In March, 1999 Tim Henshall touched down in Uganda for the first time as a tourist, just days after what’s considered to be the country’s worst tragedy in the tourism industry.
A total of 8 foreign tourists, four of them from his home country, England, had just been massacred by remnants of Hutu Militants from neighboring Rwanda.
These were kidnapped and slaughtered during a raid on their camps in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
In what was said to be vengeance against American and the UK governments, the killers targeted and butchered tourists from the two countries, after raping and torturing some. They released those from France and other nations.
The rebels reportedly left written messages on the massacred bodies, reading: “Americans and British, we don’t want you on our land. You support our enemy Museveni.”
Following the incident, which got wide international media coverage, tourism in the country came grinding to a halt.
“For about three months there was literally nothing; no tourist coming here.” Tim told Chimpreports during his recent visit to Uganda.
“My wife and I had booked to come to Uganda. We lied to our families about where we were going.”
In spite of what was happening in the country, and its image badly shattered abroad, Tim says he was still blown away by the beauty and warmth he found in Uganda.
“We arrived in Uganda and we couldn’t believe the warmth of the welcome; and that was where our love affair started,” he began to narrate about his stay at Bwindi, the very same spot where fellow tourists had been murdered.
“During our stay, I found out what it is like to be David Beckham, because playing football with the kids, the team I was playing against gave me the ball as much as the team on my side gave me the ball,” he recounted.
Nearly 20 years after Tim and his wife put their lives on the line to travel to Uganda; he is currently one of the most important players in the country’s tourism sector.
He runs a company named Kamageo, which was hired recently to market Uganda as a tourism destination in the UK.
The company is one of three that were contracted by government in 2016 to sell the country’s tourism sector abroad.
The other two are PHG Consulting which is headquartered in USA, and KPRN from Germany. Government is soon bringing on board more firms from China, Japan and the Gulf states.
When we asked him about the progress he has made for Uganda so far, Tim was full of optimism.
While he admitted the UK is a tough market, he said his company has made several inroads.
Kamageo’s strategy for Uganda, he said, is largely to sell the country to British tour operators, most of who know nothing about the country.
“Traditionally if you are travelling to Africa for the first time, most British people tend to gravitate to either South Africa or Kenya,” he said.
“And UK tour operators are quite happy with that; as long as a tourist is going somewhere in Africa, they are happy. If they have to battle to send them somewhere else, that is a bit of extra work.”
“Our work now is to try to entice the tour operators to believe in the attractions that are here in Uganda; the Gorillas, chimpanzees and warmth of the people.”
“We are trying to increase the number of tour operators who are actively and proactively promoting Uganda; and we have had tremendous success. We have gone from 99 tour operators from whom you can book a trip to Uganda, to 155.”
Tim says Uganda is a unique tourist destination with attractions that can hardly be found anywhere else, and that these are what his firm has been leveraging.
One such, he says, is the warmth of the Ugandan people, which many British tourists have shown a lot of interest in lately.
“Traditionally, tourists would arrive at a lodge and the people they would engage with were staff at the lodge and the guides in the vehicles.
“That is people as they want. That means getting out of vehicles and meeting people in villages, not in pre-planned setting. They want to wander in the village and talk to the people about, the Premier League. That is not something you will find in many places.”
Tim went on to recount from his 1999 experience in Uganda.
“During our visit, my wife played with the local kids, she has long blond hair, and her favourite memory was that she had her hair rolled up and she had a cap on. At one point she got hot and she took her cap off and she let down her long hair. One little girl absolutely screamed the place out; ‘She is a lion! A lion has tricked its way into the village!” And she took off.”
“Now, you can’t put that on a brochure, and yet that is what many tourists what to experience.”
Tim’s company Kamageo was contracted at about Shs 1.9Billion. He says the fruits of their work are already visible.
“For any destination that’s starting on a marketing campaign, it should take about three years before you start seeing results. But we already feel we are ahead of schedule.”
The firm’s work for Uganda, he says, focuses on encouraging operators and educating them on what Uganda has to offer.
“We provide online and in-office training; we go to their offices and train and enthuse their staff about Uganda. 75 % of the people we talk to have not been to Uganda. Sometimes they are not excited, so they need to hear things they have not heard anywhere else.”
“We have so far brought about 50 of them here, and we make sure that each one of them that comes here will sell Uganda when they go back home.”
According to the Tourism Ministry and Uganda Tourism Board, 2018 has been the country’s best year in the tourism sector, surpassing its targets in terms of tourism revenues by nearly 10%.
Tourism remains the country’s leading foreign exchange earner and one of the fastest growing sectors in the country.