Investment. Clearly the tourism ministry is very enthusiastic about marketing the country and they will stop at nothing. In their very commendable quest to drum up as much publicity about the country as possible, they have come up with some really out-of-the box ideas. One of those is the use of a tourism ambassador, which has got people talking, writes Andrew Kaggwa.
If there is one thing that has caught on in the past few years, it may definitely be brands finding the need to have ambassadors. From breweries, telecom companies, football clubs, the national team to soft drink manufacturers, a brand ambassador has become necessary acquisition.
Yet, most of the times, the people that fill these positions are forgotten after the appointment, for instance, talking sports, no one knows whether Winnie Nwagi or Irene Ntale are still SC Villa’s ambassadors. And as an ambassador of Express FC, has Bobi Wine watched the club’s game of recent?
In tourism though, the position is one that has been with us long enough, once in a while, when a Ugandan excels, whether they got government support in achieving their accolade or not, the position of ambassador will be bestowed upon them.
Most of the times these ambassadors have a role to promote the image of Uganda but never at one time have the powers that declare them ambassadors explained how they are meant to.
Who is an ambassador?
To answer the question, an ambassador is a person appointed to create awareness about something by presenting it in good light.
In 2010, only a year after her second Kora Award nomination, Suzan Kerunen found herself performing at a Uganda Tourism Board event, being an artiste that fuses Uganda’s ethno sound with foreign instrumentation, her sound excited those in attendance.
“In one of the speeches, they hinted on making me an ambassador but nothing materialised,” she relates.
Weeks later though, she received a call from the board calling her to the media centre. “On reaching there, press had been invited and I was unveiled as a goodwill tourism ambassador,” she recounts.
At the same press conference, Moses Kipsiro, another outstanding athlete at the time was too declared an ambassador, complete with a certificate and plaque.
In the wake of tourism as a formidable product for creating revenue, countries such as Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda and Uganda, among others have taken on celebrities to help convince a larger portion of the continent and beyond that their countries are the place to spend their money.
Roles of ambassadors
In 2015 for instance, South Africa, through their Brand South Africa, embarked on creating awareness about South African tourism, the campaign dubbed Africa Meets South Africa brought together celebrities Gaetano Kaggwa from Uganda, Sauti Sol from Kenya and former Big Brother Africa housemates Vimbai and Tatiana from Zimbabwe and Angola respectively to experience the country and later share their experiences with their followers across the continent.
Besides the supposed ambassadors, the campaign also brought together bloggers and journalists that experienced South Africa and of course shared their experiences through news features and blogs.
Other countries though have partnered with individuals for specific campaigns, in 2017 for example, Kenya through their brand Magical Kenya enrolled the services of Eddy Kenzo for the Tugende Kenya campaign.
“When a body chooses an ambassador, they ought to facilitate their work,” says an official from UTB.
Yet Kerunen says this was not the case. She notes that since she was presented as an ambassador, not a single person from the board has picked her calls let alone attend her activations such as the Pearl Rhythm Festival.
“I had no idea that my music was a cultural tourism tool and thus when I was appointed, I continued doing what I was doing, pushing culture and documenting folk music,” she says.
However, even when the board was meant to work with Kerunen, they were never as willing.
“I did not get any terms from UTB, regarding what was expected of me and sadly they stopped communicating after the appointment,” she says.
Prof Wilber Ahebwa of Makerere University says that ambassadors are important in marketing the country’s tourism but just like any role, there should be a plan. “Once a person is selected, there must be terms of reference,” he says.
He says that terms of reference can include expectations, responsibilities of the ambassador as well as the duration.
Over the years, even with Kipsiro and Kerunen’s appointment, the board has swam with whichever person was rumored to be the toast of the month, most of these have been people that have achieved or received international recognition.
For example, after BET triumph in 2015, it was rumoured that Eddy Kenzo had been appointed ambassador, such had also surfaced after Aamito Lagum had won Africa’s Next Top Model.
According to a source in the ministry, Kenzo for instance was never made an ambassador, but when the rumour came up, they choose not to come out and clarify because it was never bad publicity.
“They do not want to commit to anything thus most of the times call media, appoint and leave you to figure out life, if the public appoints you through a rumour, they will let it be since it does not cost them in any way.”
In 2017, at the height of the release of Disney drama Queen of Katwe, Phiona Mutesi and her mentor Robert Katende were announced as ambassadors. However, the source from the ministry says that their role ended at the presentation.
“Katende asked for some sort of documentation and the board was not straight forward and he walked away,” says a source.
In the 1980s, Miss Tourism Uganda is said to have been a big deal. However, in the early 1990s, the pageant hit rock bottom and did not happen again. In 2013 though, after years of absence, the pageant seeking to recruit a beauty queen and an ambassador of tourism was launched.
While launching in 2013, the aim was to promote tourism locally and internationally, especially when the winner participated in the Miss Tourism World.
Minister Maria Mutagamba (RIP) at the time had argued that since tourism always received a low budget for promotion, it was important to turn to talent and personalities to sell the face of the country.
The pageant chooses winners in the different regions of the country and it is the 2015/2016 Miss Tourism Busoga Region that set up the Rolex Festival as a tourism boost initiative.
According to Rona Kisakye, the social media coordinator, Miss Tourism is supposed to promote Uganda tourism starting from their respective regions: “Their role is to sell the existing tourism activities and potential ones in the country and the regions they come from.” Kisakye adds that Miss Tourism is also expected to be part of any initiative that seeks to promote tourism.
Last year, it was announced that Zari Hassan had been appointed tourism ambassador. Pictures of the socialite in junior minister Godfrey Kiwanda’s office flanked by media personality Joseph Kazoora soon hit social media.
Before Zari started off her role, there were questions of the criteria used to select her, while others questioned the appointing authority.
Ahebwa says that in a functional system, an ambassador is appointed by technical people with the minister mostly coming in to endorse the selected person. He notes that technical people such as the permanent secretary, and organisations such as Uganda Wildlife Authority alongside UTB and other agencies are supposed to guide the minister.
“In other countries, ambassador candidates are vetted before appointment,” he says adding that before selection, the body appointing should know who the target market is.
“If Uganda is attracting Kenyans, they will look for a Kenyan with a following we need,” he says.
Zari was not the last of minister Kiwanda’s appointments, in December, he took on Sandra Katushabe, a Ugandan living in Belgium, by January, and girl on the block Quin Abenakyo, the reigning Miss World Africa was declared an ambassador.
Abenakyo was also expected to headline Tulambule, an initiative that was started in 2016 to interest Ugandans into visiting sites within the country. However, according to various reports, after the Miss Uganda Foundation and the ministry failed to agree on a number of things, she pulled out. Little is known if her refusal to work with the Tulambule initiative automatically terminated her ambassadorial gig, just like no one knows if Zari is still an ambassador. Kerunen says that the way of doing things at the ministry or board makes work so hard: “It is like they give birth and abandon the baby immediately.”
She notes that she has no idea if they have ever followed up on Kipsiro but above it all, she notes that UTB or anyone in charge would at least communicate to either continue or end the partnership.
Who should it be?
Kerunen believes that a country needs as many tourism ambassadors as possible, though they should never be abandoned: “Sometimes I travel for performances and I cannot even get a flyer from these people.”
She believes the industry can have ambassadors in different disciplines because they all have different followings and all inspire people in different ways.
Ahebwa says an ambassador should not only be about their following but their reputation and attitude: “There should be a frame they work in that will present the country in a positive light.”
He points at the recent Tulambule campaign that featured Fabiola saying that much as she could have a following, research was needed to know if her following is what Ugandan tourism is trying to attract.
But above it all, Ahebwa says that the ambassador role is one that should be accorded respect: “You do not go around appointing everyone an ambassador, the position will lose any respect it once had, people respect money because it is hard to get.”