Last week I attended an international conference on Sustainable Tourism in Kampala, Uganda. It was hosted by Makerere University, which is one of Africa’s oldest and most prestigious universities. Although it was established by the British and probably maintains excellent tuition, the campus itself seems weary from lack of funding, and parts of it look more like a deserted army base with crumpled buildings surrounded in rusty barbed wire fence. Around the skies above the hill the university is perched on circle dozens of Malibu storks, with massive wing spans and vulture looking stances. They sit on the tops of trees and create an eerie atmosphere, though they’re truly beautiful. Locals consider them the pigeon of Kampala, annoying garbage scavengers with stinky poop.
There were mostly Ugandans and Americans at the conference, in total about 100 people, and some interesting characters made the 3 days of constant presentations barable. There was a Masai from Kenya jingling around in his colourful garb, one very enthusiastic Chinese professor who was extremely difficult to understand, and an American professor who had a squinty, perma-“huh?” face twisted up so weirdly that you always wanted to ask him “are you alright?”
The conference was a first for me, and I was happy to present my research on ecotourism but it seemed like no one was really there to hear you talk, but to see if you were useful to them. People capitalized on the coffee and lunch breaks to network with all the most strategic people and once in a while, swap business cards with those people they found interesting. When presentations sparked a discussion, there was barely time to facilitate a dialogue since there were 6 consecutive sessions running at any given moment, for only 30 minutes each.
In the end, I kind of noticed that everyone had something smart to say about sustainable tourism in theory, but only bad things to say about actual cases of attempted sustainable tourism. Local Ugandans complained about it as a form of neo-colonialism and almost everyone recognized tourism as an activity exclusive to the rich. In the end, even the things we had to say about theory just ended up having a lot of academics and practitioners talking in circles, so not much came out of the conference except new friends and potential industry connections. For me, I lucked out with some great connections in the places Im headed next, and some well-knowledged people who actually know a thing or two about tourism in East Africa since the backpacker trail seems hard to track.