A year after government increased the single entry visa fee to $100 from $50, it reversed the decision. The new rate, $50, became effective on 22 July.
Tourism operators and other stakeholders welcomed the announcement enthusiastically, saying it made Uganda more competitive in the region. For example, Rwanda, with which Uganda competes for the lucrative gorilla trekking tours, was charging $30 for a tourist visa even as Uganda was increasing its visa fee. Kenya and Tanzania charge $50 for single entry visas.
But will the reduction in the fee increase the number of tourist arrivals, as argued by the tourism sector? It sounds logical, but the evidence does not bear the theory out.
Tourist arrivals increased in 2015 to 1.303 million from 1.266 million in 2014, according to Vincent Mugaba, the public relations officer of the Uganda Tourism Board. Most of these arrivals were actually recorded in the second half of the year when the higher visa fee had gone into effect (it became effective on 1 July, 2015); provisional results in the Tourism Ministerial Policy Statement presented to Parliament show that tourist arrivals were 571,865 between January and July 2015.
The statement acknowledges that foreign visitors to national parks dropped in 2015 compared to 2014, from 89,402 to 77,206. But given the increase in foreign arrivals, this fall cannot be blamed on higher visa fees. Additionally, the fall in foreign visitors to national parks started in 2014 when the entry visa fee was still $50.
In any case, Uganda’s visa requirements for foreigners are so good that they rank 10th out of 141 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report for 2015, a position that bestows “notable competitiveness advantages.” Kenya is ranked 17 on the indicator, Tanzania 22 and Rwanda 26.
The indicator measures the “extent a destination country is facilitating inbound tourism through its visa policy,” focussing on how easy it is for visitors from worldwide source markets to acquire a visa – it does not consider the price of the visa.
Even then, an open and relaxed policy is not all it takes. South Africa’s visa regime is stricter than Uganda’s, but it received 9.5 million tourists to Uganda’s 1.3 million in 2015. This was after a 6.8% drop compared to 2014, however, because of an ill-advised change in regulations that made it harder for visitors from China and India – rapidly growing sources of tourists to South Africa – to get visas; it has since relaxed the regulations.
When it comes to other important indicators, Uganda lags behind its neighbours. Our three neighbouring governments allocate a higher proportion of their budget to tourism. Uganda’s infrastructure also leaves a lot to be desired when compared with our neighbours, according to the World Economic Forum.
The government allocated more to the tourism sector for the 2016/17 financial year compared to the previous year – Shs188.8 billion, up from Shs158.5 billion. Three international firms were also contracted to market Uganda in the United States, the UK and Ireland, and Germany, Austria and Switzerland. These are steps in the right direction. Hopefully they solve the riddle of why many international arrivals to Uganda are not proceeding to national parks.