ARUA. The heightened activity and excitement in the local tourism in West Nile region as seen in the last couple of months is a thing of beauty particularly for an organization like the West Nile Web that seeks to market the region to the outside world.
Indeed many assert that people are moving more and appreciating the natural beauty of the region. As part of a regularly travelling team, I can’t overstate how privileged I have been to visit some of the exciting places in West Nile.
It is for this reason that people stunned by the discoveries of the web team have approached us for directions indicating eagerness to visit these sites.
However, much as I’m filled with pride towards the exposure of a region I belong to, key concerns in the local communities literally makes one to hide face in the sand.
To begin with, the extend of the biting poverty and the lots of begging community members that crowd around a tourist hoping to get something (money) coupled with a group of youth who threaten any visitor with the hope of succumbing to their threat and pay money in return have inconvenienced many.
Such acts make one very uncomfortable as a tourist and yet I’m always left wondering and rather sympathising whether the community have no right to get an income from a resource placed by nature in their neighbourhood.
The Uganda wildlife authority (UWA) describes community tourism to include tours, workshops, performances, dining, homestays and accommodation all of which are provided by the local community.
The community share of the proceeds from such are always put into projects in health, education, conservation initiatives like building class rooms, orphanages, reforestation, and HIV/AIDS campaigns.
Community tourism also provides employment to skilled people in different fields in the community while offering closer interaction between the locals and tourists; poaching and other malicious acts are reduced. It is basically a way of forging a win-win situation for all involved parties.
However, in the West Nile context, this aspect is the biggest single missing link despite a number of tourist attractions whose visitors continue to grow in numbers by the day.
Mr Yovan Aluma is the LC I chairman of Alikua village where the much-visited Belgian pyramid is located.
“Many people give us money when we ask but some don’t even when we try to explain that we maintain the place. No other organization gives money to support the maintenance of the place to the point some unscrupulous locals vandalized the pyramid thinking there is mercury inside” Aluma stressed.
There are efforts to renovate the pyramid by the area Member of Parliament (MP) Mr James Acidri but Aluma says this is not adequate enough to organize the whole place.
Other than the pyramid, there is barely any other suitable facility for a visiting tourist and yet on the day of our visit, no sooner had we disembarked from the vehicle than anybody who noticed we were visitors started asking for money.
Another visit to popular Miriadua falls, we are met by women, children and youth all asking for money. A Church about a kilometre away from the falls has a basket at the road side to collect money from people passing to visit the place. No amount is indicated but children on our visit are seen guarding the place.
Mr Gerrad Iga, the vice chairman of West Nile tourism network and a tour operator says such acts of disturbance by the community are prompted by lack of structures to manage these sites.
“About two years back, I attended a meeting of Maracha development forum and I used it to reach to the district authorities. They picked my contact and promised to get back to me but unfortunately, that is all I ever heard from them about the matter,” Iga narrates.
Luckily for Iga, he has devised a way as a tour operator of dealing with the unscrupulous members of the local community and strictly pays money to a properly verified person in authority.
He on a positive note says the region’s tourism industry has registered accomplishments in the recent past. Where there are opportunities, Iga says they have fully involved the local communities.
Tourism ranks low on the priority ladder
Ms Rebbeca Agani, the Arua district tourism officer acknowledges the big problem of poor organization for the local communities.
“The tourism department has been under the commercial officer and not given much priority in the past, we are only two months old and trying to get on ground,” Agani explains.
She says her immediate plans are to identify the tourist attractions in the district, document them, give recommendations and seek for partnerships with the relevant organizations in a bid to develop the local tourism sector.
Ms. Agani says once established, the local communities would benefit immensely via economic activities like crafts making, restaurants among other things.
What the region stands to lose
The announcement by the Uganda tourism board to grow Uganda’s tourism revenue from US$1.4 Billion to US$2.7 Billion in 2020 was not only mind boggling but serves a serious wake-up call to the “sleeping” regions like West Nile.
Many might argue that the region doesn’t have the most fascinating scenery and attractions to favourably compete with other regions of Uganda but for those that have been to Arra fishing lodge in Adjumani, the Otze Mountains in Moyo, the Kei mountain forest in Yumbe, the East Madi wildlife reserve, the Ajai game reserve in Arua, the Miriadua falls in Maracha, the Mountain Wati in Terego, the mountain Liru in Koboko and many others across the region, the lack of action to organize the communities might certainly be a bigger problem than the lack of attraction in the West Nile region.
All the above, need the contribution of the local community in terms of maintenance and cooperating with tourists (visitors) in promoting the sites.