Once a conflict zone, Uganda’s Karamoja region is now on the global map, regaining its image of a resourceful place in Uganda, and the African continent, thanks to the use of natural and cultural resources to drive social enterprise development.

Karamoja Tourism Development is improving community livelihoods, protecting nature, and preserving cultural heritage. At the core of their vision is the provision of direct employment at its accommodation facilities, developing tourism products, regional tourism marketing, and offering skilling opportunities through regional tourism and hospitality training.

Formation:

The enterprise is the creation of Theo Vos, a local involved in the Uganda tourism sector. He is the son of a Dutch father and Ugandan mother, born and raised in the northeastern Karamoja sub-region. This region, he says, has suffered from decades of civil unrest, the reason his parents decided to move to the Netherlands to raise their children.

“When the Ugandan government disarmed our people, my mother moved back to Uganda to work for the government and rebuild her region”, Vos explains.

About 6 years ago, Vos followed her, however, he was disappointed and touched to witness what he said was the negative stigma on his people, to see the unemployment and environmental destruction on one hand and the beauty of the region and living indigenous cultures on one hand.

Himself and his mother decided to start Kara-Tunga as a social enterprise to use tourism as a tool to positively impact the image of the region, create jobs, and educate and incentivize the preservation of local culture and environment.

“When we started in 2016, there was no interest in especially northeastern Uganda, there was only 1 tour operator that went through and others had given up. The only attraction worth visiting was the wildlife park. And also the only thing marketed by the country,” recalls Vos.

He continues: “But after producing videos, photos, hosting familiarization trips, and finally convincing one of Uganda’s most influential tour operators Matoke Tours to work with us, the paradigm started shifting.

Simultaneously, travel trends and tourist needs have significantly shifted from wildlife only to nature, adventure, and impactful community experiences. This has only been amplified by the pandemic.”

Vos acknowledges that one of Uganda’s best tourism products is its people. Complimented by the country being one of the few where people repeatedly visit and compliment for the genuine hospitality, perfect English speaking, and happiness of its people in East Africa. Additionally, it’s a country where people can experience rich traditional life from its cuisine to traditions and customs. From the vibrant modern city to the untouched, preserved, and rich indigenous cultures of the region.

This shift started just before the pandemic and got amplified by the effects of the pandemic and the current demand of tourists for immersive experiences with a direct positive impact on the host communities. Of course, the country recognizes that tourism is the greatest foreign currency earner and it stimulates the economy and has the potential to create many jobs along its value chain. For a country like Uganda, that’s one of the world’s youngest countries, with a fast-growing population, rapid loss of wilderness, tourism is a change-maker, says the social enterprise entrepreneur.

“You can see that my region, which has suffered from a negative stigma due to years of civil unrest, is now positively changing and fellow Ugandans are celebrating and respecting our culture now… only due to tourism… How touching is that?

“And for our people living in a semi-arid environment where climate change is threatening the traditional nomadic pastoral way of life, where agriculture is unpredictable due to changing weather patterns, migration is threatening families…. but where the landscape and culture are attracting tourists from all over the world… it can diversify incomes of the communities, reduce dependence on non-sustainable use of natural resources and create security for the communities.”

The social enterprise aims at using tourism as a tool for improving rural community resilience, creating (job) opportunities for youth, and preserving cultural heritage and biodiversity.

Currently, 30 employees and 25 tour guides are employed in operations throughout the region. Besides that, work is done with 12 organized rural community groups each with 35 members representing 2,457 family members. They have also partnered with 10 SMEs in the region.

He explained the activities of the arts and tours component of the business as Advocacy, where Kara-Tunga is chairing the regional tourism coordination platform, marketing and PR involving (from the start of the social enterprise) pro-actively investing and hosting media, reaching about 100 publications in print, television and digital media, Tour Operations to bridge the gap between the local communities and the tourists with our tour operation. Hospitality Services offers accommodation, bar, and restaurant, at the heart of the region being Moroto.

Activities:

The Kara-Tunga Safari Camp offers travellers a comfortable start of their adventure and the local community a place of reference for tourists, with product development catering to the development of tourism products to increase the attractiveness of the destination, prolong the duration of stay of the tourists, prevent over-tourism and eventually achieve our goals. Recently they embarked on tourist trails known as Warrior Nomad Trail for Authentic Cultural Experienced and Untamed Outdoor Adventures in East Africa’s less-traveled areas.

The other activities are education, which matches the demand for skilled people and the growing popularity for the destination. Karamoja Tourism Academy was therefore founded to provide skilling opportunities and meet the demand.

“We started with a feasibility study and are now evolving with the sector regionally. We began with basic and beginner courses and are rolling out now level 2 training,” Vos explains.

There are also events aimed at improving the destination’s image since it was unknown and had was negative due to the past conflict. Next, a decision was made to organize an event that could sell the destination and positively impact the image. The foundation was laid for the Tour of Karamoja together with a former Tour de France cyclist and Commentator, the late Paul Sherwen. The event has and will continue to grow and help market the region as peace and colorful destination.

Their latest initiative is the launch of our not-for-profit arm called the Kara-Tunga Foundation. The foundation will help the region to apply for opportunities to scale impact with a special focus on community-based tourism and conservation of culture and biodiversity.

The first tourist source markets that showed interest through a partnership with Matoke Tours were mainly European (Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany) and Israel in the Middle East. Post-pandemic, Vos explains, they have received interest in new markets in Europe (France and Spain) and Eastern Europe that they are investing more in.

Low-level representation is currently being experienced for the Scandinavian region.

The academy is currently part of the foundation and is very important to develop local ownership of the sector by increasing direct benefits for local communities. Courses are short and practical of a maximum of 6 months, including internship. Development of curriculum is done in partnership with UKARIMU Academy.

Training has since benefited 243 students in hospitality skills and 147 in guiding related skills. This year about 120 additional trainees will be reached.

How does the work of the organization dovetail with that of other government departments like tourism boards and ministries?

Current growth defies the many obstacles experienced in the early stages of the social enterprises, and as Vos explained, that discouraged opportunities with tour operators.

They have since made great progress, reaching out to the Uganda Ministry of Tourism and Uganda Tourism Board who are helping to promote the northern Uganda destination with knowledge and on-the-ground support. Also, the local government is embedding tourism in the districts by employing tourism

The rural tourism development programme impacts local communities with direct employment, non-formal jobs. They have also motivated and inspired local Investors and self-employed people to take studies in tourism, build tourism facilities, be proud of their culture and place, become self-employed guides, care for the environment and make an additional income as a rural community.

 The future:

Vos is of the view that the establishment of tourism activities within the Karamoja region has defined destination Uganda.

“The true beauty of the Pearl of Africa wasn’t unveiled until Karamoja was embraced as a destination.

Tourist trends have moved slowly to more sustainable and immersive experiences, but the pandemic ignited a paradigm shift and the new traveler is more conscious and wants to have a lasting positive impact,” he explains.

Karamoja as a destination can give travelers that off-the-beaten-path experience of authentic culture, untamed nature, and outdoor adventure in Uganda. Where previously you would need to travel to other countries offering the Maasai experience, Karamoja offers that, unpolished, says Vos.

Funds generated from the activities, about 75% from proceeds, go to the host communities and local service providers.

“Working as a social development enterprise in a former conflict zone has been rewarding. We see that we can make a visible difference. It was a mission that we needed to start this change and open the eyes of others to what the possibilities are of creating new opportunities where many have failed. Tourism in a sustainable way is here to stay,” he says.

Despite the success of the Karamoja region as a former conflict zone now attracting global tourists, it has not been recognised by any awards thus far.

“We have no awards, but it’s not our focus at all. In tourism, what counts is how you handle your last client or the quality of service offered. Our satisfaction comes from seeing people improving their quality of life through tourism,” says Vos.

Social development is important in Karamojong region and Africa in general for its power to propel communities from the traditional ways that change in front of their eyes. Without any other opportunities, people can be left behind.

Tourism is one of the income-generating activities that respect the culture and environment but also creates many jobs along its value chain. It is a champion in sustainable development.

Like every organization, working during the global pandemic presented a tough lesson. Vos explains that they were forced to look back and think ahead. This resulted in a high level of maturity that led to the formation of a foundation.

How does Vos see the future of community tourism development in Africa?

“It has potential to be the incubator for sustainable development respecting culture, biodiversity and create jobs. Though it must be done sustainably and respectfully. But there are many challenges like access to market, knowledge, and skills. Currently, we depend on foreign agents and tour operators. Also, things like wages and gender are important to consider and have a potential to be championed,” he concludes.

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Source: Nomad Africa Magazine