At dawn chorus, the sun gently wakes up from beyond the horizon of an untouched African savanna reflecting its golden face on the mirror-like waters of the Albert Nile, one of many special sections along the world’s longest river as it flows from its source in Jinja towards the Mediterranean Sea. From a distance, silhouettes are created of a giraffe tower browsing the thorny acacia branches while an elephant herd leads to the river’s banks for its morning drink.
For so many weeks, this scene in the Murchison Falls National Park, one of Uganda’s most popular safari spots seemed very unreal but had been left for only tourism industry players to enjoy as they woke up for their routine maintenance checks, and wildlife rangers surveyed the parks frontiers for any sight of encroachers.
It’s been at least five months since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. The COVID-19 ( the novel coronavirus) pandemic has without a doubt been the biggest story of 2020, and will most definitely influence how we do life for at least the first half of 2021.
The world has come to the reality that an unprecedented “new normal” is here with tourist destinations, especially in Africa beginning to slowly reopen their tourism sectors; some partially, while other countries have thrown in the big cards to carefully get most things back to where they were a couple of months ago.
During this period, tourism players around the globe; both in the public and private sector have attested to how sensitive the industry is and how none of them had been warned about or prepared for what was formerly considered unthinkable; a pandemic that would have a worldwide impact in the 21st century.
In the case of Africa’s fragile wildlife tourism, the Washington Post in July reported that the Coronavirus travel restrictions meant that the humans had suddenly vanished and along with them a billion-dollar tourism industry that employs millions and underpins a symbiotic human-wildlife-ecosystem that is essential to wildlife conservation in many countries on the continent.
Although many African countries have become ingenious with some of them offering tourists all over the world the chance to travel the continent and even go on safari by virtual means, this has left the question of how virtual tours can be monetized and whether this is a satisfactory substitute for the real thing!
A scene similar to that in Murchison Falls National Park unveils in the misty mountain gorilla kingdom that straddles Uganda’s southwestern forests of Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks; it has been a sight of recovery and rejuvenation.
Seven days ago a BBC article revealed that “five baby gorillas had been born in six weeks in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park alone, leading the Ugandan Wildlife (UWS) to declare a baby boom”.
Uganda Wildlife Authority had last week reported a gorilla birth in Mgahinga National Park’s as well. The park’s only gorilla family called Nyakagezi had also welcomed a new addition. Nshuti, an adult female had given birth to a healthy baby (sex still unidentified) on 2nd September 2020.
And as I write, on Monday this week, Mucunguzi, one of the newest mountain gorilla groups in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park’s southerly sector of Rushaga had welcomed Uganda’s newest gorilla baby bringing the tally to seven babies in less than seven weeks. Like the baby, both the 16-year-old mother, Ndinkahe, and its father, silverback Mucunguzi were healthy.
For over 5 months, what’s believed to be the country’s most lucrative form of wildlife tourism has been on suspension due to the obvious threats that COVID-19 came with.
On 3rd September 2020, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) issued a fresh statement following their 5th June communique that had reopened savanna parks but left primate tourism on hold until further notice.
The September notice read in part “ The Management of Uganda Wildlife Authority” wishes to inform the public that after consultations with various stakeholders and putting in place Standard Operating Procedures for the containment of the possible spread of COVID-19 in our protected areas, all the parks are now open for tourism.”
This comes about a month to the tentative reopening of the country’s only international airport, according to a memo by Uganda’s Civil Aviation Authority dated 8th September 2020 that is expected to see the resumption of passenger traffic in and out of the country. The communique includes a provisional schedule for phase 1 of the international passenger flights to Entebbe International Airport for three months effective 1st October 2020.
Many tourism players principally in the private sector see this as a slow change in tides and a visible ray of hope.
As early as March, there was a global debate about how the travel and tourism industry around the world would recover; with over 95% of forecasts projecting that this journey back to normalcy would be kickstarted by domestic and regional travel.
This has been evident. Many locals are taking weekend getaways enabling travel consultants and upcountry lodge properties in Uganda to reboot and get some revenue to cover basic costs as they prepare for the ‘high-value’ regional and international markets to return.
Both the Uganda Wildlife Act of 2019 and the Wildlife Policy of 2014 provide for the conservation and sustainable management of wildlife resources, coordination, monitoring, and supervision of related activities; vesting this mandate in the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
UWA also informs that as mountain gorilla safaris, chimpanzee trekking tourism, and golden monkey trekking resumes, a setlist of guidelines would be implemented, but not limited to the following:
(i) Mandatory temperature screening using non-contact infra-red thermometers at the key tourism gates of the different protected areas.
(ii) Mandatory hand washing / sanitizing at the entrances of all UWA premises and protected areas.
(iii) Wearing a face mask while inside the protected area.
(iv) Observing social distancing
(v) All tourists going for primate tracking activities should carry at least two N95 masks or surgical masks or double-layered cloth masks with filters.
(vi) The Government of Uganda guidelines of carrying half capacity in order to observe social distance shall apply to the use of vehicles and boats in the park. These include concessionaire delivery vehicles.
(vii) Saloon cars shall not be permitted to carry out game drive activities in the protected areas.
(viii) And finally, visitors going to the parks are encouraged to carry their own hand sanitizer.
An essence of hope everywhere. A destination safe and ready
Together with a team of three other tourism enthusiasts, I was fortunate to participate in a 14 days’ recovery Roadtrip around the country, where we were able to taste the tourism product fresh and in the new normal.
During our time in the wild, we observed that Uganda Wildlife Authority, like the upcountry lodge properties, has trained its staff and provided them with the adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to safeguard them and visitors from any possible infection or transmission of the virus.
The staff on duty have been groomed to sensitive all tourists on the general Government of Uganda approved COVID-19 operational guidelines as well as those developed and implemented by UWA.
We all have been waiting for when the gates reopen. Around March and April this year, there was very little hope, but this is slowly returning as global citizens come to the reality that like earlier pandemics, COVID-19 is not a death sentence, but something that we should be careful about as we live our days.
The restart of tourism has brought hope to many people around the world. International tourism has not been as united as it is now. Both in measuring the impacts of COVID-19 and in looking at how the restart of tourism can be implemented in a responsible and safe way, based on the best that our sector can offer: sustainability, innovation, collaboration, and solidarity.
The discussion has now graduated to changing gears to Restart Tourism, and I am glad to see that Uganda is ready.
See you soon, Visit Uganda!