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Uganda cracks down on fake tour operators

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Tour OperatorsAvi Ulman and his wife Hanah Ulman saved some money in order to visit Uganda.

So, when, early this year, they sent $19,500 (Shs 48.7m) to Ronald Kiggundu, alias Lukwago, to prepare for their visit, they had no idea they were dealing with a conman. Like many other people, they knew about Kiggundu from the internet where he marketed himself as a Ugandan tour operator.

According to the case reported to the Tourism Police on January 9, Kiggundu received the couple but as they began to enjoy the country, he abandoned them in Kibale national park. Police efforts to trace him have been futile.

“Kiggundu is a thief. He has no place from where he operates, and yet this is the fourth time we have a case against him,” says Patience Kembabazi, an investigator with the Uganda Tourism Police.

According to Kembabazi, there are many cases of people calling themselves tour guides, travel agents and tour operators, who are fleecing tourists of money, promising to offer them tour services. By the end of June, Kembabazi says, the Uganda Tourism Police had recorded 33 cases of fraud and obtaining money under false pretence from tourists.

One tourist, Polley Colley, was also abandoned at Kibale national park by Elite Guide Safaris, a company that police has failed to trace. Others have forged gorilla permits, and among them is Uganda Kob safaris and travel limited owned by Joseph Magoba. According to police records, the company has issued out fake gorilla permits amounting to $10,000 (Shs 25m).

“We have failed to trace him [Magoba]. On some email exchanges with the tourists, he says he is on Ggaba road, while he tells others that he is on Churchill road, Mutungo or Capital shoppers,” Kembabazi says.

“There are so many cases. The 33 we have so far are the ones who manage to complain. Others just give up and go back to their countries, calling Ugandans thieves,” she said.

To curb this crime, government is moving to inspect, register and license all tour operators, guides and travel agents in the country. This is in line with Article 14 of the 2008 Uganda Tourism Act, which empowers the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) to license and register tour operators. Tourists will be encouraged to deal with persons or firms with a valid trading licence issued by the Uganda Tourism Board.

“A person who contravenes this section commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding forty-eight currency points [about Shs 1 million] or imprisonment not exceeding two years or both,” the act reads in part.

According to UTB’s deputy CEO, John Ssempebwa, currently, there is no single tour operator, guide or travel agent registered and licensed by UTB. There have, however, been a few who have been paying an annual fee of Shs 50,000 to the ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities.

“The mandate of licensing and registration, which has been at the ministry, is now back in the hands of UTB,” noted Ssempebwa, while making a presentation at a sensitization workshop for tour operators at Uganda museum last week.

“The time for operating a tour company which has no location has ended. We have been getting challenges; some of you [tour operators] operate from bathrooms and toilets. You are not known,” he said.

UTB, in consultation with Uganda Tourism Association (UTA), has set up a quality assurance committee, which will inspect, register and license tour operators. The committee will also have the powers to cancel any licence of a tour operator convicted of an offence. The fees for registration have been revised from Shs 50,000 to Shs 250,000 for a tour operator, travel/tour agent or guide.

Companies that serve as both tour operators and travel agents will be required to pay Shs 500,000. According to Ssempebwa, part of this money will go into the marketing pool, from which UTB will pool resources to subsidize tour companies going abroad for tourism expos.

“Only licensed firms will participate in international expos,” Ssempebwa said.

Tour guides, according to Ssempebwa, will be subjected to an exam before they are licensed and issued with identity cards. No one will be allowed to carry tourists without an identity card. Ssempebwa says the World Bank has provided money to hire four companies that will be deployed to the four different regions of the country to clamp down on anyone found with no identity card but moving with tourists.

“Guiding is a profession. You must be trained to be a guide. A lot of people think that if they know, for example, Karamoja, they can take tourists there,” said UTA’s Chairman Herbert Byaruhanga.

The sensitisation exercise will last four months before the registering and licensing starts towards the end of the year.

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