Players in the tourism sector are putting their heads together to find solutions to the escalating number of cases of crime in the business.
Officials are worried that the tourism industry, which is currently raking up to USD 1.4Billion annually into the economy and remains the country’s leading foreign exchange earner, is also attracting a lot of bad elements.
“When you have a sector that has been growing at a rate of 5% per annum and has one of the largest investment portfolios in the country, along the way it starts to attract negative forces,” said Stephen Asiimwe, the outgoing CEO Uganda Tourism Board (UTB).
UTB on Monday convened a stakeholders meeting involving tour operators, Tourism Police, hoteliers, the office of the DPP, among others to discuss measures to address this burgeoning challenge.
During the meeting, it was revealed that criminal elements who are taking root in the sector are both local and foreign.
Foreign based criminals, officials say, are ICT connoisseurs who take advantage of local hoteliers and tour operators who rely on unsecure payment systems.
Their acts often include intercepting online transactions and diverting funds to their accounts, after which tourists end up traveling into the country, only to find that the money they paid was not received.
As for the local criminals, officials said during the meeting, that these are mostly people who run unregistered tour companies with the sole aim of fleecing unsuspecting tourists. A number of such cases have been registered with police.
“Sometimes we get tourists that get stranded because someone brought them here, showed them permits that were not genuine and along the way that person disappears,” said Charles Tumwesigye the Head of Special Operations at Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).
“Some bring the tourists and drop them at our gate in Bwindi and then disappear. So you have tourists who paid their money and we have to tell them we don’t have them in our system. Imagine that experience.”
Tour operators in Uganda have an umbrella body – the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO), which often intervenes to root out these wrong elements in the sector.
But this body’s powers are limited to only registered members.
AUTO’s Gloria Tumwesigye listed some of the cases they have had to deal with.
“Some operators promise one thing and give another; other companies don’t pay their suppliers; we have outright robberies of clients; we have companies that impersonate other companies as well as unprofessional guides.”
Mrs Tumwesigye said while AUTO has a disciplinary board, most of the culprits cannot be penalized because they are not members.
“For those who are members, we can kick them out and make their businesses hard. The non-members we just send them to UTB.”
Government in 2012 established the Tourism Police, whose mandate among others includes dealing with such crimes.
The force however, remains critically understaffed and its mandate somehow restricted.
“We don’t investigate cases,” said Frank Mwesigwa the Commander Tourism Police. “We just deal with CID and the territorial command, to ensure that cases that are reported are dealt with care.
The Tourism police unit, Mwesigwa said, currently has only 936 officers who are supposed to police the entire sector.
“This is very small. It’s nothing. In fact we try, for God’s sake.”
Mwesigwa says his plan to recruit at least 5000 officers into the unit.
Some if the cases that his unit had handled, he said, include among others robberies in national parks and thefts in hotels.
“Our statistics show that most of these crimes are committed in hotels mostly because of laxity of security measures in place. That’s why we coerce hotels to make sure our tourists are safe.”
At the event, UTB’s Asiimwe called for expedition of the expeditious amendment of the Tourism Act of 2008, which he said is just not enough.
The changes in the law, he said, are among others intended to deal with poachers who cause enormous losses to the sector.
“An elephant in Uganda for instance is valued 3.5million dollars. Someone goes and kills an elephant, and is taken to court and is made to pay a fine of just Shs 50,000.” he said.
Asiimwe said the Ministry of Tourism is working to review the Tourism Act, and that even Members of Parliament have showed enthusiasm to expedite the amendments, now that the tourism sector is growing faster and becoming very significant.