KAMPALA, Uganda – The latest Ebola outbreak in Uganda has dimmed hopes of a successful year for the country's growing tourism industry, government officials and tour operators said on Wednesday, as tourists began to cancel trips amid rising cases of the deadly disease in the East African country.
Kibaale, the affected district in Uganda's west, is the home of a national park that has one of the richest primate populations in the world and is a popular destination for both biologists and tourists. Uganda is noted for its mountain gorillas, an endangered species that is popular among wealthy visitors, and tour operators say the park in Kibaale is known for its diverse population of primates and birds.
"It's a top destination because of the chimpanzees down there in Kibaale forest," said Denis Opio, an operator with the tour firm Volcanoes Safaris. "It's also a nice place for birders."
The outbreak's timing is especially damaging because the peak visiting season is in August, said Cuthbert Baguma, who heads Uganda's tourism marketing agency.
British businessman John Hunwick said that some tourists are "absolutely petrified" and want to go back home, and that he lost $6,000 on Tuesday after some of his clients cancelled trips to the Ugandan countryside.
"Tourists are leaving as it is because people are scared," he said. "Something has to be done and it must be done.... All tour operators are experiencing the same. What is going to happen is that future bookings will not be there."
Amos Wekesa, a Ugandan tour operator, said in July, when it wasn't known why people were dying in a remote corner of western Uganda, that his tour company was getting more clients than it could handle. Days after investigators confirmed the presence of Ebola in Uganda, Wekesa started getting persistent emails from potential visitors in Europe asking if they would be safe in Uganda.
"We were starting to get very busy, but now this Ebola thing is dampening the opportunity," he said. "It's our history that's letting us down. What are we known for? Idi Amin, disease, poverty, all negative things."
Wekesa, who heads a group of tour operators called the Uganda Tourism Association, said that some members had reported massive cancellations. "We are talking about millions of dollars here," he said. "If the government does nothing in terms of damage control, a lot of jobs are going to be on the line."
Ebola has a deadly reputation around the world, but even more so in Uganda, where there have been multiple outbreaks over the years. The most lethal outbreak happened in 2000, when more than 200 people died from the highly infectious disease. Ebola was first reported in 1976 in the Congo and is named for the river where it was recognized, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The death toll for the outbreak has risen to 16 people, Uganda's Ministry of Health said on Wednesday. At least 20 more are thought to be infected in Uganda's Kibaale district, Doctors Without Borders said in a statement on Tuesday.
The World Health Organization has not recommended any travel restrictions on Uganda, and foreign embassies have not warned against coming to Uganda. But news of Ebola's presence in Uganda is damaging enough, said Patrick Mugoya, the permanent secretary at Uganda's Ministry of Tourism, whose office has been getting anxious calls from people asking about Ebola.
"It is our hope that the situation will be brought under control," Mugoya said.
Mugoya said Ebola was a "threat" to Uganda's hopes of maximizing the benefits that come with recently appearing prominently in travel articles.
Uganda prides itself on being "gifted by nature," but the country has traditionally lagged behind neighbors Tanzania and Kenya in attracting safari tourists.
Local tour operators, buoyed by impressive ratings abroad, were starting to feel that they could attract more visitors with an aggressive marketing campaign that takes advantage of the excitement swirling around Uganda's upcoming Golden Jubilee. The government is promising a massive party to celebrate 50 years since independence from the British, and Uganda's president wants the country to patent the slogan "pearl of Africa," as the country was famously described by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
However, "If the government does not come out strongly to say that it is committed to eliminating Ebola in Uganda, this thing is going to substantially affect the whole tourism industry," said Celestine Katongole, who teaches tourism economics at Uganda's Makerere University. "All of the value chain people are going to lose income."