Birding, if well marketed and positioned as an important niche tourism product could earn Uganda more than what the country is earning from gorillas, its biggest tourism export, birding enthusiasts have said.
Authorities in Kampala are now hoping to use this year’s International Conference for Women Birders taking place in December as one of the several multifaceted efforts to boost numbers of foreign birders and in turn earnings.
Birding is one of Uganda’s highly prized tourism products that involves the identification and observation of wild birds in their natural habitat mostly for recreation.
While the country boasts several bird species, tourism authorities, and the private sector believe it hasn’t done much to tap into this multi-million dollar product.
Tourism sector players have now set ambitious targets that could see the country get a larger piece of cake off the globally cherished activity that sees over 80 million enthusiasts traveling to different parts of the world annually.
On average, a birder in Uganda spends between 18 to 25 days, spending $350 per day according to available data.
The country has now set a target of welcoming 100,000 birders annually by 2030, which could earn $700m and create over 3,000 direct jobs.
This will be up from the less than 10,000 birders that the country currently receives.
Before the covid-19 pandemic, tourism earned Uganda $1.6bn.
“The potential of birding is immense for the country. Other than gorillas, only culture and religion can compete with birds (in terms of revenue generation). While the gorillas are tracked for one day, birders can spend over 20 days in the country,” Mr Herbert Byaruhanga, a team leader of Bird Uganda Safari said.
Uganda boasts a recorded count of over 1,100 bird species. It is also home to 55% of all bird species in Africa and 11% of those globally, giving it an advantage over regional peers.
Annually, more than 10 million migrant birds are estimated to fly into the country mainly because of its central location, varied weather patterns, and vegetation cover.
According to Mr Stephen Asiimwe, the Chief Executive Officer of the Private Sector Foundation of Uganda (PSFU), while birding still ranks among the top five products sold by tour operators in the country, the numbers involved are still dismally low compared to the country’s potential.
“The reason for the low numbers is that we are surely not visible in the strategic source markets. In most cases it is because we do not target them for birding in our marketing,’’ Asiimwe said.
Such key source markets include the United Kingdom, the European Union, North America, and Asia.
The Uganda Tourism Board’s Senior Marketing Manager Daniel Irunga said that currently, the board is marketing birds mainly through partnerships with different players in the sector, bird clinics, and special days and international events on birds.
Birding is done mostly by specific categories of people like researchers, and enthusiasts normally in groups of about six to 12.
While the activity has experienced significant growth over the years with interest from local guides and travelers, it still lacks enough guides knowledgeable enough to handle large numbers of seasoned birders.
A big percentage of birders that come to Uganda come mainly for research but many opt out mainly because of the high charges for access, filming and documentation charged by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).
UWA Executive Director, Sam Mwanda said that they were working on making these fees more accommodative especially in virgin areas like Karamoja.
“Karamoja offers one of the best sightings of birds, many of which we have not discovered and documented. We shall continue supporting people who want to research them by allowing them into our parks,” Mwanda said.
Currently, most of Uganda’s parks have a minimum of about 300 bird species, with Queen Elizabeth National Park being the most populated.
Mwanda said that some of the challenges his authority is facing during efforts to conserve the birds are habitat loss, climate change, and several other human activities which are affecting the numbers of some species like vultures and the grey crowned crane.