39th African Travel Association Congress

Good afternoon, and thank you for the opportunity to speak to you about the future of tourism in Uganda.  I would like to welcome you all, but in particular, I am happy to recognize my American countrymen who have traveled here to the “Pearl of Africa.”    I hope that this will be a rewarding and exciting visit.  And I hope as well that you will have a chance to travel beyond Kampala to see for yourself why this country was deemed by Sir Winston Churchill to be the “Pearl of Africa.”

From the awe-inspiring breadth of Lake Victoria, to the abundant wildlife of Murchison Falls National Park, from the diverse bird and primate populations of the Budongo Forest, to the grace and beauty of the mountain gorillas of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, you cannot help but be a bit humbled by the tremendous natural beauty of our planet and the richness and abundance that exists around us.

We all have different ways of enjoying that beauty.  For some it is the grandeur of the Nile.  For others it is the quiet beauty of the open savannah of Kidepo Park.  Or perhaps it is the mystery and majesty of the lush forests teeming with birds, butterflies, and insects.

This beauty and diversity adds richness to our lives and can add riches to the nation’s purse as long as we work together to ensure that we protect the heritage with which we have been blessed so that all the people of Uganda and the world may freely benefit from it.

The United States is deeply committed to this goal.  Since the 1980s, the American people have provided over 100 million dollars in development assistance to support conservation in Uganda.  In March of 2013, I launched our Biodiversity Project; a cooperative agreement with those who know first-hand Uganda’s natural beauty and the urgent need to protect it: the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the National Forestry Authority, Nature Uganda, and the Uganda Community Tourism Association.  Their mission, to preserve Uganda’s natural gifts, is also part of a global mission.  We want to do our part, and through the Biodiversity program, the American people plan to provide 10 million dollars over the next four years for biodiversity conservation in Uganda.

Protecting biodiversity.  Those are words we hear often, but what do they really mean? Simply put, it is about preserving and protecting the habitat and number of different species present in Uganda’s ecology, and to ensure that their natural range is not so limited and disrupted that their existence is put at risk.  It is a goal that is simple to state but infinitely complex in its execution.  Think, for example, about birds in Uganda.  There are over 1060 species that have been recorded in this nation and, in the Albertine Rift alone, there are over 37 endemic species found nowhere else on this planet.  Then there are the mammals, reptiles, insects, trees, and plans, and a million other biological treasures that are unique to Africa, the region, and Uganda itself.

And we think that preserving these tremendous treasures is important enough that we have added protection of biodiversity to our already significant commitment to improving the health and livelihoods of the people of Uganda.  Of course, at the end of the day, protecting biodiversity IS as much about improving livelihoods as it is about saving nature for future generations.

The simple fact is that there are people all over the world who are willing to spend their hard-earned money to enjoy the beauty and spectacle of Africa’s natural wonders.  That money goes to hotels, parks, tour operators, their employees, and all the small businesses that supply and sustain them.  By preserving the biodiversity of Uganda we are having a direct impact on the economy of Uganda and the lives of its citizens.

President Obama’s Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa emphasizes “boosting broad-based economic growth” as critical to Africa’s development.  And for Uganda, tourism is one of the least appreciated and most underdeveloped sources of economic growth.  By preserving the natural world around us on the one hand, while making it more accessible to tourism on the other, we can give Uganda a resource that will last for all time.

There are challenges, however, that we must address to realize fully the potential of Uganda tourism.  Although there was a time when Uganda was the prime tourist destination in eastern Africa, that is, sadly, no longer true and has not been true for decades.  Animal populations suffered from conflict and poaching, infrastructure deteriorated, and government commitment to tourism took a back seat to other pressing national demands.

But the story is starting to change.  We are making significant progress toward redevelopment of the national park infrastructure and recovery of its animal populations and we are engaging communities and giving them reason to invest in protecting biodiversity.  It is a very exciting and promising time and I believe that together we can shape a new narrative about Uganda’s future.  However, these efforts are easily undermined by corruption and impunity, an endemic problem.  For example, it appears that poached ivory, seized in Ugandan government raids, has recently been stolen from the Uganda Wildlife Authority stores with no explanation as to how this happened or who may be responsible.  We hope that there will be a serious investigation and that those who stole this ivory will be identified and punished to demonstrate a determined commitment to wildlife protection.

The fact is, competition for tourist dollars is fierce, and tourists around the world are becoming more discerning.  They do more research before they choose a destination, are more concerned about the impact their presence has on communities and the environment and are more conscious of the support their tourist dollars provide to peoples, communities, and governments.  In other words, it’s not always about having the best attractions, the most beautiful vistas, or the most awe-inspiring antiquities.  People choose a destination according to a variety of factors, including their conscience.

Unlike some other African destinations that cater to the mass market, Uganda is still a destination for high-end independent travelers who are looking for a unique experience.  These travelers also pay attention, more than most, to the political and social environment in the countries they visit.  If a government is seen as indifferent or complicit in elephant poaching and ivory trafficking, there are those who will spend their travel dollars elsewhere.  We have already seen that when the government of Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill earlier this year, many businesses – including tour operators and travelers – declared that “If Uganda discriminates against LGBT individuals, we won’t do business there.”  Gay travelers said, “I won’t go to a country that doesn’t welcome me and people like me.”  Coffee buyers said, “The Uganda brand won’t sell in our country anymore – we’ll buy our coffee elsewhere.”

For many outside Uganda, the Bill caused them to think differently about Uganda as a destination. Many of them, who might have spent their money in Uganda, chose to go elsewhere.

All governments make choices about their laws, their norms and their values, and it is their sovereign right to do so.  But, consumers and tourists make choices too.  Today, Ugandans are debating the merits of reintroducing anti-homosexuality legislation and enacting laws that could constrain the role of civil society and NGOs.  I hope that they will think carefully about President Museveni’s guidance about going slowly and thoughtfully on such issues, recognizing that their deliberations and decisions could have far-reaching impact on the economy and the nation’s international reputation.

I hope that, you, the leaders of the tourism industry, will also offer your objective assessment of the impact of these decisions on tourism so that leaders have a balanced picture as they make these important decisions.

When the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was passed earlier this year the U.S. Embassy could no longer be an advocate for tourism in Uganda.  We could not urge Americans to visit a country where some of our citizens would not be welcomed or would be at risk of arrest or discrimination for who they were.  We had to highlight these concerns in our Country Information page on the State Department website, and that, by itself, constrained travel here.

Sadly, this came at a time when Uganda had begun to create a new narrative in which Idi Amin and AIDS were not the first two responses when someone heard the word Uganda.  The passage of the bill, however, further undercut the Uganda “brand” in the international tourism market and instead of focusing on the nation’s beautiful countryside and the warmth of its people, charges of discrimination and intolerance were what people heard about.

I know that many Ugandans might characterize the law and the government’s choices differently.  But, if we are talking about what might attract—or discourage—American tourists to visit Uganda, then we need to be honest about the impact of the law on the American market.  The simple fact is that the U.S. government cannot in good conscience promote tourism to a country if that nation welcomes only some, but not all, of our citizens.  And I know many of our citizens feel the same way and make choices about travel destinations with that in mind.

This may not be an issue that you want to grapple with as you seek to develop new tourism opportunities in Uganda, but it is one that must acknowledged.  The tourism industry rightfully embraces a strong sense of corporate social responsibility when it comes to the environment and the biodiversity.  These are critical to your economic success.  But your clients care as well about issues of democracy and human rights, and many turn away from supporting nations, or businesses, that are insensitive to these concerns, and I believe that your industry needs to be as clear in speaking to these issues as you are urging environmental protection.

In business, as in politics, perception is everything.  As African tour operators know all too well, negative perceptions of Africa – even unfair perceptions caused by an outbreak of disease thousands of miles away – can hurt your business.  However, if we encourage and commit to a virtuous circle of transparency, environmental protection, and respect for human rights we can go a long way towards ensuring that the perceptions of Africa stimulate rather than discourage tourism.

I hope that your deliberations here will be successful and will help to encourage tourism in Africa.  I hope as well that you will urge the governments with whom you work to choose policies that give tourists confidence that Africa should be a destination of choice, again and again.  That will be the key, in my view, to building a sustainable base for a robust future for African tourism, and it is a future I would love to see.

Thank you and enjoy your stay here.