Uganda can Benefit from Growing Chinese Tourists Market into East Africa – Sandra Rwese

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Located in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Kasenyi Safari Camp has a range of activities for its guests. In addition to the usual game drive and a trip to the Kazinga Channel, the lodge owners offer what they call a “bush breakfast”, a meal served in the wilderness with wild animals within hearing distance.

Great Lakes Safaris in the same game park, offers a hot air balloon safari. This is not just a new way to experience the parks, but also avenues to attract different crowds to Uganda’s tourism landscape. This has been one of the questions that Sandra Rwese, an expert in Chinese tourism, has tried to answer for many companies: How do you attract a different crowd? In her case, the Chinese tourist.

Uganda’s history as a former protectorate is spotted with many tales of safaris by governors and administrators taking a break to see the country, watch some wildlife and sometimes – in the case of the earlier explorers – even name a lake, river or mountain in honour of their people. Through the years, the primary target market for the country’s tourism industry has not changed much. There are therefore continually more visitors coming from the West than from the East.

Joseph Cui, a Chinese tour operative in Uganda, estimates that for the 69,000 tourists that arrived in neighbouring Kenya in 2016, Uganda received only 100 in the same period. “There are many Chinese coming to Uganda, but they are not coming for tourism,” he says.

And yet, there is a lot more to see in Uganda than in the more popular neighbouring tourist destination, Kenya. The country boasts the largest population of mountain gorillas in the world, up to 60% of the bird species found in Africa, chimpanzees, the Big Five, the source of the river Nile, breathtaking waterfalls and rapids, rare butterflies, hot springs and an incredible mix of flora and fauna.

Also Read: Gorilla’s In Our Midst

Uganda has not done much to attract the Chinese tourist, though. “The tourism fraternity needs to understand even the simplest things like sending itineraries in four minutes (not four days), using prestige and social status to compose web content, or even hiring Chinese-speaking tour guides from Uganda,” Sandra says. She has spent most of her time since she returned to Uganda in 2014 helping businesses understand the digital marketing and cross-cultural nuances that will help them be more China-friendly.

Sandra stayed in mainland China and Hong Kong for almost two years. She speaks Mandarin and loves to travel throughout Asia. She is the Director of consulting company, Gulu and Hirst.

For the entertainment and tour operators she works with, Sandra helps them understand the Chinese market. “It is not built the same way as the West. These are not mzungus.” The tour agents in Uganda are accustomed to travelers from the West, can anticipate their needs and are able to (almost) market adequately to them. The Chinese market, however, they do not understand. And that lack of understanding – if figures are anything to show – is reflected on the consumer side as well. The Chinese tourist does not understand Uganda’s tourism industry either, and is therefore, unable to engage as well.

To effectively market Uganda, leisure and tour operators need to do more than offer a Mandarin translation of their websites; they need to also learn the different channels of communication for this target audience.
Following the censorship in China, many of the usual social media sites are banned. Facebook, Snapchat, Pinterest, Google are all unavailable and therefore an inefficient way to advertise to the Chinese tourist. In their place, the tour agent needs to invest in QQ, WeChat, Sina Weibo, and Baidu (the search engine) for digital advertising.

And yet, there is a lot more to see in Uganda than in the more popular neighbouring tourist destination, Kenya. The country boasts the largest population of mountain gorillas in the world, up to 60% of the bird species found in Africa, chimpanzees, the Big Five, the source of the river Nile, breathtaking waterfalls and rapids, rare butterflies, hot springs and an incredible mix of flora and fauna.

Once these are understood, the Chinese tourist is like low-hanging fruit. According to the Hurun Report, The Chinese Luxury Traveler 2016, there are fewer tourists to Japan, which was one of the favourable destinations and more Chinese are travelling further to the US, the Pacific Islands and Oceania, Africa and the Middle East. There is 179% more interest in Africa as a tour destination.

However, because the Chinese tourist has twice the money to spend and has been to all the usual places, multiple times – including some unusual places like the North and South poles – it becomes difficult to market to them.

“What luxury does Uganda have?” Sandra asks. There are few high-end hotels in Uganda and they are certainly not comparable to those in Paris, a favourite destination. In addition, Joseph Cui says, even the few places to stay will have issues like no running hot water, no power outlets for charging and no – or really terrible – wireless.
With such poor infrastructure, it is easy for this tourist to miss all the beauty and warmth of Uganda. And there is plenty of it.

Sandra emphasises the availability of adventure tourism in Uganda, often poorly marketed, that could be of much interest to this group. “We don’t have the five star hotels; but we have the five course white water rafting. We have horse riding, zip lining and bungee jumping on the Nile River,” she points out.

The idea is to attract a tourist who has already done the game drives in Kenya, Botswana and South Africa – multiple times. There are only so many times one will endure multiple-plane trips to see a lion. Even when the tourists have money to spend.

The two Chinese tourism experts, Joseph and Sandra, are however very optimistic and certain that they can let the people “find the place called Uganda.” But, we have to be very careful, they warn.

China has a population of over 1.3 billion. Naturally, a substantial number of these are unable to travel, but those who can are still too many for Uganda. “We cannot accommodate them,” Joseph says. And even if the country was able to – and it most certainly cannot – there is the question of managing them. “They have been engaged in all kinds of scandals, so you have to manage them,” Sandra advises.

In many of the countries they have visited, the Chinese have been involved in poaching scandals. In some African countries like Namibia, where an increase in rhino poaching has specifically been blamed on the increase in Chinese population in the country, the Chinese Government has had to commit to working with the African governments to curb the issue. Namibia has a population of about 100,000 Chinese.

But Uganda is yet to figure out how to let the Chinese know about “this place called Uganda” and for those who do know about it and are in-country for business, about the various tourist offerings around them. As more Chinese visit Kenya, can Uganda restrategise to benefit from the growing numbers of outbound tourists, specifically millennials in the 16–26 age group?

 

This special feature article was written by: Rebecca Rwakabukoza

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