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Are Uganda’s ‘Men With Guns’ Scaring Off Tourists?

It’s a matter that had to be tackled. It took courage and a bit of discomfort, but players in the tourism industry eventually came together and implored members of security forces – Police and the Military, to please tone it down a notch.

The men and women manning security points, right from the airport through the various entry points in the tourism sector are just too armed, officials said; and too mean-looking for some tourists.

“They are simply hard-looking, and they cause discomfort to our tourists,” one hotelier remarked.

During a recent stakeholders’ engagement on tourism crime in Kampala, security agencies, more so the Tourism Police were urged to carry less threatening weaponry, and to put on a more welcoming face, when they come face to face with foreign tourists.

“We have to draw a line between a tourism police officer and other security personnel,” said Stephen Asiimwe, the outgoing CEO Uganda Tourism Board (UTB).

“There are tourists who really don’t want to see anything like a weapon,” he noted.

Mr Asiimwe says UTB had received numerous complaints from local tour operators about the looks of some of the security officers.

During the stakeholders meeting, some of the tour operators suggested that Tourism Police officers should be given different uniforms, smaller weapons, and get trained to smile.

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“We are having a lot of problems at the airport,” remarked Gloria Tumwesigye from the Association of Uganda Tour Operators Association.

“Our guests land and are greeted by the AK47 which is a field gun. Can we have them carry a smaller gun which is as powerful as an AK47?”

Susan Muhwezi, the Chairperson of the Uganda Hotel Owners Association (UHOA) suggested that the Tourism Police should have more female officers.

“We need to make tourists comfortable,” said Mrs. Muhwezi, who is also the wife of former Minister Jim Muhwezi.

“Since the NRM came to power, we are no longer scared of security forces the way we used to be. But it’s also true that if you come in as a tourist and you are not Ugandan; and you see too many guns and uniforms and hard looking people, it can scare you.”

“We should handle this; to see if it means putting some nice smiling people, both men and women especially at the entry points; at airports and lodges.”

The Tourism Police is a unit under the Counter Terrorism Directorate of the Uganda Police. Officers in this unit put on a black uniform and some of them carry powerful and sophisticated weapons including machineguns.

Frank Mwesigwa, the Tourism Police Commander, says the unit is under Counter Terrorism because tourism, being mostly foreign based can easily attract terrorists.

“Of the threats that we face, terrorism is among them,” he said. “That background is always there.”

Initially, during the stakeholders meeting, Mwesigwa encouraged tour operators to sensitize their clients to understand the essence of having armed officers around.

“I personally, would better feel safe seeing patrolling armed men than feeling insecure that I don’t want to see a gun.  We need to sensitize our clients to understand our concept of deployment.”

Later however, Mwesigwa said the police unit wouldn’t mind making some adjustments.

“We are going to discuss it in our strategic meetings in case you want us to maybe change our uniforms so that we stand out,” Mwesigwa promised.

He also asked tour operators and the Uganda Tourism Board to organize customer care training for the Tourism Police officers.

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