Digital Innovation: A Missed Opportunity For Tourism’s Recovery

Before COVID-19 virus arrived in Uganda, the Tourism sector was registering a steady rise in foreign exchange from tourists. According to the Annual Tourism Sector Performance Report for Financial Year 2018/2019, revenue rose from $1.45 billion in 2017 to $1.6 billion in 2018.

Owing to this growth, in the same report, the sector accounted for 7.7 per cent of the national gross domestic product and 6.7 per cent of total national employment through creating 667,600 jobs. 

For the next financial year, the government has made a commitment to spend Shs181 billion. In light of the recent budget reading, The Tourism Manager at the Ministry of Tourism, Vivian Lyazi says that the allocation to the sector has been improving over the years but like all sectors was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and spending rationalisation.  

 “It is specifically tight with the sector that is heavily impacted by the pandemic that led to the loss of revenues, jobs and business,” Lyazi says.

Regardless of the circumstances, the Ministry is committed to ensuring travel and tourism are not halted. To ensure that the sector remains functional throughout the pandemic, the Ministry has led the sector in the development of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to guide safe practice in the sector. 

 Currently, Lyazi says the ministry is working with various partners including Uganda Tourism Board, Uganda Wildlife Authority, and Uganda Wildlife Education Education Center to promote and implement safe travel.

 To ensure sustainability of the sector all around, the ministry is building the capacity of stakeholders both in the private and public sectors in responding to the pandemic.

 Furthermore, the ministry is engaging with development partners and other government agencies to develop policies and packages that cushion the sector from the adverse effects of the pandemic. Some of these are the Value Added Tax relief for hotels outside Kampala and the affordable financing lines of credit with Uganda Development Bank.

 In all of this, technology is also at the fore-front of all the efforts towards advancement in the sector. Lyazi says technological advances have been effective in normalizing business within the tourism sector. Platforms such as Zoom have revolutionised the conference and meetings business. More advanced conference suite platforms have enabled the sector to participate in travel expenses.

 Speaking to a few players in the sector, they echo similar ideas on the opportunity tech presents for them.

 Kevin Amanya is an executive board member of the Young Ugandan Tourism Operators (YUTO). YUTO seeks to unite all budding companies in the tourism sector and to support them through their challenges. The association provides mentorship, seeks partnerships and lobbies on behalf of the young companies so as to help them reduce the operational costs of a startup. 

 Amanya says digital innovation cannot be divorced from the sector as tourism begins online.

 “From storytelling through images or surfing the web for holiday destinations, tourism today clearly stands on the shoulders of digital platforms,” Amanya says.

 One of the fastest-growing digital innovations in the tourism sector is Tubayo, an online travel marketplace for users to easily find fun trips and unique accommodation spaces in Africa.

 According to Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Brian Namanya, Tubayo currently hosts 450 operators on the platform, a base they have grown within a space of two years. Unlike other platforms that take on tourism operators who are well established in the market, Tubayo’s Founder understands that young operators starting out in the game may not always find it favourable to go through the rigorous and expensive process of legitimising their business. With Tubayo, he chose to open the market to growing tourism operators and, in a way, offer them a chance to work alongside the big fish in the game.

 “Sometimes, a native of Jinja may know their way around the Nile better than any other hire from a company. This native should be able to work and a tourist should benefit from their expertise in the area,” Namanya says.

Namanya Brian, Founder of Tubayo.

With the digital platform, a young tour operator is able to sell his “guiding” services and a tourist is able to have a diverse range of choices and experiences. On Tubayo.com, the young entrepreneurs in the tourism game do not only access customers or market their services, there are also nifty tools incorporated on the app like financial management tools. 

 Having been a player in the field for a while now, Namanya says that the difference between countries or destinations that are visited and those that are not, lies in online exposure. Digital innovation would smoothen out the process of finding information online while easing payments. All these things combined make tourism a pleasant experience and attract more revenue. 

 In his experience, traditional players are still hesitant to embrace technology because of their desire to remain exclusive. However, the reception of technology has been generally positive because of how dependable digital platforms are in coordinating tourists.

 The challenge so far in digitizing tourism has been the high internet costs and countering sceptics of digital tourism operators. The new 12 per cent excise duty slapped on data bundles accelerates the high cost of internet. Also, many people still believe they need to get on the ground, do their own research and arrange their own travels. Namanya says that the solution to this is building trust online. He also believes that government investment into digital innovation will go a long way.

 “There is no doubt about it, digital innovation is the future for the tourism industry. It will solve most of the problems plaguing the sector,” Namanya concludes.

 While Tubayo and YUTO are working towards transforming the sector, The Innovation Village is supporting the industry through its challenges.  Ventures Associate at The Innovation Village, Rahman Kasujja says that support is needed to save the sector from further regression, following the pandemic.

 In order to provide support to the industry, The Innovation Village put in place a relief program in the form of an accelerator program that would equip entrepreneurs with knowledge that would enable them to rebuild their businesses or find innovative solutions to the rising problems emanating from the pandemic.

 The accelerator program began with a six-day intensive program where the business model canvas was covered to equip the entrepreneurs with foundational knowledge that would enable them to track the growth of their businesses. This was supplemented by courses on innovation and human centered design to enable them turn their ideas into marketable innovations.

Kasujja also says a lot of young people who are operators in the tourism industry do this work as a hobby and enjoy the extra buck, so the goal of the accelerator program is to ensure that they can begin to see their hobbies as businesses that they can grow and scale.

For the sector to be transformed and to survive the setbacks coming from the pandemic, technology will be imperative in the struggle. In other parts of the world, technologies are emerging. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) says a digitalized tourism sector must innovate and generate new business opportunities for growth and sustainability of businesses. Travel must be made seamless and tourism smarter. Uganda is yet to fully adopt technologies such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence and big data in tourism. At a time when Uganda is on lockdown due to a deadly second wave of Coronavirus, innovations such as these are very key in enabling people, both local and international, to tour Uganda’s great destinations without leaving their homes. 

At The Innovation Village, the hope is that entrepreneurs such as those that undergo the on-going accelerator program will come up with innovations that can further transform the tourism industry. 

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