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KAMPALA, UGANDA- The Lonely Planet, an internationally respected travel magazine last year voted Uganda the world's top tourist destination for 2012.
The reason it gave was the voting of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park as Africa's number one birding site over South Africa's Kruger National Park and Cape Town's ocean shores early last year by the African Bird Club.
Murchision Falls National Park became ninth among the top 10 birding sites in the continent.
On top of that, the Virunga volcanoes found in the Western part of the country were voted number one out of 20 places people should visit in 2012 in the National Geographical Traveler Magazine.
Uganda has continued to acquire mileage from the National Geographic Society, one of the largest non- profit scientific and educational institutions in the world, like in November last year when it voted the Ishasha tree climbing lion the best picture for 2011, Mount Rwenzori among the 15 hiking places and Kampala the safest city in Africa.
Now, with the international rankings, Uganda is anticipating an influx of foreign tourists in the range of 1.2 million to 1.5 million tourists this year alone.
Many tour operators are hoping to reap from the surge in numbers with the only worry coming from whether Uganda can afford to host the large numbers.
According to Ms Kelley Mac Tavish, the executive director of Pearl of Africa Tours and Travel, one of the largest tour operating firms, Uganda has a lot to do towards infrastructure development, if the country wants to satisfy its visitors.
"I think we're not ready. We have not done enough. When you look at Entebbe airport, it's still struggling to handle just about 650,000 visitors. What about when the number doubles. The accommodation both in parks and in Kampala is not enough," stressed Mac Tavish while acknowledging the efforts done by private individuals to market Uganda's tourism.
Uganda's tourism sector has been growing over the years following stagnation in the early 1970s to late 1980s. The country, which was the top tourist destination in East African in the 1960s, lost its glory to Kenya due to the many civil wars it had.
The revamping of the sector which started in the early 1990s hit another snag in 1999 when about eight British tourists were killed in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park by suspected Rwandan rebels believed to have come from the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Its revival has been ongoing since and this has seen a tremendous growth with Uganda now targeting about 1.5 milli n tourists this year.
The country has of recent been struggling to improve on the capacity and capabilities of its hotel staff standards. It has also put in place a tourism police force, purposely to guard and protect tourists as well as embarking on vigorous training of tour guides.
A number of hotels have been constructed since Uganda hosted the Common Wealth Heads of Government meeting in November 2007.
The tour operators have also boosted their capacity by purchasing a number of tour vehicles.
Mr. Joshua Rukundo, the reservations manager at Bunyonyi Safaris, another tour operating firm in Uganda, thinks the country can manage to handle the 1.5 million tourists because a number of investors have invested heavily in areas that used to pose a big challenge.
"We used to face huge challenges in accommodation but that is dying out. Many lodges and hotels have been constructed both in towns near parks or in the parks," said Rukundo. "I think they can provide the needed accommodation. The accommodation challenge is only faced in Kidepo National Park where there is only one modern lodge."
Mac Tavish believes that with Uganda major towns having only 4000 hirable beds available in a day, multiplied by 365 days in a year, it shows that Uganda still has a deficit in accommodation to handle 1.5 million tourists.
"Simple mathematics shows a deficit of 40,000 beds if 4000 tourists are visiting Uganda daily," she notes adding the government should put more effort on marketing as the private sector struggles to improve accommodation.
Mr. Ignie Igunduura, the manager public affairs, Civil Aviation Authority is confident that Entebbe Airport can handle the 1.5 million expected visitors this year. "Our designed haulage visitor capacity is 2 million per year.
The 1.5 million visitors are clearly within our mandate to handle," explains Igunduura adding that the airport is considering capacity upgrading through the Civil Aviation Authority development master plan.
Mr. Gerald Kiwewa of African Tourism Research Academy says that handling such a huge number of visitors is not easy with Uganda Wildlife Authority allowing only 88 people to track Gorillas in a day and only 12 people daily are allowed to trek for Chimpanzees in Kibale National Park.
"It shows that only 32,120 visitors of the 1.5 million can track Gorillas yet most of the international visitors are interested in gorilla tracking. This is a challenge if we're receiving low budget and middle income tourists," adds Kiwewa.
He also noted the recent fires that burnt down accommodation sites in some national parks as another challenge to hosting mass tourists this year.
"A visitor to come has to book a hotel.
If there is no reservation for him or her, this person cannot come. Inadequate accommodation can as well be a challenge," he adds.
He was however optimistic that if such huge numbers are to come, in the spirit of the East African Community, Uganda neighbors like Rwanda, Dr. Congo and Kenya can as well benefit from the influx.
The East African Business Week.
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