Lilly Ajarova, the CEO of the Uganda Tourism Board, visited New York last week in preparation of Uganda’s rolling out of a rebranding campaign.
The slogan for the country will change from “Uganda, the Pearl of Africa” to “Exploring Uganda, the Pearl of Africa.”
It’s only one word changed, but as Mark Twain said, the difference of one word can be like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
More important than the change of slogan, the tourism department is changing its idea of how to market itself and to whom.
“We’ve been able to define who our audience is,” Lilly Ajarova told me. “We are looking for travelers, not just tourists, people who are more responsible, more mindful, and travel in a responsible way, as opposed to people who are just there to track the gorillas, take selfies and get out.”
The Virunga Massif is the only place in the world the mountain gorillas exist, and most of it is in Uganda (with some in Rwanda and some in the Democratic Republic of Congo). The gorillas are in high demand. But some tourists are only interested in the gorillas, and care nothing about anything else in the country.
The trend-conscious tourists, who gather destinations like charms on a bracelet are not the right demographic for Uganda to build its tourism industry and fuel its economy.
Some fly into Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, and fly the same day to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to see the gorillas, then leave the country the next day. Those are not the kinds of travelers that Uganda needs.
The country has a limited number of gorilla passes, taking care to put the welfare of the gorillas at a higher priority than the use of them as a tourist attraction. A pass to see the gorillas is a rare commodity. It will always be sold out. Why should Uganda play its trump card for no better return than that?
The gorillas are a unique draw, one of the most transcendent travel experiences possible in the world today. There is no other place to see them. And they are an endangered species, with a DNA profile that is 96 percent the same as ours (humans, I mean, in case there is any confusion on that).
Obviously, that attraction is high on the bucket list of many people around the world. But for those who are just trend-chasing, and want to jet into the country to see the gorillas and then out again, it’s not really in Uganda’s best interests. The country has so much more to offer, and it needs to leverage the gorilla attraction to attract travelers with a wider attention span than just to see the gorillas.
Uganda is also one of the few places where people can encounter chimps in the wild. It has virtually all the elements that people travel to Africa for.
“Everyone wants to see the Big Five,” said Ajarova. “In Uganda we have the Big Seven.”
It’s the Big Five plus gorillas and chimpanzees. Chimps, by the way, share 98.8 percent of human DNA. Even more than the gorillas.
What’s in a Brand?
It was Winston Churchill who coined the phrase “The Pearl of Africa” in his 1908 book My African Journey. He wrote, “For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly the Pearl of Africa.”
“Why is the brand the Pearl of Africa?” Ajarova asked. “Because of the depth, the range of what Uganda has. What is everywhere else in Africa, you can find visiting Uganda. You can have the experience that every place in Africa has to offer: culture, wildlife, rhinos, the Big Five…”
Uganda sits at the heart of the African continent. It’s on the equator, but because of its high elevation, its climate is mild and spring-like year round.
The Virunga Massif, where the mountain gorillas live, is a chain of eight volcanoes. Its rich volcanic soil gives birth to a great profusion of colorful vegetation. The mountains and the lakes are dizzyingly beautiful and soul stirring. It is truly a paradisiacal place. The sight of the landscape alone justifies the trip.
Emphasis on Culture
Uganda, Ms. Ajarova told me, is trying to broaden its marketing campaign to attract responsible travelers, adventurous travelers and travelers who are interested in culture.
Uganda Tourism is now emphasizing cultural tourism. Concessions have been put in place to provide cultural experiences, Ajarova said, “to get people to immerse themselves in Ugandan culture, including the food, the dancing, the way of dressing. We have some home stays now, so you can spend time with a local family.”
New cultural festivals are being organized in different regions in the country to show food, entertainment, and various aspects of culture. Hotels are offering local menus and entertainment, to bring the cultural element into travel.
Targeting Adventurous Travelers
The tourism board is also targeting adventure tourism. The mountain region is ideal for hiking. In Uganda it’s possible to experience a broad range of adventures, including zip lining, rafting on the Nile, cycling or bungee jumping.
“We have a whole range of different activities,” she said. “You can go tubing on the Nile and see where the origin of the Nile is, and bungee jumping, cycling and, hiking.”
The country has also been working to build up its service standard. The tourism board has been giving training sessions to guides, tour operators, and hoteliers.
The Safety Record
In regard to the one subject that is impossible to avoid in any discussion of travel today, Uganda has had a fantastic record in the way it has managed Covid.
When Covid first came on the scene, Uganda’s President Museveni locked down the country before it had a single case of Covid. A military man, Museveni knew that the country’s healthcare resources were not equipped to handle the onslaught that was crippling hospitals across the world, so he went into action right away and shut down the country.
As paraphrased by Ajarova, the President’s message was: “Our economy will suffer, but as long as we have life, we’ll pick up from where we are.”
Museveni would not reopen the country until 7 million Ugandans were vaccinated.
“We didn’t have the disruption that you have had of Covid,” said Ajarova. “It has been relatively okay for Uganda. We were shut down before we even had a case, last year in March.
Uganda has one of the best track records in the world for dealing with COVID.
“We were recognized as one of the top 10 countries in the world for managing Covid,” said Ajarova. “We got a travel safe stamp from the WTTC.”
Uganda was shut down from late March to the end of September 2020. In October that year, with its protocols in place, the country opened, and has remained open. Last summer the country was back to 60 percent of its 2019 arrival numbers.
As of January 2022, Uganda has still had only a little over 3,000 deaths from COVID.
Until last September a vaccine card was enough to gain entry into the country. Now since Delta and Omicron, a certification of a negative COVID test is also required.
Wilderness Baby Boom
Meanwhile there has been very good news in Uganda on the wildlife conservation front.
“We had [a] baby boom in mountain gorillas,” Ajarova said. “The wildlife population has seen an incredible growth. Since the last report, the number has doubled. The number of elephants has tripled. Lions have remained stable. The chimp population is stable. Most of the other species: antelope, buffaloes and giraffe, are almost double as well.
And that’s good news for us.”
And for us as well.
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.