Tourism Sector in Uganda: An Overview of Great Lakes Safaris and Uganda Lodges by Amos Masaba Wekesa

Amos Masaba Wekesa shares his assessment of the tourism sector in Uganda and gives an overview of Great Lakes Safaris, a tour operating company in the African Great Lakes region, as well as Uganda Lodges, a collection of unique eco-friendly safari facilities located in various national parks across the country.

Interview with Amos Masaba Wekesa, Founder and CEO of Great Lakes Safaris and Uganda Lodges

Amos Masaba Wekesa, Founder and CEO of Great Lakes Safaris

What is your assessment of the tourism sector in Uganda? What are the latest trends? Is the sector competitive?

Before 1971, Uganda was the top destination in East and Central Africa for tourism. We lost that advantage to our neighbors and other countries in 1971 when the Idi Amin regime started and we went through very challenging times. Uganda was such a top destination because of its attractions and its location. Uganda is located in the grasslands of East Africa, between Kenya and Tanzania, and we also have the tropical rainforest of Congo. That is what makes Uganda so unique. Uganda is Africa compressed. We have everything that you could see across Africa, minus the ocean. Uganda, small as it is, has more inland water bodies than any other country on the African continent. We have two major water bodies – Lake Victoria and the Nile. We have close to 50% of Lake Victoria in the country. We also have the source of the longest river in the world in the Nile. We have thousands of crater lakes, hundreds of lakes, tropical rainforest, savannah, mountains, all which attract different species of animals and birds. Uganda is a haven for birders. Because of the different catchment areas, we have 1,078 different species of birds which is 73% of East Africa, 50% of Africa, and 11% of the world’s species of birds. When inland Europe is cold, the birds come towards the Mediterranean, follow the Nile, and come to us. Uganda is a migratory route for those birds. We have primates because of the tropical rainforest. The major ones are the chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. Uganda has over 50% of the population of mountain gorillas and the highest concentration of primates in the world in Kibale National Park. We also have the most powerful waterfalls in the world on the Nile. We have not been able to properly tell that to the world. There is nowhere in the world where you will find water crashing through a canyon like you would at Murchison Falls. We have many mountains. We have the third highest mountain on the African continent. National Geographic has done research of the top hiking places in the world and included the Rwenzoris. The Rwenzoris are unique in that they are on the Equator, yet they have snow. They have so many different species of birds and animals that are native. They are the most technical mountain in the African continent. The Kilimanjaros of this world are walking mountains, but this one is different. It is massive at about 120 km long and 42 km wide. It is a fantastic place to climb. It is 4,000 m above sea level. We also have diversity of culture. Uganda is such a unique country. Every part of the country has a very different traditional dance, traditional food, etc. Uganda has 48.9% of East Africa’s arable land. This is just one great garden. In terms of organic foods, you cannot eat a pineapple anywhere in the world as sweet as Ugandan pineapple, or mangoes or oranges because of the soil here. That might contribute to our ability to work so hard.

What are your competitive advantages? Why should tourists choose your services?

Great Lakes Safaris and Uganda Lodges have created a very good environment for anyone who wants to come to Africa, Rwanda and Uganda especially, for a tourism experience.

I run Great Lakes Safaris and Uganda Lodges which are the key companies in this country as far as tourism. It all comes back to leadership. I have learned the basics that businesses need, especially for tourism. I understand that when a tourist comes to any country in Africa, the first thing they will always remember is the tour guide. Having been a tour guide myself, I can say that the quality of our tour guides in this company is extremely high. We have been able to choose them because of my personal experience. We have a fantastic team that is international. We have Americans, Kenyans, Ugandans, all working here. There is a lot of experience that we bring onboard. We have grown because of our honesty. We will not tell a client that they will be sleeping in hotel B and then put them in hotel C. We are extremely reliable. You can find this on any internet search. We have grown because of our reliability from $200 where we are. We have not gotten there by mistake.

What do you bring to the customer experience?

Great Lakes Safaris and Uganda Lodges have created a very good environment for anyone who wants to come to Africa, Rwanda and Uganda especially, for a tourism experience. We ask for feedback after every trip. The clients love the selection of lodges and accommodations that we offer across the country, the quality of cars we provide, the quality of tour guides we bring on the safari, our knowledge, and our ability to communicate. That has given us over 99% satisfaction with clients. We are even more interested in the clients that are dissatisfied because that helps us to be able to push our business to a different level. That positive criticism helps us to continue to grow.

What are your current projects?

Over the last year, we have been pushing improvement in the quality of our accommodations. We have been engaging different consultants on how to improve the experiences in our lodges, our cars, our guides, and our staff. There is a lot of training happening internally. We are also going into marine tourism. We will be bringing in more touring boats to give people experiences that they will not get anywhere else. We have just bought a new lodge in Tanzania. We want this to be ready by July or the end of the year and we can announce it officially. We are expanding our business in Rwanda. We are signing contracts in the US to make sure that we get a big chunk of the market in Rwanda.

What is your international reach?

As a company, through our website and our social media, we are able to reach a lot of people. That is an area that we still want to improve as a business. We have three major markets, the biggest is the UK, and also Germany and the US. We have a lot of clientele in the UK who have worked with us for a long time. We mainly get clients through wholesalers there rather than direct clients. There is no other company in Uganda or Rwanda that has as many UK agents handling their business as us.

What does each lodge offer?

Uganda Lodges is composed of accommodations in the areas of interest in the country. Primate Lodge is the main lodge in Kibale National Park. The park is 795 km². It is the world capital of primates. You can not find a concentration of primates anywhere in the world that compares. You could be sitting on your veranda and see seven different species of primates, which is how we came up with its name. People love this location. TripAdvisor has many reviews that say this is the best. When you come to the lodge, you do not have to drive far to join the chimpanzee trekking. You have breakfast until 7:45 and then only a five-minute walk to where you start the trek. Budongo Eco Lodge is a small eco lodge in Budongo Forest which is part of Murchison Falls National Park. It is the largest National Park in the country. We run the 80 km² forest and we have a 50-year concession for the chimpanzees. We are working with the government and sharing revenues. We move the revenues from $20,000 every three years for three years to close to about half a million dollars now. We are still growing our business and the government is very happy about that. Our lodge is the main lodge in that area. We also have Simba Safari Camp in Queen Elizabeth National Park. It is a budget lodge for overland truck tours and people who want to spend less than $150 on accommodation. We have a new lodge called Elephant Plains as well in the same park. It is one of the top three lodges in the country currently. That will model our next two lodges which will be in Bwindi National Park and Budongo. This will all happen before the middle of next year.

Are you looking for strategic investors?

As a country, Uganda is open to a lot of opportunities because we are an emerging market. There are a lot of entrepreneurs. Uganda has the highest number of people interested in entrepreneurship. We mainly have smaller entrepreneurs, small shops, roadside markets. But in terms of growth and bigger projects, Uganda is going to have a lot of opportunities. There is a lot of oil in the country. We have companies like Chinook and Total that have entered the country. In the next four or five years, there will be an investment of about $22 billion by the government into companies in the oil sector. An area like Hoima that is getting a new airport will need 4,500 rooms. We do not have even 1,000 yet. There will be a lot of opportunities for investors. As Great Lakes Safaris and Uganda Lodges, we are at the take off stage. Our next dream is building 5-star hotels. We want to engage with companies that are interested in investing in top-end hotels, especially with land in Entebbe. We are already in talks with a hotel group and we hope that we will be able to sign a deal with them. We also want to expand our marine tourism experiences. We want to do high-end houseboats at $1,000 to $2,000 per room per night. For smaller numbers of 12 to 16 rooms, we also want to take advantage there. We want to take advantage of the numerous water bodies in the country.

Do you have a final message?

We have had our share of challenges as a country, but we are recovering. There is a lot of interest, especially from government circles, in tourism. Many years ago, it was very difficult to convince the leadership about the value of tourism in terms of creation of jobs, investment, etc. They are starting to understand now. Tourism was looked at as an isolated sector. Now, they can see that tourism can directly affect agriculture, ICT, industrialization. Therefore, there is going to be a lot of effort in terms of marketing the country and positioning it. Anyone interested in investing in Uganda would be able to reap the results of these efforts by the government and different individuals.


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