was not visible. There was no screen showing, say, video clips of Gorilla tracking – one of the country’s main tourist attraction.
What were there, just like in almost all the other countries’ stalls, were brochures and some branded T-shirts. There was some short excitement over what happens at home when Uganda’s ambassador to Germany, Dr. Nyine Bitahwa, in the company of his German wife and two daughters, visited the stall. Also, Samuel Poghisio, Kenya’s information minister, took some time to visit Uganda’s store. But he might have been so proud of his country. Kenya’s stall was totally different.
For a country that continues to feature in the international media for all the wrong reasons after violence erupted over a disputed presidential election, which claimed more than 1,500 lives, Kenya put up a formidable show. Kenya’s store, with an overlooking banner branded “Magical Kenya,” was grass thatched, where Kenyan drinks were also served.
And unlike our Ugandan brothers and sisters, dressed in the country’s traditional colours of black, yellow and red, seating behind their desks, Kenya undertook an aggressive marketing strategy. Kenya paraded young beautiful girls and boys, dressed in a Maasai traditional attire, in front of the stall to attract visitors. Even for a casual observer going on his or her way, these Kenyan youngsters would walk up to the person and sell their country. As a result, many Europeans took turns to take pictures with them.
Rwanda and Tanzania’s stores were also more organized. At least their stores had an artistic design. Rwanda’s exhibitors were also dressed in their traditional attire. Just like the Kenyans, Rwanda’s hut was grass thatched, while Tanzania’s was built in a sort of a rich double storey restaurant. The difference between the East African countries was visible.
From the onset, Uganda’s battle to compete was lost even before the exhibition started. For example, less than a week to the exhibition, it was not clear how many exhibitors would make it to Germany, Europe’s biggest economy. Government had already dampened the exhibitors’ mood by claiming it was broke to fund the trip. The original list had 18 different exhibitors. By the time, the exhibitors flew out of Entebbe, two days to the start of the prestigious exhibition, it was not clear who would attend.
Even at this point, the Ugandan embassy in Berlin was not sure over whether their countrymen would show up for the event. The Weekly Observer has seen an email where the embassy raises concern over Uganda’s participation. “ITB opening is today but we have had difficulties with UTB (Uganda Tourism Board) in Uganda.
We have also been left in a vacuum…” reads an email from one of the embassy’s staff. But by the time the exhibitors landed at Tegel Airport, aboard SN Brussels, tired and hungry, and just over 24 hours away to the start of the exhibition, the number of participants had gone down to nine.
The participants headed straight to the fairgrounds at Messe, Berlin, to book their space. Government reportedly paid 11,000 euros (about Shs 28.7 million) for the space, and that was it. “We are yet to see money coming from government,” said Moses Wambete, the marketing manager of Crystal Safaris Limited, one of the companies that took part in the exhibition.
That is why, for good measure, Uganda’s exhibitors deserve a round of applause. The exhibitors had to come up with quick ways on how to cover their finances fully while government dilly-dallied on releasing funds. “We had to pay about 1,800 euros (Shs 4.7 million) in contribution for the trip. We had to get our own accommodation. It is not easy,” said Wambete. The exhibitors also had to pay for their own airline tickets, although SN Brussels discounted the price.
The Weekly Observer has been told that money that was meant to cater for such events like the ITB Berlin was transferred to cover costs for last year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). This raises the suspicion that government spends on branding its image selectively.
While preparing for CHOGM, government spent millions of shillings in media campaigns to portray the country’s image in a positive way.
Then again in 2005, a couple of months before President Yoweri Museveni controversially sought a third term in office, government paid $1 million for short video clips of the country’s tourism spots on CNN to show that all was well in Uganda.
But experts are warning that continued neglect of Uganda’s tourism sector denies the country foreign exchange.
Tourism is Uganda’s third biggest export. Tourists spent $321,000 in 2004 compared to $327,000 in 2005, according to available figures from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics.
Industry observers believe that amount is expected to rise if only government intensifies its branding campaign. For now, the jury is out there over whether government is committed to supporting the tourism industry.