By Babra A. Vanhelleputte
I have served as the Board Chair for the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) for about four years now. During this time, I have seen the association grow exponentially, not only its membership numbers but its contribution to Uganda’s tourism industry. AUTO is Uganda’s leading tourism trade association representing the interests of the country’s most trusted tour companies.
With over 23 years since its inception in 1995, AUTO today stands at the helm of the tourism private sector providing an avenue through which tour operators can voice their concerns, while concurrently supporting government in tourism development. Key among the things we strive to do as an association, has been the establishment of support systems, a fine and clear structure, the launch of our strategic plan, and having a secretariat comprised of dedicated staff members. These four factors have, and will, continue to guide the association’s path forward.
In addition, our corporate governance practices, the development of a board charter, consistently organizing annual general meetings, and clear Building Capacity and Professional Collaborations: Association of Uganda Tour Operators Photo credit: Uganda Tourism Board accountability have continued to present AUTO as the fastest developing association in Uganda. In general, tourism in Uganda has also continued to grow with the increase in tourist arrivals, attraction of more investors, engaging a more vibrant private sector, and increased tourism revenue.
But, this has also presented several demands such as the need to improve on the quality of service delivery in the sector. Therefore, AUTO has prioritized supporting members through capacity-building trainings, and programs. We have conducted trainings on itinerary planning and costing, winning techniques for travel expos, digital marketing, first aid, corporate communication, and much more. These programs complement on the job, and classroom learning for the benefit of the industry.
AUTO has also continued to offer its members the opportunity of collaborating on joint promotions, which normally come with discounted rates, and benefit the entire sector with Destination Uganda being promoted in single foil. Yet, our initiative to create an enabling environment for our members to carry out business has been the closest to tangible. This has involved signing Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with different agencies like the Uganda Wildlife Authority and Uganda Tourism Board, through which AUTO members have positively and directly seen an impact.
For example, only AUTO members have the opportunity of purchasing discounted gorilla permits, and they are given preferential treatment when selecting participants for trade shows. We have also signed an MoU with World Travel Market Africa to get better exhibition rates for our members. Lobbying for incentives and tax exemptions has been an ongoing agenda item, but the direct engagements with banks, insurance companies, credit bureaus, and fuel companies have resulted in better rates for the members eventuating in a relatively better business environment.
Together, with the Presidential Investors’ Round Table (PIRT), AUTO managed to lobby for a reduction in the tourist visa fee from US$ 100 to the current US$ 50. In the same accord, we were able to push the government to reconsider refurbishing the tourism training institutes, which the ministry of tourism is currently enhancing as a key priority area. We have lobbied for the creation of a proper statistics collection unit at the ministry of tourism to capture accurate tourist statistics, so that we can measure our growth, and identify trends. Through our negotiations, we continue to advocate for a gender-balanced sector with commitment to equal opportunities to employees of all sexes. This gender-balanced model is in line with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the UN member states. We are currently in the advanced stages of creating a members’ bonding scheme, which will provide basic insurance coverage for the members and resultantly improve bargaining power when engaging with international buyers, and travel agents.
Knowing that our members’ businesses anchor on a well-conserved environment, we continue to work closely with the Uganda Wildlife Authority in advocating for conservation through different events, and through our communications channels.
Conclusively, there are exogenous challenges that still face the tourism sector, like negative travel advisories, seasonal political disruption, as well as sector-internal challenges like the unregulated tourism industry, inadequate marketing, poaching, human-wildlife conflicts, and negative media publicity, among others. Yet, generally, the tourism sector in Uganda continues to exhibit the potential to make even greater strides as an even greater foreign exchange earner, and a larger provider of employment.
Babra A. Vanhelleputte, is Board Chair, Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO), Founder, Asyanut Safaris and Incentives