Domestic and regional tourism is a diamond in the rough

Following events around the region can sometimes sink your heart and consequently make the writing of this column a painful exercise. We all know how bad news always makes the front page so it is hard to ignore. It leaves us with questions and heartache as to whether tomorrow we shall be in position to make this place better for everyone.

Take for example the shooting of Tanzania’s opposition Chief Whip in Parliament, Tundu Lissu by unknown gunmen in Dodoma. Mr. Lissu, a known critic of the government is currently undergoing treatment at Nairobi’s Aga Khan Hospital. Also in Nairobi, nine students of Moi Girls’ School lost their lives in a school fire that was only one of the several that happened almost at the same time. We need to talk about school congestion and disaster preparedness in these environments.

As for Uganda, the mysterious deaths of close to 20 women whose bodies are often found dumped in the forest after being raped and mutilated is really worrying. And matters are not helped when the Internal Affairs Minister, Gen. Jeje Odongo blames the situation on - wait for it – Illuminati! With such stories doing the rounds I sought solace in the good stories on the tourism front.

Of course not all is well in the tourism sector but there are things to smile about there. I am still dealing with the fact that the amiable Burundian lady, Carmen Nibigira is leaving the Nairobi-based East African Tourism Platform, an umbrella body that spoke for the private sector, with the public sector and for the good of tourism in the region. In an email to some of the people she worked with, including yours truly, she explained that she was moving on to conquer other challenges but reminded us that the journey towards a single flawless Destination East Africa is far from over. 

I am really grateful that Carmen found me and chose to work with me in spreading the gospel of East African tourism. And although the struggle continues, small victories always warm my heart. In the past few years, East Africa has woken up to the gem that is domestic and regional tourism. Regional tourism bodies have realised that there was a market they were ignoring and yet it is a crucial market for tourism be a sustainable venture.

Domestic tourists not only keep businesses afloat when Western tourists stay away once their embassies release worrying travel advisories, they also learn and appreciate their countries better. That way they can understand concepts like conservation and how it feeds into the bigger picture of the economy and the environment.

I also love the fact that people are starting to use research (something Carmen always advocated for) to inform their thinking about tourism in the region. For example Saffir, an experiential travel company conducted research on How Kenyans Travel looking at the decisions they make before they book to travel. The results were quite interesting and call for keen attention on the new age traveller, the so called millennial.

These young people now form the biggest segment of travellers and they prefer spontaneous escapes, travel as a group (squad goals), and are influenced by social media. They have embraced local travel and are expected to be key drivers of the industry. Stakeholders should pay attention or get ready to shut pay for losing out. 

And what better way to cement the idea that domestic tourism is the way to go than waking up to images of President Paul Kagame indulging in some of the tourism activities that Rubavu and Musaze have to offer. The action by the president is a big endorsement for the local tourism industry that has grown in leaps and bounds over the years. Rwanda now has the Big Five in Akagera, it has lots of water sports activities on Lake Kivu, Musanze has the caves, the gorillas and golden monkeys then you have the phenomenal Nyungwe Forest. Go out and visit.

I am an optimist when it comes to tourism matters and so when I wake up to news that the Nyege Nyege festival in Uganda was a great success and before the mud in Jinja can dry, Kampala is hosting the JAMAFEST Carnival with cultural dancers and exhibitors from Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya. However, JAMAFEST people need to work on their communications while the Nyege Nyege folks need to improve on the security situation. We are not perfect but we can strive for better until we see East Africa on everyone’s bucket list.