Uganda is endowed with a wide range of tourism resources, including biodiversity, varied landscapes, and cultural and religious heritage. Uganda tourism has been intricately linked to the country’s natural history, exploration, trade, and colonial history since the 19th century.
Although tourism resources in Uganda are varied, the most significant attention is currently pointed to the country’s landscape and wildlife because they’re the considerable employment, investment, and foreign exchange source.
In the financial year, 2018–2019 tourism earned Uganda’s GDP 5.6 trillion Ugandan shillings (US$1.60 billion or €1.3 billion as of Dec 2019) from 1.6 million tourists (World Bank 2019).
Compared to neighboring countries, tourism is still a developing sector for Uganda to catch up to them. According to figures from the World Travel and Tourism Council, the direct impact of tourism expenditures in Uganda amounted to 3.1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019, compared to Tanzania’s 4.8 percent, Kenya’s 5.0 percent, and Madagascar’s 5.7 percent. Nonetheless, tourism in Uganda is showing great promise for the future.
According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics1, the share of leisure tourists increased from 21 percent in 2012 to 25 percent in 2019 (from 89,000 to 126,000 tourists), and now form the largest share of tourists before Visiting Friends & Relatives and business tourists. An increase in leisure tourists may reflect the successful promotion of Uganda’s nature tourism in the intervening years and the growing recognition outside and within Uganda.
The country’s tourism potential is getting market attention, including endorsing the quality of the nature tourist adventure experience in Uganda by high-profile publications such as Lonely Planet, prominent online bloggers, and National Geographic Traveler.
Tourism has grown tremendously over the last decade with the improvement in security in the northern part of the country, and huge infrastructure investments from private and government. However, many challenges remain, including the need for government leadership to develop the sector, skills upgrading in the industry, investment in the parks and other protected areas, and a much stronger marketing effort for Ugandan tourism. Still, the sector has greatly impacted the growth of household welfare by created more jobs.
Uganda’s tourism industry created 536,600 jobs in 2019 (5.8 of total) and 321,960 jobs in 2020, sadly dropping 4 in 10 jobs in the wake of the pandemic. The wages of skilled and unskilled labor were employed due to foreign tourist demand for local goods and services, directly impacting household welfare. The value-added generated by tourists is the most general measure of the impact of foreign tourists on the Ugandan economy (World Bank, 2019.).
In the same report: In 2012 and 2019, 32 percent of leisure tourists bought tour packages countering the global trend towards more independent tourism. Satisfaction rates, i.e., very good or excellent ratings, increased strongly across most categories, most notably for “local transport” (up 43 percent from 2012 to 2019), “shopping” (up 32 percent), “restaurants” (up 29 percent) and “accommodations” (up 25 percent).
The report observed the highest overall satisfaction ratings in 2019 for “people and hospitality” (85 percent), “tours and excursions” (77 percent), and “accommodations” (76 percent). High satisfaction rates translate into a high stated likelihood of return (70 percent say a return is very likely) and an increased willingness to recommend Uganda to friends (90 percent definitely would).
Uganda’s tourism industry has made remarkable strides in the past three decades. Uganda has changed. The 15-year cycle of dictatorship and civil conflict that ended in the late 80s tangibly shattered Uganda’s economy, infrastructure, the human spirit, and every aspect. The 90s were a mending period for the whole nation, but a steady trickle of its tourism industry remained in the doldrums.
Incredible as it seems today, there was no facility to track mountain gorillas within Uganda until 1994, no white-water rafting, no realistic opportunity to get close to chimpanzees, and the likes of Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls national parks were practically void of game. And many other tourist sites that today seem well established either didn’t exist in their present form, were off-limits or unknown to travelers, or were far less accessible than they are now.
Highlights of Uganda’s Leisure Tourism
- Meeting the eyes of a mountain gorilla on the bamboo-clumped slopes of the Virungas.
- Rafting grade-five rapids on the Nile
- Following a narrow rainforest trail awhirl with the heart-stopping pant-hoot chorusing of chimpanzees
- Cruising the Kazinga Channel in the shadow of the Rwenzoris while elephants drink from the nearby shore
- Watching a prehistoric shoebill swoop down on a lungfish in the brooding reed-beds of Mabamba Swamp
- The roaring, spraying sensory overload that is standing on the tall rocks above Murchison Falls
Current Status of Uganda Tourism
Uganda today does not lack accessible travel highlights. There is the opportunity to trek within meters of one of the world’s last few hundred mountain gorillas, arguably the most exciting wildlife encounter Africa has to offer — though, observing chimps in the Kibale or Budongo runs it a damn close second.
There is the staggering recovery made by Uganda’s premier savanna reserves, where these days, one can be almost certain of encountering lions, elephants, and buffaloes. There are the Rwenzoris and Mount Elgon, where one can explore east Africa’s bizarre montane vegetation without the goal-oriented approach associated with ascents of mounts Kilimanjaro or Kenya. And there is Bujagali Falls, which is rapidly emerging as east Africa’s answer to that more southerly `adrenalin capital,’ with its white-water rafting, kayaking, and bungee jump comparable to one at Victoria Falls.
Nor does Uganda lack tourist facilities. As recently as ten years ago, international-class hotels and restaurants were all but non-existent outside the capital. Today, by contrast, practically every major attraction along the primary tourist circuit is serviced by one to four luxury lodges and/or tented camps. Five-star international hotel brands are lighting up the hospitality market in metropolitan cities like Golden Tulip, Hilton International, Marriot International, Onomo Hotels, and Radisson Blu.
Trunk roads have improved beyond recognition, as has the overall standard of local tour operators, public transport, budget accommodation, restaurants, and service in general.
The country’s natural attractions far exceed the opportunity to see mountain gorillas, lions, and the big game on the savanna plains. Somebody once said that if you planted a walking stick overnight in the soil of Uganda, it would take root before the morning dawned. And it is certainly true that of all Africa’s reasonably established safari destinations, Uganda is the most green, the most fertile — the most overwhelmingly tropical!
Ecologically, Uganda is where the eastern savanna meets the west African jungle — and it really does offer tourism visitors the best of both these fantastic worlds. In no other African destination can one see a comparable variety of primates with so little effort — not just the great apes, but also more than fifteen primate species, including the tiny, wide-eyed bushbaby and peculiar potto.
If Uganda has primate enthusiasts wandering around with imbecile grins, it will have birdwatchers doing cartwheels. Uganda is, by far, the smallest of the four African counties in which more than 1,000 bird species fly freely. It is particularly rich in western rainforest specialists — in practical terms, undoubtedly the finest birdwatching destination in Africa.
Uganda feels like a more intimate, unspoiled, and low-key safari destination than its neighboring destinations. For starters, it has no semblance of a package tourist industry: group tours seldom exceed eight in number, and even the most popular game-viewing circuits retain a relatively untrammeled atmosphere.
The country’s plethora of forested national parks and reserves remain highly accessible to independent travelers and relatively affordable to those on a limited budget, as do such off-the-beaten-track gems as the Ssese Islands, Katonga Wildlife Reserve, Sipi Falls, and Ndali-Kasenda Crater Lakes.
Uganda has changed. Thirty years after Idi Amin was booted into exile and over two decades after President Museveni took power, the country bears few apparent scars of what came before.
Today, Uganda enjoys one of the healthiest reputations of any African country regarding crime directed at tourists. The level of day-to-day hassle faced by independent travelers is negligible.
And Ugandans working within the tourist industry and the ordinary man or woman on the street genuinely across as the warmest, friendliest, and most relaxed hosts imaginable. And, progress begets progress, and unquestionably, the next few years will see a host of new and exciting tourism developments in Uganda.
Uganda’s tourist arrivals hit an all-time high in 2019 with 1,542,620 tourists from 192,755 from 2000 and suddenly dropped to 473,085 tourists in 2020 due to the pandemic. Similarly, tourist expenditure in Uganda dropped threefold in the year 2020. A total of US$1.60 billion was spent by tourists in Uganda in 2019 compared to US$ 0.44 billion spent in the year ending December
2020. COVID-19 hit Uganda tourism hard with a 72.7 percent decline in earnings.
Uganda Tourists Arrivals Trend 1983-2020. Source: Uganda Bureau of Statistics
Tourists Average Expenditure per day was US$ 111, and the Tourists’ average length of stay in Uganda was 8.7 days, according to the Tourist Expenditure and Motivation Survey 2019 1 .
Traveling Patterns for Tourists
Foreign Nationals were the highest number of tourists in Uganda, trailed by Foreign Residents and East African Residents, according to the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities 2019 report 2 .
The report shows that the most visited park was Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (36,341), followed by Kidepo Valley, Murchison Falls, and Queen Elizabeth National Parks in that order.
Tourist Attractions in Uganda
Uganda is enriched with an extraordinary measure of world-class tourism resources, despite its small size (241,551 square kilometers). The country is best known for having the world’s largest population (54 percent) of mountain gorillas. Tourists can track gorillas in two of the country’s two national parks: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP) —a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) heritage site—and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (MGNP). Three of the country’s national parks and several forest reserves also offer opportunities to track chimpanzees. In all, the country contains 24 primate species.
Uganda is also renowned for its wildlife safaris. Uganda’s national parks contain 38 carnivores and 30 antelope species. In fact, Uganda is the only country in the world that has both the Big 53 and gorillas.
Uganda’s most visited safari destinations are Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) and Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP). Still, excellent game viewing is also available in parks such as Kidepo Valley National Park (KVNP) and Lake Mburo National Park (LMNP).
In addition to wildlife, Uganda’s protected areas host the continent’s largest variety of bird species (1,082 species). This attracts birders from around the globe to BINP, QENP, KNP, MFNP, Semliki National Park (SNP), and several forest reserves.
Rwenzori Mountains National Park (RMNP) offers top-notch trekking and climbing experiences. The snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains, topped by the 5,100-meter Margherita Peak, are the highest mountain ranges in Africa and one of Uganda’s major UNESCO World Heritage sites. The volcanic Virunga Mountains and Mount Elgon also offer excellent trekking opportunities.
Other adventure activities are available in Jinja, which many consider the continent’s second-best adventure tourism destination after Victoria Falls. Activities on offer include white-water rafting, bungee jumping, jet boats, river surfing, and zip lines. Jinja is also one of two primary sources of the Nile, the world’s longest river. Lake Victoria, the world’s second-largest freshwater lake, also serves as a tourist attraction.
While nature-based tourism is the country’s primary draw, Uganda also contains some significant cultural tourism resources. Many leisure tourists visit local communities offering experiences such as village tours, cultural dance performances, cultural hikes, craft demonstrations, etc. The Kasubi Tombs, burial grounds for four Buganda Kings, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Another noteworthy cultural site is the Karamoja.
Primate Viewing Adventures
Primate viewing adventures are the biggest tourist attractions in Uganda, with most tourists adventuring into the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park’s mist jungles to trek the mountain gorillas. With over 19 primate species and a good number of human-habituated primate troops in their natural habitats, Uganda offers the best primate viewing adventures on the continent and an excellent sustainable tourism program.
With the largest human populations surrounding national reserves, Uganda tourism directly benefits the local communities, creating a healthy relationship between wildlife and human settlement. Additionally, sustainable tourism programs are greatly supported by the government collaborating with local and international organizations.
Other primates of much interest to tourists in Uganda include the golden monkey, de brazza’s monkey, black and white colobus monkey, red colobus monkey, potto, bushbaby, grey-checked mangabey, l’hoest’s monkey, red-tailed monkey, vervet monkey, patas monkey, baboon, and blue monkey.
Top primate destinations include Mgahinga National Park (mountain gorillas, golden monkeys, Batwa cultural encounters, and Volcano hiking), Kibale National Park (Chimpanzees & other 11 primates), Budongo Forest, Semuliki, and Kyambura Gorge (Chimps).
Birds and Game Viewing
Though lucking in the abundant wild game compared to Kenya and Tanzania, Uganda has a varied number of wildlife species that provide for a memorable wildlife viewing experience. Complimented by a low number of tourists, Uganda’s game viewing attractions offer a more private safari experience. That’s why many prefer Uganda.
The African bush elephant, lion, leopard, and Cape buffalo are some of the most sought-after animals on Uganda safaris. Furthermore, there are 142 reptile species, 501 fish species, 86 amphibian species, 345 mammal species, 1,242 butterfly species, and 1,020 bird species in Uganda.
Tourists can view all of the Big Five in Uganda’s savannah parks. Lion is quite common in Queen Elizabeth, Murchison Falls, and Kidepo national parks, where they can often hunt Uganda kob.
Boat Safaris and Water Sports
With its prime location in the African Great Lakes region, Uganda has a variety of water bodies that are popular spots for tourism. White water rafting and kayaking are popular activities on the rapids near the source of the Nile at Jinja.
Boating is commonly Lake Victoria, Lake Mburo, and Lake Bunyonyi. Boat launch safaris bring tourists the closest to wildlife and rare birds on Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park and Victoria Nile River in Murchison Falls National Park. The boat safari is a perfect way to adventure close to buffaloes, hippos, crocodiles, the rare shoebill, and a wide variety of bird species that inhabit the banks.
Sportfishing is another favorite Uganda tourist activity. Fish like the Nile perch and tilapia can be caught in designated areas of Lake Mburo and the banks of the Nile. The best canoeing adventures are on Lake Bunyonyi and Lake Mutanda in southwestern Uganda, close to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Hiking and Mountain Climbing
Uganda tourism offers a great many opportunities for mountain climbing, hiking, and nature walk. The Rwenzori Mountains summits, stretching on the western border with DR Congo, feature the 16,795-feet (5,119-meter) Margherita Peak, a climber’s favorite and highest summit of the Ruwenzori Range in East Africa and the third highest in Africa (after Mounts Kilimanjaro and Kenya). Rwenzoris also features Mount Speke (16,043 ft), Mount Baker (15,892 ft), Mount Baker (15,892 ft), and Mount Emin (15,741 ft).
The Ruwenzori Mountains are a favorite Uganda tourism attraction for nature hikers because of their vegetation, ranging from tropical rainforest through alpine meadows to snow. The range supports its own species and varieties of giant groundsel and giant lobelia and even has a 6 meters (20 feet) tall heather covered in moss that lives on one of its peaks. Most of the range is now a World Heritage Site. It is surrounded jointly by Rwenzori Mountains National Park in southwestern Uganda and the Virunga National Park in the eastern Congo.
Tourists head to Uganda’s southwestern corner into the Virunga Mountains guarded by Mgahinga Gorilla National Park for moderate hiking. The park encompasses three peaks, Mount Gahinga (11,398 ft), Mount Sabyinyo (12,037 ft), and Mount Muhavura (13,540 ft).
Mount Elgon on the eastern border (shared with Kenya) is another hiking and climbing attraction. It also has one of the largest calderas in the world.
Religious tourism is a relatively new phenomenon in Uganda despite the existence of traditional religions and the introduction of foreign religions about 140 years ago. In the last three decades, religious tourism has gained recognition from various actors, including the government.
Religion and religious institutions are recognized in several national legal, planning, and regulatory frameworks. For instance, Uganda’s 1995 Constitution (Chapter 2, Section 29, Sub-section C) provides for freedom of worship which allows the establishment of worship centers in any part of the country. Therefore, religious tourism in Uganda is highly respected and protected in law and practice.
99.8% of Uganda’s population subscribing to some form of religion (39.3% Catholic, 32% Anglican, 13.7% Muslim, 11.1% Pentecostal, 1.5% Seventh-Day Adventist, 0.1% Orthodox, 0.1% traditional believer and 0.2% non-believer) (UBOS, 2016), religious tourism potential has remained largely unexploited.
Uganda Martyrs Catholic Shrine Namugongo, where 22 Catholic martyrs were killed between 1885 and 1886, is the most prominent religious attraction for martyrdom and pilgrimages. Other religious tourism sites in Uganda include Anglican Martyrs Shrine Namugongo, Munyonyo Martyrs Shrine, St. Mary’s Rubaga Cathedral, St. Paul Namirembe Cathedral, Kibuli Mosque, Old Kampala National Mosque, Kigungu landing site, Baha’i Temple, Bishop Hannington site, and Paimol site in Agago District.
- 1MTWA: Statistical and Economic Analysis of Uganda’s Tourism Expenditure and Motivation Survey 2019 (pdf)
- 2Ministry of Tourism & Wildlife Antiquities: Tourist Arrivals Report, 2020 (pdf)
- World Bank: Statistical and Economic Analysis of Uganda’s Tourism Expenditure and Motivation Survey 2019 (PDF)
- Ministry of Tourism & Wildlife Antiquities: Analytical Report on Visitation To Uganda’s National Parks in CY2020 and CY2021(pdf)
- Ministry of Tourism & Wildlife Antiquities: General Statistics
- Ayorekire, Jim & Obua, Joseph & Mugizi, Francis & Byaruhanga, Bruce. (2020). Opportunities and Challenges of Religious Tourism Development in Uganda: Policy, Planning, and Institutional Perspectives. International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage. 8. 144-158. 10.21427/v3jj-zg88.
- 2017 World Bank & UK’s Economic and statistical anaysis of Torusim in Uganda