Formed 10 years ago, One Touch Safaris is trying to leave an imprint on Uganda’s tourism industry. theCooperator’s Patrick Jaramogi had a chat with the founder and CEO Josiah Mwanje about the company’s story, and the state of the tourism sector generally.
What prompted you to start One Touch Safaris?
I love to travel – I love to tour and discover new things. What I am most remembered for during my primary and secondary education was the fact that I would never miss any school trip, and I was the best storyteller in class.
This actually earned me some beatings, and even at times suspension from class. I would always be caught telling others stories about the Statue of Liberty, what we enjoyed during the school trip and so on. When I finished my form six (6) I started traveling by myself, going to Kenya, Tanzania and many other areas. So I went into safaris because of my love for travel.
You have been in this business for 10 years now, how would you describe the Tourism Industry in Uganda?
The industry is growing. It is better than how I found it. There is a good response from both domestic (local) and international clients. This positive response is as a result of collective efforts by many players, including a conducive policy environment by the government. Infrastructure has significantly improved. Even though it’s not in every destination, generally access to most touristic areas is today easier than it was, years back.
There has also been an improvement in the industry especially with the coming in of investors who have set up hotels and s countrywide. Others have also set up our companies, and for us, the more players, the better for the industry. So we go out of the way to facilitate the entry new actors. Right now, there is a fellow operator that I am helping to organize a trip to Rwanda, not because they can’t, because I know Rwanda better. That is the type of collaboration that has aided the the of the industry.
This growth must mean the industry is now more competitive. How is that(competition) aﬀecting you as local actors?
Of course growth has meant that the tourism market is now more competitive. But it is a healthy competition. Even with the growth, we’re still such a small industry to start competing unfairly, so we specialize. For example, our company is best known for group tours, organizing tours for schools, churches and corporate entities both locally, regionally and internationally. We have weekly trips for Ugandans going to Dubai, and domestic weekly trips on Lake Victoria like Bulago Islands. We also engage in destination management, destination weddings, lodge reservations, boat excursions, car rental, gorilla tours and adventure tours. Amidst this, I can hire cars for other tour operators, while I can help others take their clients to tour destinations that they are not well conversant with.
For instance, I have multiple contacts in Dubai, and a close working relationship with many leading hotels there. So rather than hustling, they approach me and I assist them.
Talking about Dubai, there have been reports of having tourists to UAE given five – year multiple entry visas to boost tourism. How true is this?
That proposal is still in the pipeline. UAE is marketing their country vigorously. Arguably the biggest tourism event globally this year is the Dubai Expo 2020 and they are doing all it takes to have human traffic to Dubai increased. I am also using that opportunity to boost One Touch. I have already signed contracts with hotels, so they are offering me low prices.
By the time Expo 2020 happens, if you have been going to Dubai for USD$1,000 (shs.3.7m), you will find that it has tripled. But we will still be able to offer affordable prices because I have a contract with the organizers.
How competitive is Uganda’s tourism industry vis-à-vis her EAC counterparts?
Our industry is very competitive. In terms of nature and what we have to offer, we beat them all. We have rare, yet much sought-after fauna like the gorillas. The recent census found that the gorillas now number over 700, the largest number in a single country in the world. We only share these gorillas with Rwanda, but again our gorilla permits are much cheaper, going
for USD$600 while in Rwanda, they go for USD$1500. Then we have a variety of bird species, about 600 of them, accounting for 10% of the global population. We have a very nice climate, good food and rich culture.
Ugandans are also very kind and hospitable people. I have had my car stuck in Nebbi, Arua, Kabale, and random people have always come in to help, even when I am a total stranger. We’re also happy people, partying Monday to Monday. This combination –of rich natural endowments and welcoming culture is something rare to find anywhere else.
Nonetheless, countries like Kenya and Tanzania continue to register better tourist numbers than Uganda. Why is that so?
Those countries are more deliberate about supporting their tourism. They have invested heavily in upgrading their tourism infrastructure like roads and hotels to international standards. They even have training institutions for tourist handlers like the Utali College in Kenya. Our Tourism training school in Jinja is not so good in comparison. The issue of investment is really critical – Government funds Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) to the tune of USD$ 250,000 yet Kenya
releases USD$ 5 million. How do you begin to compete? Here we also need to improve our tourism experience. In Kenya for example, when you are going for a game drive let’s say the Masai Maara, the Kenya Wildlife Society rangers drive around and when they find lions they send a radio message to all lodges alerting them where the lions can be seen. Comparatively, we(Uganda) do not go out of our way enough to deliver a great experience.
So how is One Touch Safari fairing on this – going the extra mile to deliver a memorable tourism experience for its customers?
We try. Usually on each trip, we have about 40 people working directly and indirectly. When a client wakes up to go for safari, we have a driver, then he goes to a fuel station to get fuel, we have a pump attendant, then the guide to guide them around, and a set of others in the restaurant to make them meals of their choice. Finally, we have well- trained guards to ensure their safety.
Do you (One Touch Safaris) in any way give back to the community?
Very Much. Every November we give back to random communities in what we call Christmas in November. Last year, we were in Bweyale. We took blankets, mattresses, food and so on for refugees in the settlement camp. In 2018, we supported the people of Rwenshama, the fishing village in Katunguru, in Queen Elizabeth National Park. In 2017 we went to Muhabura, climbed the mountains, and supported the pregnant mothers through a local NGO operating there. This year we hope to go to Ssese Islands. We usually choose needy communities and work with other companies to support them.
So where do you see Uganda’s tourism industry in the next 5- 10 years?
We will be far. All we need to do is continue to improve our infrastructure especially in the hard to reach touristic areas like Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Then we need to invest more in letting the world know how touristic our country is, by investing in branding and marketing. Finally, we need to grow local tourism. Uganda is still a poor country, where the locals don’t cherish the importance of domestic tourism. A Ugandan would rather travel to Dubai than visit Lake Mburo, Queen Elizabeth or Murchison Falls National Park.
This requires us tourism operators, to learn what a Ugandan crowd wants, and devote ourselves to providing it.