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Praised by Winston Churchill for its “profusion of brilliant life”, the once shiny Pearl of Africa has tarnished its reputation as a tourism destination by passing some of the world’s harshest anti/LGBTQ+ legislation.
On May 29, a statement was released announcing Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni had passed into law a controversial bill imposing up to 20 years imprisonment for promotion of same-sex activities and the death penalty for certain same-sex acts.
In response, both the UK Foreign and Commonwealth office and US State Department have updated travel advisories, world leaders are threatening to halt aid payments and there are demands on social media for travellers to boycott the country.
“How a country treats their citizens is a firm indicator to many travellers – regardless of their sexuality – on how welcoming a country would be to those visiting as well,” says Uwern Jong, editor-in-chief of luxury travel magazine OutThere, citing recent backlashes against the World Cup in Qatar and the Sultan of Brunei’s Dorchester Collection hotels.
“Rendering Uganda an ‘absolute no go’, in an already challenging tourism landscape, will be extremely damaging to the country. I personally believe this is a death knell for Ugandan tourism.”
Given tourism accounts for 8 per cent of the GDP in Uganda and employs 7 per cent of the population, the losses could be catastrophic for both communities and wildlife conservation projects heavily dependent on revenue from foreign visitors.
At a time when countries such as the Seychelles and Angola have relaxed anti-gay laws in the past year, while Saudi Arabia has said it will welcome LGBTQ+ visitors, it feels like a big step in the wrong direction.
“Those countries that have decriminalised homosexuality are likely to have seen an increase in LGBTQ+ tourism that Uganda will not benefit from,” warns Ben Cohen, chief executive at PinkNews. “As an example, we have a longstanding boycott of selling advertising promoting tourism to Uganda or any other country where it is illegal to be LGBTQ+.”
Ali Walls, Managing Director, Far & Wild Travel, agrees many travellers will vote with their feet by choosing to holiday elsewhere in “a region rich with brilliant alternatives”.
“Gorilla tracking, incredible scenery, rhino conservation, Big Five wildlife are all possible in neighbouring Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya… The vast majority of potential visitors to Uganda will be appalled by the new laws.”
This all comes at a time when several big players in the safari scene are considering investing in Uganda: Great Plains, owned by filmmakers and photographers Dereck and Beverly Joubert, has been looking at a site in gorilla-trekking hub Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, while Volcanoes Safaris are opening a new lodge close to chimp-viewing park Kibale.
On the ground, there’s concern from both conservationists and local tour operators who describe the laws as largely political.
“The average Ugandan is more concerned with putting food on the table than to worry about the sexual orientation of others,” says Amos Wekesa, CEO and founder of Great Lakes Safaris and Uganda Lodges, who has a new lodge opening in chimp enclave Budongo Forest Reserve this year.
“Tourism is an industry that has the capacity to trickle down the value chain and have a lasting and positive effect on the population. Uganda’s tourism industry had to recover from the impact of Covid, then the ebola outbreak. Undoubtedly our national parks, wildlife and the rural communities that rely on tourists will be the worst to suffer from this.”
Although tour operators are unanimous in their condemnation of the new legislation, many have said they will continue to sell the destination for the protection and preservation of community and wildlife, recognising the laws do not reflect the views of the Ugandan public.
“Just because a country’s laws outlaw homosexuality, it doesn’t mean locals share that opinion,” says Zina Bencheikh, managing director EMEA at Intrepid, who assures local tour guides will do everything they can to make any travellers to Uganda feel safe and supported. “While the intention behind boycotts comes from a good place, they often impact the wrong people.”
Luxury tour operator Mahlatini also stresses the overall value and benefits of tourism.
“Through responsible and sustainable tourism practices, our trips actively support local economies, promote cultural exchange, and contribute to the preservation of Uganda’s rich biodiversity,” says co-founder Greg Fox.
Uwern Jong is equally positive about the power of tourism as a force for good. And even though he has no plans to feature the destination in his publication, he is open to finding ways to create a platform for LGBTQ+ Ugandans and activists.
“At OutThere, we have a ‘boundless travel’ policy as we believe in a world where LGBTQ+ people should be able to travel freely and also understand the power in the visibility and activism that LGBTQ+ travel can bring to conservative countries.”
Given the news that Ghana is drafting a similarly harsh anti-LGBTQ+ bill, there’s an even greater urgency for people to speak out.
“The travel industry can do their bit to turn the tide, not always by boycotts, but by raising awareness,” advises Jong. “We should never allow destinations and travel providers room to preach discrimination and hatred.”