Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

How Uganda emerged from chaos to become a tourist destination once more

By Joe Yogerst for CNN
updated 11:58 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Once the place for a safari, Uganda fell victim to violence and political turmoil. It has now rid itself of warlords and experienced an economic revival. The recovery is visible at Aero Beach Club, one of several popular weekend hangouts that sprawl along Entebbe's lakeshore. Once the place for a safari, Uganda fell victim to violence and political turmoil. It has now rid itself of warlords and experienced an economic revival. The recovery is visible at Aero Beach Club, one of several popular weekend hangouts that sprawl along Entebbe's lakeshore.
HIDE CAPTION
Uganda returns from the abyss
Return of Dr Gladys
Gorilla growth
Idi Amin's torture chamber
Guide at the torture chamber
Lion tracking
Tree-climbing lions
Beach Boeing
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • After four decades of violence and political turmoil, Uganda is drawing tourists again
  • Queen Elizabeth National Park nurtures healthy populations of elephant, lion, hippo and other large mammals
  • Travel infrastructure and investment in Uganda have improved

(CNN) -- Fifty years ago Uganda was the "Pearl of Africa," a newly independent republic with a thriving economy, a functioning democracy and splendid national parks.

It was the place to take a safari holiday -- floating down the crocodile-flanked Nile, fishing on Lake Victoria, wandering among the elephant herds of Queen Elizabeth National Park or listening to the roar of mighty Murchison Falls.

With films like "African Queen" shot on location there, Uganda was also a Hollywood darling.

Then all hell broke loose.

Four decades of violence, political turmoil and economic collapse that started with the bloodthirsty reign of Idi Amin (the self-proclaimed President for Life, Conqueror of the British Empire and Last King of Scotland) and ended with the religious psychopath Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army.

And it wasn't just the people who suffered: Uganda's animal populations declined precipitously during the troubles as the various ragtag guerrilla groups feasted on wild game.

Yet Uganda is bouncing back.

MORE: 25 of Africa's best beaches

Having banished the last of the warlords and kick started its economy, the country is drawing tourists again, a rising star in the safari world.

It's a trickle at present -- the high-end travelers and backpackers who are always the early adopters -- and there are very real concerns about the country's recently imposed anti-gay laws, which threaten life imprisonment for "violators."

But safari operators say they're already gearing up for more visitors in years to come.

According to the tourist board, almost 1.2 million tourists came to Uganda last year [2013], an increase of 50% over five years.

Idi Amin\'s former torture chamber is now a tourist attraction.
Idi Amin's former torture chamber is now a tourist attraction.

"Uganda sadly underwent much turmoil and upheaval from the 1970s onwards," says Roni Madhvani, director of the Madhvani Group, which includes Premier Safaris and several of the nation's top wildlife lodges.

Expelled from the country as a child during Idi Amin's purge of Asian-Ugandans, Madhvani and his family had to rebuild their business from the ground up when they returned in the 1980s.

"We have had peace and stability for over a decade and the country has indeed emerged from this past void in terms of tourism to become an interesting and discerning destination.

"The offering compared to the neighboring countries is unique, individual and nebulous -- and that in itself is perhaps part of the explanation of the recent increasing interest."

MORE: Kombis reincarnated as tour buses in Uganda

Incredible variety

What Uganda lacks in volume (it's about the same size as Oregon or Cambodia) it more than makes up with variety, an incredible array of landscapes that range from the snowcapped Mountains of the Moon and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to the semi-desert northeast and water-spangled lake district.

With more than 1.6 million people, Kampala is one of the fastest growing cities on the continent.

Nearby Entebbe, set on a peninsula stretching into Lake Victoria, is about as laid back as it gets in Africa.

Despite 40 years as a food source for rebel groups, Uganda's wildlife has made a miraculous recovery.

Queen Elizabeth National Park nurtures healthy populations of elephant, lion, hippo and other large mammals, and is a major stop on the migratory bird route up the Great Rift Valley.

Home to 13 different primate species, Kibale National Park is one of the best places in Africa to see chimpanzees in the wild.

Murchison Falls National Park is flush with hippo, crocodile and other animals that live in or near the water.

Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka has spearheaded a movement to save Uganda\'s mountain gorillas.
Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka has spearheaded a movement to save Uganda's mountain gorillas.

The holy grail of Uganda wildlife watching is Bwindi Forest, where roughly half of the world's mountain gorillas reside.

Living up to its "impenetrable" tag, the forest can only be accessed on foot, often up and over steep mountain ranges.

"Bwindi's gorilla population is around 400 and growing," says Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, founder of Conservation Through Public Health, which promotes the coexistence of gorillas, humans and other wildlife in Africa.

"This is thanks to increased protection, the elimination of almost all poaching and the fact that we have been able to show local communities how saving the gorillas is beneficial to local health and the local economy."

MORE: Africa's 10 best safari parks

Get intimate with gorillas

Premier Safaris and other outfitters have pioneered a number of "up close and personal" animal encounters during which visitors can tag along on scientific field trips or accompany experts into the bush.

Dr Gladys, for instance, leads a four-day "intimate gorilla experience" that includes finding gorilla nests, collecting their dung and then analyzing that dung in a field laboratory.

In Queen Elizabeth National Park, tourists can spend the day tracking lions with a researcher from the Uganda Carnivore Program, learning how telemetry works and venturing off road into parts of the park vehicles are normally verboten.

Urban Uganda has its own attractions.

Entebbe is renowned for its popular weekend beach clubs, like a little slice of the Caribbean on the shores of Lake Victoria.

Kampala's sights range from the recently rebuilt royal tombs to a humungous mosque built by Libyan strongman Moammer Gadhafi and the ghoulish torture chamber of Idi Amin on the grounds of Lubiri Palace.

The capital is also known for its vibrant nightlife, which runs a gamut from down and dirty dance clubs to sophisticated jazz venues.

Uganda has also become an adventure sports hub.

Several outfitters offer whitewater rafting and kayaking trips down the Nile, past snoozing crocodiles and snorting hippos.

Nile High Bungee in Jinja offers an adrenalin-packed plunge (44 meters) into the world's longest river.

You can also board surf down rapids, whoosh down rivers on jetboats and organize sports fishing trips to catch the river monster of central Africa -- Nile perch that can grow up to 200 kilograms.

MORE: Gorilla trekking in Uganda

Investment opportunities

Beach resorts are a sign of Uganda\'s return to normality.
Beach resorts are a sign of Uganda's return to normality.

Investment in Uganda has soared in recent years.

Last year, the country rose into the ranks of the top 10 African nations for foreign direct investment.

South Africa is one of the largest sources of new investment. Britain, France and China are other leading investors, and through its recent purchase of Protea Hotels, the US-based Marriott Corp now has prime hotel properties in Kampala and Entebbe.

Travel infrastructure has also improved markedly.

As late as 2006, there were no international airlines serving Entebbe Airport, the nation's aviation gateway. Now the lakeside terminal hosts 17 international carriers, including direct flights from Amsterdam on KLM, London on British Airways and Dubai on Emirates Air.

Passenger traffic through Entebbe is increasing at an average of more than 10% per annum.

Uganda isn't quite back to being the "Pearl of Africa" but it's definitely headed in the right direction.

"Uganda lost a whole generation of tourism talent and workers during the civil wars," says Stephen Asiimwe, who took over a CEO of Tourism Uganda earlier this year [2014].

"That mayhem cost us everything in terms of human capital. But we are a resilient people. We have suffered and we are now back on our feet."

Asiimwe feels the public and private sectors need to join forces in developing skilled workers in the tourism sector.

And he says that Uganda needs to think outside the box when it comes to creating new experiences and attractions.

Among his ideas are island resorts and sailing regattas on Lake Victoria, encouraging domestic tourism so that Ugandans discover their own country, and promoting Kampala with its myriad music clubs as the nightlife capital of East Africa.

MORE: 9 ways to travel Africa in style

Queen Elizabeth National Park is a sanctuary for wildlife these days.
Queen Elizabeth National Park is a sanctuary for wildlife these days.

There are also socio-political challenges to overcome.

Foremost is a series of laws banning homosexual behavior. Rubber stamped by the Ugandan Parliament last December, the latest regulation calls for severe punishment (including life in prison) for violators.

Virgin boss Richard Branson is among those who have called for a travel boycott of Uganda in the wake of the new legislation.

And in June [2014], the U.S. government announced limited sanctions against Uganda because of the law.

The jury is still out on whether or not the anti-homosexuality laws are actively impacting LGBT rights in Uganda. "It certainly hasn't affected me," says a Kampala businessman who lives with his gay partner.

"And I don't think it's had much impact on the gay community as a whole."

He still admits to anxiety about how the laws might be applied in future. "But for now, that's been my experience in Uganda."

Joe Yogerst is a freelance travel, business and entertainment writer based out of California. He traveled through Africa in 2013.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:38 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Whether filled with electric blue sulfur flames or hissing lava, these mega mountains offer incredible vistas
updated 8:40 PM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
This once-a-year luxury cruise visits untouched islands and never-snorkeled reefs.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Peter J. Goutiere was just shy of 30 years old when he piloted a Douglas C-47 from Miami to Kolkata, India.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Breathtaking scenery, championship design -- many of the courses dropped into the Canadian Rockies are among the most memorable in the world.
updated 9:06 AM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
A floating hippo in the Thames river designed by artist Florentijn Hofman
Why Florentijn Hofman is sending a giant beast into London's River Thames.
updated 12:07 PM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
Scrap all those other bucket lists you've been compiling and start saving -- these memorable-for-a-lifetime trips don't come cheap, or easy.
updated 8:42 PM EDT, Fri September 5, 2014
A squabble over a device that limits how far a seat can recline has brought inflight etiquette into the spotlight again.
updated 6:23 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Thirst for victory competes with thirst for booze in event where competitors raise their glasses long before they cross the finish line.
updated 5:57 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
At these fun Los Angeles bars, the the drinks come with a chaser of kitsch.
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
From dining next to massive predators to drinking atop a rock in the middle of the ocean, Africa boasts some of the most interesting places to eat.
updated 5:21 AM EDT, Sun September 7, 2014
Just weeks after Bill HIllman, known as a veteran, expert bull runner, was badly gored in Pamplona, he's back at other smaller bull runnings in Spain, but walking with a cane.
updated 12:54 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Don't like the country you live in? Why not create your own, as many people have done. We uncover the parallel world of "micronationalism."
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
A CNN producer experiences China's poor on-time flight record firsthand as his plane takes off eight hours late.
updated 2:00 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
New Yorker Kerrin Rousset's exploration of Swiss city aims to lure cocoa fans over to the dark side.
updated 11:47 PM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
Some things are just better after dark. These experiences around the world prove it.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT