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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Thoughts about Vacationing in Uganda

Uganda, the pearl of Africa, tropical beauty, open-faced friendliness, relative stability, fantastic scenery and spectacular wildlife.  And we actually live here.  So why vacation anywhere else?  As we get ready for a visit from my mom in August, I’m trying to make reservations for a few days of in-country travel, and it has been an eye-opening experience.  We are not the only ones who have noticed that this is a great country.  There has been a subtle but steady growth and shift in the tourist industry that I’m realizing is not all for the best.  Like the rest of the world, vacations in Uganda are polarizing between the very cheap and the outrageously expensive, with nothing in between.  We are looking for privacy and beauty, and those two things are becoming almost unreachable. The very cheap:  backpacker hostels and campgrounds, or local lodges, frequented by Europeans, Americans, and Australians between 18 and 30 years of age, people who want to feel like they are really roughing it.  A few roaches, loud music, an active bar and internet connection, rarely-cleaned communal bathrooms, add to the sense of adventure.  Entire truck-loads of tourists can pull in and pitch camp within the hour.  These places are not all bad, but since we LIVE with roaches, noisy neighbors, mud and grime . . . We really look for a little peace and solitude on vacation, a little order and soothing visual peace.   But the privacy and beauty have been bought out by an increasing number of very small, very exclusive, very expensive luxury lodges.  These places are not owned by Ugandans.  They usually have only a dozen (or less) cottages or tents, with private porches, amazing views, perfect plumbing, tasteful décor, and good food.  The owners charge rates that exceed, FOR ONE PERSON STAYING ONE NIGHT, the ANNUAL INCOME of a typical Ugandan.  I think this is because their volume is low, and the absent owners themselves are living in relatively expensive places, so their profit margin has to be through the roof.  One place I contacted recently had increased from $96 per room in 2003 to $420 PER PERSON PER NIGHT in 2008.  Booming economies in the west, more mature travelers (more of the 35 to 70 crowd), writing off expenses to NGO’s or corporations?  I’m not sure, but it seems that there are new venues every month, usually on land contiguous with a national park, or overlooking scenery of great interest.  Does Uganda benefit?  Yes, but is the ratio just?  Not sure. So where does that leave us?  Two choices.  One is camping in the national parks:  the beauty and solitude are there, but it is a LOT of work (bring your own everything), occasionally frightening, and so not always restful.  So we’re glad for the second option, the Kingfisher Lodges.  These two small resorts are built in a simple but lovely style, have a pool, the food is fair, and the price is reasonable. They are income-generating projects of a former missionary technical school teacher turned entrepreneur, who thus far has kept his rates within reason.   We are grateful.  One is a five to six hour drive from here, and the other is about 9 to 10 hours.  They are frequented by Ugandans too, which means there is a market for family-friendly medium-range, clean, simple, beautiful lodges, if any more entrepreneurs are out there.

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