The much-anticipated 6th Edition of the Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo (POATE) 2021, closed last week amidst cautious hopes and optimism on recovery for an industry that employs nearly 700,000 Ugandans but has been in limbo since April 2020.
Organised by the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), the Uganda government’s tourism industry marketing agency and standards regulator, POATE is an annual Business-to-Business (B2B) and Business to Consumer (B2C) gathering that brings together Ugandan tourism players such as tour and travel agencies, hoteliers, airlines etc with mainly wholesale tourism companies (hosted buyers) from Uganda’s key markets from all over the world, for purposes of doing business.
The first POATE was held in 2014, in Kampala.
POATE 2021, was the first-ever virtual expo in the region, with all-eyes on Uganda, to see how the industry, very much used to physical exhibitions would respond to online tourism show.
The show, which ran between the 27th to 29th of April 2021 under the theme: “Restarting Tourism for Regional Economic Development”, attracted record numbers since the first POATE was held in 2014, signalling what could be a paradigm shift in expos, moving forward.
According to official statistics released by UTB, the expo attracted over 2014 participants that among others, included hosted buyers, exhibitors, local, regional, and international media, as well as individual trade visitors.
Some of the major highlights as of the closing day, include:
- 438 exhibitors — a 192% increase from 150 in 2020
- 428 Hosted Buyers— a 756% increase from the 50 recorded last year. More than 70% of the Hosted buyers are from our key and emerging markets- namely, USA, China, UK, Germany, Netherlands, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, Austria and India.
- 1,103 App downloads
- 34,414 messages exchanged.
- 5,763 photos exchanged on the platform.
- 353 meetings (253 platform meetings and 100 business to business meetings)
- 980 individual trade visitors
Speaking at the closing ceremony, at Sheraton Kampala Hotel, the Uganda Board Chairman, Mr Daudi Migereko thanked all stakeholders,who took the courage and faith, to participate in the first-ever digital POATE 2021.
“The great results from this POATE is a testimony that in the coming days, we will each have to get out of our comfort zones, venture into the sometimes unknown, to accelerate our recovery,” he said, adding: “The road to recovery will be full of the unknown. As the government and the private sector, we need to keep supporting each other all the way.”
Migereko, reiterated UTB’s commitment to consistently invest in domestic expos as well as in attending foreign expos- because, in his words, “consistency is the name of the game.”
“Yes, we will fail here and there, but we will get there. Even successful Tourism Expos like the ITB Berlin has perfected their game through consistency- since the first event was held in 1966,” he said.
Cautious sector recovery
Bradford Ochieng, the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) said that the success achieved during POATE 2021 feeds into what is by and large an improving economic and tourism environment, reinforced by increased Covid-19 vaccine uptake.
“The IMF and the Africa Development Bank have both in their revised economic outlook projected faster recovery for the world and Africa respectively. The Bank of Uganda and Uganda Bureau of Statistics too- in their April Monetary Policy statement, also reported that Uganda’s economic recovery was stronger than was projected and that overall, Uganda’s economic growth is expected to reach 4.0-4.5 per cent in FY2021/22,” Mr Ochieng said.
He also said that the United Nations World Tourism Organisations (UNWTO) in their March 2021 outlook, projected a cautious recovery from a dampened first half of 2021 and subsequent growth in the second half of 2021 in arrivals.
Locally, Ochieng said that there were signs of slow but steady recovery, underlined by improving hotel occupancy numbers and international arrivals at, especially Entebbe International Airport.
Statistics from the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities show that monthly hotel room and bed space occupancy rates are recovering from an all-time low of 1.4% and 1.3% respectively in May 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns and had reached 24.8% and 26.7% in December 2020. Industry players say that while this is still a distance from the 62.1% and 57.8% recorded in December 2019, it still is an indicator of good progress.
Figures from the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCAA) also show that monthly international arrivals at Entebbe International Airport for March 2021, picked up from virtually zero in April 2020, to reach 32,958 in March 2021. This is almost 50% of pre-Covid-19 numbers- 77,403 recorded in January 2020.
Ochieng, further said that over and above revitalizing POATE and putting in place other initiatives such as continued domestic tourism campaigns to encourage Ugandans to continue travelling their country as well as the SOPs for the safe reopening of the industry activated last year, UTB was also engaged in several other initiatives to prepare for and fast track sector recovery.
“Following delays by Covid-19 last year, we have embarked on a grading and classification exercise for our hotels, restaurants and other tourist facilities, in line with the East African Grading and Classification Criteria. This is one way to bring confidence in the services that we provide and in the long run, it will improve our competitiveness,” he said.
“UTB also recently finalized the recruitment of Market Destination Representatives (MDRs) in key source markets such as the UK and Ireland, Germany, Austria and Switzerland as well as emerging markets in the Gulf States, Japan and China. With support from The World Bank under the Competitiveness and Enterprise Development Project (CEDP) we are in the process of procuring four more MDRs— Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Kenya as one cluster; India, which is one of the biggest markets outside of UK that brought in 33,000 visitors in FY2018/19; the Benelux countries (Belgium, Luxembourg and France); as well as an MDR for our Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) segment,” he said.
Private sector lauds UTB efforts to reboot the tourism sector through POATE 2021
Speaking at the event, Peter Mwanja, the Chairman of the National Organising Committee, POATE 2021 hailed UTB for successfully organising and facilitating the private sector to attend, which he said was a stitch in time for the injured sector.
“To fully sponsor POATE 2021 at no cost to the exhibitors, at a time when the private sector is struggling to recover from the negative effects of Covid-19, is not something, we take for granted,” he said adding: “POATE 2021 has given us a platform for to engage with hosted buyers and to make collaborations.”
He however implored the private sector to continue engaging and nurturing the business relationships that they had opened, especially that UTB was paying for and keeping the virtual expo platform for the next six months.
“We need to continuously engage many times, until the deal comes through,” Mwanja, himself a MICE expert in his own right, said.
“The success of POATE 2021 indicates that this annual event continues to sail smoothly. During the expo, the most frequently used words were reboot, reconnect and recover. As POATE comes to an end, we can say without exaggeration that it has been a meeting of great reconnections and rebooting. It is the sincere hope that Uganda’s tourism sector, which was most hit by the pandemic will bounce back stronger and better. We can now start planning for POATE 2022 in great spirits,” he concluded.
Pearl Hoareau Kakooza, the President of the Uganda Tourism Association (UTA) a private sector tourism umbrella association with over 7,000 tourism professionals also commended UTB for leading the rest of the East African region to organise a virtual tourism expo.
“UTA wishes to thank Uganda Tourism Board, for working with the private sector to organise and successfully deliver the first virtual expo in East Africa. Our neighbours in Kenya, who we always like to imitate/ape, can surely learn something new from us this time,” she said.
She implored the global touring community to take a leap of faith and come to Uganda.
“Uganda is open for tourism,” she said, adding: “Our tourists should look to a different destination than they were used to. They should take a leap of faith and come and Visit Uganda, the Pearl of Africa,” she said.
Albert Kasozi, the Marketing and Product Development Manager at the Buganda Heritage Tourism Board- the Buganda Kingdom’s cultural heritage preservation and tourism development arm, said the virtual expo made it very easy to organise and attend several meetings globally, all in three days.
“I want to thank UTB for the opportunity of inviting us to the first virtual POATE 2021. I can confidently say, I was able to book more than 50 meetings in three days,” he said, adding that with the extended 6-months period on the platform, the Buganda Heritage Tourism Board would nurture these relationships into possible business deals.
“I am very happy that we have been given 6 more months to close these meetings. I am happy to hear that we have more time to continue engaging with the hosted buyers. I want to thank UTB for making this happen. It was an opportunity for us as Buganda to showcase our tourism sites to the whole world,” he told, guests at the closing dinner.
Dennis Ntege, the Director of Raft Uganda Adventures Limited, also hailed POATE 2021 for restarting the sector.
“As a tour operator and member of AUTO, this virtual tourism expo has breathed life into an industry that we were all worried about,” he also told guests at the closing dinner.
Covid-19 hangover and looming threats of foreclosures
Migereko also lauded the government’s contribution, especially that of President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, in fighting the pandemic and the recovery of the sector but said that more was needed to accelerate recovery for a sector that before Covid-19 struct, accounted for over 7.7% of Uganda’s GDP and fetched USD1.6 billion in revenues in FY2018/19. He said that while the industry has been grappling with challenges of the prohibitive cost of money, usually at interest rates of over 18-25%, in the face of Covid-19 shutdowns, this predicament had mutated into threats of foreclosures, for those who had taken the loans.
“Perhaps even more pressing is the fact that while the sector is grateful for the credit restructuring interventions, it is still very worried about foreclosures by banks because much as the whole country was in lockdown and Tourism had closed, the Banks continued computing interest on the loans. The Banks want this money paid. The plight of the industry has been brought to the attention of the Ministry of Finance and Bank of Uganda for a solution, and we are still hopeful for a clear solution,” Migereko said.
According to the Bank of Uganda and the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS), while Uganda’s economic growth in the quarter to December 2020 is estimated to have grown by 1.6 per cent, a significant improvement compared to a contraction of 6.1 per cent and 0.1 per cent, respectively in the quarters to June 2020 and September 2020, key sectors in the services industry such as education, hospitality, and tourism sectors remained depressed.