As his double-decker boat chugged along the River Nile, in between pointing out crocodiles and hippopotamuses in the surrounding waters, Gordon Oyirwoth bemoaned the lack of humans.
“This is high season but it hasn’t been high. It is low,” said the guide, who works for a tourism company called Wild Frontiers.
Before the pandemic, it used to have up to 40 customers on each cruise, paying up to $32 each (€29). Now, it often runs no cruises during the week, and on the weekend it can put a maximum of 15 people on board because of social distancing regulations. Only four staff out of 30 are still working, and his own salary has been reduced by 25 per cent, Oyirwoth said.
“I know they will not open the airport,” he said.
Murchison Falls is Uganda's biggest national park, located about 280km north of capital city Kampala, on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It stretches almost 3,900 sq km, and was named in the 19th century – by the colonialist Samuel Baker – after a former president of London's Royal Geographical Society. It received more than 100,000 visitors between 2018 and 2019.
This is one of the places that will be worst hit by the devastation of the tourism industry, which the government says will cost Uganda €1.36 billion this year.
While foreigners usually stream in and out, coming for safaris or “voluntourism” trips, where they combine charity work with sightseeing, the East African country’s international airport has been closed since March, meaning there are no new arrivals.
It's not clear when the airport might open again, either, with president Yoweri Museveni saying in July that he didn't want international air travel to resume "until the situation abroad settles down".
There have been more than 1,750 confirmed coronavirus cases in Uganda and at least 19 deaths, a small percentage of the number of cases in Europe and other regions where tourists are likely to come from.
One of the impacts of the Covid-19 lockdown on national parks is that poaching is on the rise, according to conservation workers and rangers who spoke to The Irish Times. Giraffes, buffaloes, lions, leopards, and many other animals are now at risk of being injured or caught by snares and traps laid by local Ugandans, who are struggling to make a living following a lockdown related to Covid-19.
It is nice to see Ugandans finally enjoying their own country. This was a problem before. But we need the airport to open to return to business similar to what we had before
Last month, National Geographic reported that at least seven giraffes were found dead in traps in Murchison Falls in just two days. Charles Tumwesigye, deputy director of field operations for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), told the same magazine it had recorded 367 poaching incidents in Uganda's national parks between February and May of this year, more than double the amount during the same period the previous year.
“The tourists stopped coming but conservation is still happening because we need to make sure the animals are still here for you,” one female park ranger said.
Murchison Falls was famously one of the places visited by American musician Kanye West, his wife Kim Kardashian-West, and their family, when West came to Uganda in 2018 to record an album. During their visit, more than a dozen rangers were enlisted to make sure the celebrity couple saw lions, which can be quite elusive, according to multiple tourism workers who spoke to The Irish Times. While in Uganda's capital Kampala, West also gifted president Museveni a pair of his signature Yeezy trainers.
Marianne Israel, who has run hot air balloon safaris over Murchison Falls for the past three years, said she is trying to remain optimistic that a vaccine will be available in the next year, and she is spending as much time with family as she can before then. "This time will pass," she said.
In the budget Red Chilli Rest Camp campsite in Murchison Falls, a staff member said he had been basically alone for months during the lockdown, maintaining the premises. “This is nature, if you don’t maintain it it will collapse in,” he said.
With 15 million children out of school, more Ugandans are visiting Murchison Falls than before, though the rangers and guides generally seemed to regard this as unsustainable financially, as fees for nationals are greatly discounted, compared to what a foreigner has to pay.
"It is nice to see Ugandans finally enjoying their own country. This was a problem before. But we need the airport to open to return to business similar to what we had before," said Yvonne Hilgendorf, who runs an eco tour company, Manya Africa Tours, based out of Kampala.
It usually caters to about 200 tourists a year, mainly from German-speaking countries. Almost everything has been on hold since the pandemic began, she said as domestic travellers usually have their own transport and can book activities themselves.
“Most companies will collapse if we don’t open to international tourism,” Hilgendorf said. “We thought we would be back to business by now.”
Uganda has been getting a lot more attention recently, she added, and “everyone in the tourism industry expected this to be [a] top year.”
When airports do open again, travelling in Uganda could be much safer than in Europe, according to Hilgendorf. “Travellers who come to visit us can count on vast nature. Big and comfortable land cruisers. Highly trained guides.” She said the firm has insurance in case a client feels unwell, and will make sure all hygiene and social distancing regulations are followed, including wearing masks, gloves, disinfecting cars and testing guides.
“Thanks God there is light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “We have already many fixed bookings from January 2021. And slowly, we [are] also getting new inquiries and bookings for next year. This makes big hope.”