Spectacular wildlife, welcoming people, political stability and untouched potential in need of international expertise are among the reason why Jean Byamugisha, Executive Director of the Uganda Hotel Owners Association, invites the world beyond its borders to come to Uganda for a unique, personal, and truly African experience.
Considered one of the safest countries in Africa, Uganda has become an attractive place for investors and businessmen. What are the key strengths of Uganda’s success over the past few years?
One of our greatest strengths has been the political stability; Uganda is without a doubt one of the most politically stable countries in Africa. We have had a few rough years, until 1986 when President Museveni came to power, and we have enjoyed a politically stable environment since then.
Uganda is also one of the countries with the best climate, everybody that comes to Uganda doesn’t want to leave; we have the best climate all year round.
Uganda has got the friendliest people in Africa; we all know that Ugandans are among the most helpful and friendliest people in Africa. If a tourist comes to this country, they always feel safe. Even we Ugandans feel safe. You can go out and walk home at 4:00 am, as a woman, and you know that you are safe; you know that you can walk home and nobody is going to harm you in anyway.
In Uganda we have great hospitality, because our culture is naturally very welcoming, so even if you go to any part of this country you will always find naturally welcoming people. And we also have great food, so people come here and they enjoy amazing cuisine, organic cuisine. So, all those factors combine and make Uganda one of countries in Africa that the world truly needs to know about.
How do you see the future of the tourism sector in Africa?
Africa has got very big potential, first of all because Africa is the new frontier when it comes to tourism. Everyone has been to Europe, everybody has been to America, but not everybody has been to Africa.
The good thing about Africa is that we are all different in every way, so whereas in Europe it all looks a little bit the same – if you have been to one cathedral, it’s pretty much the same cathedral you are going to find in Greece or in the UK – in Africa, if you go to Egypt you are going to have a very different experience than if you come to South Africa, and it’s going to be a different experience if you come to East Africa. So, truly, Africa is very unique when it comes to tourism, it’s what we call the new frontier in terms of tourism.
I think Africa is a little bit cheaper, so everyone that comes to Africa has possibilities. Right now the exchange rate for dollars is killing us, but in tourism it’s good, because someone that comes here from abroad can get great value for their money. So it’s affordable to visit Africa and it’s a unique experience. And your experience will be different from another guest and it will also be different from my experience (as a domestic traveler), which makes it very exciting.
One of the most important events to be held in London in December is the TGAIS. President Museveni will be one of the main speakers talking about opportunities in Uganda. What will be your message to attract investors, especially in the hospitality and tourism sectors?
Our key message is that Uganda is one of the best places anybody can both visit and invest in. We have got a stable political climate, very friendly people and great food and the opportunities are there. We have got very few international brand hotels and we need many more to come and invest here. For instance, we have the Ssese Islands and we need a brand hotel to come there and develop it, because it is still virgin territory. There is a lot that can be done in the Ssese Islands; there are waterfalls that haven’t been fully developed, there is beautiful scenery that hasn’t been fully developed, because local investors have done the best that they can do, but we are saying there are still all these opportunities for international investors as well.
So, really, if a hotel or an investor wanted to come and invest in Uganda, we have got a very good investment climate because we know they are going to create jobs, they are going to market the country, we are going to get tourists coming. I would love to see the Hilton come and build a hotel in northern Uganda, for instance, and I am sure there are tourists who would like to come and go to northern Uganda and see how resilient Ugandans are. After 20 years of war, if you go to northern Uganda now you will find a blossoming metropolis where people work every day, and there is lots of activity that the world doesn’t know about, because the area is related to the war that took place there. But now, it’s really one of the fastest growing regions in Uganda. So we would really like to see international brand hotels, international investors coming to Uganda and saying: I’m taking a chance on this country because it is really worth it.
Fifty years ago Uganda was called the pearl of Africa but violence and instability harmed Uganda’s image on the international scene. However, Uganda is bouncing back with almost 1.5 million tourists last year and a sector that represents 8% of its GDP. What makes Uganda a unique destination for tourists in Africa?
First of all, in Uganda, tourism is one of the three key sectors that are driving our economy: the first one is agriculture, the second is tourism and the third is minerals. So, that really shows you how much tourism is contributing. Like you said, it contributed 8% of the GDP; we got 1.5 million guests last year.
What makes Uganda a unique destination for tourists is a host of factors, key among them the stable political climate.
As I already mentioned, we have great weather that’s very beautiful all year around. We have amazing food and not to mention some of the friendliest people you will ever meet in the world. One interesting thing to note is that even we the local Ugandans enjoy our own country. Ugandans are known as fun loving people and when tourists visit our country, they have an amazing time with the locals.
All that being said and done, Uganda has got some of the best wildlife species in Africa. We have half of the world’s population of gorillas right here in Bwindi National Park; we have got thousands of bird species, not to mention the big five wildlife animals in most of our national parks.
Tourists to Uganda will rarely ever be disappointed. With the recent grading and classification of the hotels (so far only 29 have stars but we are now assessing the rest of the hotels in Uganda) we hope to improve the standards of our hotels and thus give our guests an all rounded great experience when they visit our country.
As the Executive Director of the Uganda Hotel Owners Association, could you present your sector and the importance of your institution? And what are your expectations in your new position?
The Uganda Hotel Owners Association is the umbrella body that brings together all the hotels in Uganda. The hotels are the biggest employers in the tourism sector, employing 80% of all people who work in the sector, the biggest market for all service providers (the beer companies and all alcoholic distributers, as well as water, etc.) We employ the biggest number of women in any sector in Uganda. You know that in Africa, if you empower a woman, you empower the community. We also provide employment to the youth; youth unemployment is one of Uganda’s biggest problems, so having a sector that is helping solve that problem is very important. For instance, 77% of the people who work in the hotel sector are between 18 and 30 years of age. If you solve unemployment in any economy, then you have built for the future.
Against this background, the hotel sector is truly the backbone of the tourism industry in Uganda. My duty is to make sure that the hotels get the recognition that we deserve, that we know we have, because of what we contribute to the sector. So, my main duty is policy and advocacy.
My expectations in my new position are to see the growth of the hotel sector in Uganda especially in terms of quality and service delivery. I would love to see all our hotels graded and classified into the star categories, I would love to see more international brand hotels opening in Uganda and I’d also love to see more of our youth building their careers in the hotel sector. I would also love to see an increase in Uganda’s domestic tourism so that we can be able to boost our economy. I truly believe that Uganda has a lot of untapped potential in tourism today.
Secondly, because of the opening of the borders, we still lack a lot of capacity. Our human resources are still below what we want in this industry, so the reason we have this office is so we can make sure to reach out to development partners, reach out to training institutions so that we can have regular training, so that when somebody comes to one of our hotels they can be able to experience first-class service even in a two-star hotel.
Finally, our office brings together all the hotels to speak as one voice, so if we get the opportunity to meet the President or to meet with development partners like the World Bank, we can say: this is who we are as hotels in Uganda, these are the statistics, this is what we are adding to the economy and, collectively, this is where we need assistance.
You implemented a few projects in order to increase the quality of the hospitality sector such as training workshop and the recent grading of 29 hotels. What other challenges do you have to overcome to ensure the competitiveness of the Ugandans Hotels?
I think our biggest challenge is the marketing of the hotels. We have not done enough marketing and it is because of a few reasons, but mostly lack of resources for marketing the hotels. Sometimes even I get pleasantly surprised when I travel around the country and come across a beautiful hotel that I am seeing for the first time because I didn’t know it existed. So we need to be able to empower the Uganda Tourism Board to market Uganda as a whole, but also to market the hotels. When you come to Uganda and you go deep into the forest to track gorillas, there are very beautiful lodges where you can stay, because we, as the private sector, have provided these services. We need to be able to say: this is where we are, this is what we have. That is why marketing is one of the biggest challenges we have.
Secondly, as I already mentioned, we still have a big challenge in terms of human resources. I think the World Bank has given about $15 million to renovate the Hotel Tourism and Training Institute in Jinja, which is supposed to train the human resources for our hotels. We are really hoping this project will be able to kick off and we can be able to get high quality staff to come and work in our hotels, because ours is a service industry and it is a very dynamic industry. If we carry out training today, we need to do the same training again tomorrow, because trends are changing. The guests are always online and on TripAdvisor, so if somebody comes and has a bad experience, all they have to do is post it on their Facebook profile and that is it for the industry. So we have to make sure that the people who are working in the industry, the people who are serving the industry and its leaders can keep up with the dynamic and the changing trends in the industry.
So it could also improve the unemployment rate?
Yes, yes, absolutely. 80% of all the people who are employed in tourism in Uganda are employed in hospitality. The jobs are there, because the hotels have been built. If you travel up country, there are still hotels that don’t have the right manpower and they are going to our neighbors, like Kenya, who have had a more stable tourism industry, and they are bringing their staff to work here.
I’m not against expats coming to the country; I am saying we should be able to empower our own people (especially the youth) to be to work in the hotels. Maybe we can bring in expats to train and guide, by offering employment. Over half of our population is young and most of them don’t have jobs, and that has a ripple effect on many, many problems that we face as a country.
You said earlier that you want to focus on increasing the visibility of Ugandan tourism and promoting domestic tourism. What is your communication strategy to reach these goals?
As an association, what we have tried to do is to reach out to the press. So we have familiarization trips for the press. We get the press and take them to the new hotels and upcoming hotels and we say: this is the product we have. We have also partnered with the press so that rather than reporting the negative experiences, they can have features that report the beauty of this country and its hotels.
And as an association we also have regular training with e-marketing with our hotels so that we can be able to teach them how to use social media, which is the way to go right now. We are telling them to print fewer brochures and save their money to advertise on social media. We tell them: have one of your staff to Tweet every single day a new activity or a new service at the hotel so that the world can be able to say: ‘Wait, this is happening at this hotel this weekend? I need to check it out’. However, I don’t think it’s enough to be able to shout and to really explain what it is that we have, but so far, it’s a start. We still need a lot of help in this area.
You were the youngest executive director in the history of the association and the only woman to hold that position. Could you tell us how started this future bright career?
I actually worked here for about five years as executive secretary. I was in charge of our membership services so I used to visit the hotels all the time. Then I left and went to the UN for two years, but as a hotel sector expert. We were working out studies on the hotel sector and the market needs and trends. We asked the employers what they were looking for, what kind of people they were looking to employ, what kind of education they must have, what is the age range that you employ, so that we could be able to have statistics on the sector. By managing this project I was gaining more experience on the hotel sector and collecting statistics which are very important every time you engage either with government or development partners. So, if I was to meet with the Minister of Finance I could speak with authority because now I know the sector in depth.
Based on the success of the labor market needs assessment study, we obtained more funding to carry out audits in the hotel sector. In this study, we went to academia and asked them who and how they were training, so that we would be able to see where the skill gaps lie and in that way find solutions to bridging those gaps. I spent about two years in the UN system which gave me a lot of experience that I have found very useful in my current job. Besides that, I love hotels, I love tourism, I have a degree in tourism and this is all I have known. I love my country and I love traveling and seeing the beautiful hotels come up; I love staying at a nice hotel. I think it’s a mixture of passion and of experience that has brought me here. I can honestly say that I am very knowledgeable on the hotel sector in Uganda.
You mentioned earlier how important it is to empower the youth and women. Would you like to be seen as a model for the women and youth of Uganda?
I would be honored to be seen as a role model for women and youth, because the fact is I am a woman and everybody looks at Africa and they say it is the worst place for a woman to be, but that just makes it much more exciting when you see a woman succeeding in an area that everybody believes to be a man’s world.
One of the biggest challenges we have in Uganda, like I said, is youth unemployment, so when you look at some of the young people who are making their way I think it is very inspiring. There are very many people who look up to us and who look up to me in the sector and I am proud of that. I am proud to be a role model for the youth and for women, not only in Uganda but in the world, because that may give foreign investors the confidence to say: if a young woman who is not special in any way can make it in Africa, first of all, what else is she capable of doing? And secondly, what would we be able to do if we put our resources into this kind of environment?
Let’s imagine a scenario: my friend has an extra ticket for a two weeks trip in Uganda and asks me to join him. Unfortunately I don’t know much about Uganda and I have my doubts. Should I go? Why?
Of course! Of course, even if you need to go with a Ugandan to show you around as a way of inspiring confidence. You should go because one of the best ways of discovery is through your own experience.
Like I said, Uganda is a place where everyone will have a different experience, even if you all travel in the same group the experience you are going to have is not going to be the same as your friend’s experience.
You have been here for a while, so you are a bit more confident, you feel more comfortable, and your friend might come very worried about this country, but I can guarantee he will go back absolutely surprised and amazed by Uganda and all we have to offer. So absolutely, he should come and he should be able to see all these beautiful places.