Regional tourism could be the next big thing

Early last week an old school friend of mine contacted me via Facebook asking me to get in touch urgently. He sent three different phone numbers that I could use. I used one of the numbers and sent him a message to which he immediately replied, "I am coming to Kigali tomorrow and I need an affordable hotel to stay."

Early last week an old school friend of mine contacted me via Facebook asking me to get in touch urgently. He sent three different phone numbers that I could use. I used one of the numbers and sent him a message to which he immediately replied, “I am coming to Kigali tomorrow and I need an affordable hotel to stay.”

After asking him how much money he was willing to part with, I sent him a link to a webpage with the different rates for rooms at one of the hotels in Kigali. This is something I have done on several occasions for lots of my friends from Uganda and Kenya who often ask me to suggest where they can stay or even hang out while here.

In other words, it is high time I added tour and travel agent somewhere on my short CV. But this is certainly not something I am well versed with. I am not even a regular in the hotels that I recommend to friends. This got me thinking much more about what I will call regional tourism. All the countries that make up the East African Community heavily rely on tourism as a major source of foreign exchange.

However efforts to boost this sector have for years targeted just two kinds of tourists; the international tourist and the local tourist. The international tourists are clearly the most coveted thanks to their spending power while here.

The local tourist is often a reluctant tourist who often has to be persuaded beyond the affordable special rates available to him/her. Locals generally tend to be tourists only on two occasions. While in lower school when they get to visit a zoo or game park and on their honeymoon or thereabout when it is romantic to connect with nature.

Many locals can actually afford to be tourists but they generally perceive it as a ‘Mzungu’ activity.

Interestingly very little effort has been invested in luring the regional tourist. The regional tourist is the guy across the border that would go out of his way to visit a neighbouring country. Tourism authorities were probably surprised to discover that so many Ugandans visited Kenya in the last year.

With their usual business savvy ways the Kenyans have not slept on this amazing discovery. They are currently running adverts on Ugandan television stations under the Magical Kenya theme. Besides the foreign and local tourist they are trying to lure more Ugandans to go and visit Kenya’s various attractions with the coastal area remaining a favourite for many.

Other East African countries should get with the programme and also try to lure people from the region to visit. I know the same people who leave Kampala to spend time in Mombasa would also love to spend time enjoying (mukeke) at the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Bujumbura; they would love to bask in the sun in Dar es Salaam or chill in Rubavu or Karongi taking in the beautiful sight of Lake Kivu from the Rwandan side.

Regional tourism has not just been in the form of Ugandans heading to Kenya. I know of Rwandans who head to Kampala or Bujumbura when they want to have a good time over the weekend. Sometimes event like a football game or rugby game also serve as a good excuse for East Africans to cross the border to cheer their team and also visit a neighbouring country. It is also quite encouraging that this regional tourism has very few hurdles if any.

East Africans are already enjoying very friendly immigration laws. With just an identity card, one can cross into Uganda, Kenya or Rwanda. No visas are required and transport from one country to another is quite easy with regional airlines offering lots of flights to neighbouring countries.

Those with narrow pockets like yours truly can still jump onto a bus and or a water vessel across Lake Victoria, Kivu or Tanganyika. Language is not an issue since Swahili or English can be used almost anywhere in the region.

Imagine how nice it would be if a good number of people strived to visit one East African country each year. In four years you would have been to all EAC countries and then move to more specific towns. Those charged with promoting tourism need to look into this huge opportunity. Someone coming from Kampala need not ask me about hotels here. Get those hotels to advertise in Uganda like the Kenyans are already doing.

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