Birds or gorillas – the future for Uganda ecotourism

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Is Uganda tourism missing out by concentrating too much on its gorillas? (photo credit: jnissa)

There’s a bit of a debate growing in Uganda over which brings in more money birdwatching or gorilla watching. Nature Uganda, the country’s natural history society, has released figures that claim that birdwatchers contribute more to the tourism industry than gorilla watching.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority though disputes that claim but does say that birdwatching is the fastest growing part of the country’s wildlife tourism industry.

Achilles Byaruhanga, executive director at Nature Uganda, has said that figures from 2008 show that less than 2,000 birders spent $6 million compared to $3.3 million that gorilla visitors spent. The big difference is down to birders spending much more time in the country than the average gorillas watcher.

Birders will regularly stay 14 days in Uganda which has an incredible range of habitats and bird species while the average gorillas watcher spends just 3 days in the country – often flying into the country to just take part in a one day gorilla trek before flying out again.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) though have questioned the value of the figures that Nature Uganda has released. The UWA is dependant on park fees from gorillas for 50% of its income and it does not benefit to the same degree from birdwatchers who do not need to pay the same levels of fees – or even visit national parks to see a lot of the birds the country offers.

Byaruhanga thinks that just taking into account park fees in not the correct way to determine just how valuable a type of ecotourism is but the whole range of income streams should be considered. Hotel fees, guide payments, transport charges should all be considered when deciding on the value of one section of the industry.

Many tourist operators in Uganda agree with Nature Uganda and question why so much money is spent on marketing the gorilla experience when much more value could be added when promoting the birdwatching experiences that can be gained from visiting the country.

Uganda is regularly named as one of the best places in the world for birdwatching, it has 50% of the species that can be found in Africa and 11% of global species. The range of habitats means that birders can experience a wide variety of birds from the water fowl of Lake Victoria to forest species of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Many, including Byaruhanga, would like to see more resources put on marketing Uganda as a birding destination. Over 10 million birders travel the world each year to pursue their hobby. Byaruhanga says that if Uganda could tap into just 1% of this market each year then Ugandan tourism providers could see a boost of $4 billion a year.

Uganda is certainly a wonderful country to visit and is still relatively undeveloped as a tourist destination so you can still get a good feel for being on a wild safari when compared with more highly developed tourist nations. Visiting one of the national parks in Uganda can still give you the sense of space, adventure and isolation that is lost in many other African countries. In 2010 the 10 national parks of Uganda saw total visitors of only just over 189,000.

Currently most of the wildlife tourists to Uganda come to see the mountain gorillas but don’t stay longer than a couple of days to enjoy the wealth of wildlife that the country has to offer. The biggest problem though with concentrating on the gorilla market is that there is a maximum number of people who can take advantage of viewing the gorillas at any one time.

Many of the visitors that do visit the gorillas tend to fly in on an add-on package as part of a large safari holiday based in more established countries such as Kenya so Ugandan tourist providers see little of the benefits.

Those arguing for more marketing to birders highlight that there is no effective maximum number of tourists that can be accommodated for at any one time.

External sites:

The Observer: Birds or Gorillas.

Tourism Uganda Birdwatching.