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Is Uganda safe to visit?
Is Uganda safe to visit?-Uganda is safe for tourists who travel in the care of a reputable tour operator and take the usual precautions to avoid falling victim to tourist scams and petty crime. In fact, Uganda is one of the friendliest countries to visit in Africa, where much-needed tourism is welcomed.
Uganda’s reputation as a popular tourist destination is only marred by its turbulent political history and the ever-present threat of terrorism. However, don’t be put off by alarmist reporting in the media. Uganda has worked hard to rid itself of this negative perception and there has been a significant improvement in all security categories.
The Ugandan Police Force (UPF) continue to drive public safety initiatives that have seen a reduction in crime and have put extraordinary security measures in place to combat the threat of terrorism. You won’t go near the NO-GO areas in Uganda such as the Karamoja region or anywhere close to Uganda’s border with South Sudan which is plagued by bandit activity, violent crime and armed clashes.
Travel to Uganda is focused on the stunning wilderness regions that are home to the last-remaining gorillas in the world and you only fleetingly pass through the major towns and cities of Uganda which obviously have a higher concentration of people and more crime.
Follow your guide’s instructions and be vigilant wherever you go in Uganda and you’ll leave this incredibly beautiful and mesmerizing country with nothing more than fabulous memories.
POLITICAL SITUATION IN UGANDA
Uganda is a country transformed, although it is still battling with a niggling power struggle which results in sporadic civil unrest, and the ongoing threat of terrorism. The government is democratically elected and having rid itself of its violent past, Uganda is enjoying a period of political stability and economic prosperity.
Uganda gained its independence from Britain in 1962 but then endured a period of brutal military rule under the leadership of a ruthless dictator which only ended in 1979. Election results were violently disputed and a 5-year civil war marred any form of political stability until finally, the current President, Yoweri Museveni, came into power in 1986.
The country also had to deal with a brutal 20-year insurgency in the north which was led by the despot leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA0, Joseph Kony. The LRA operated in northern Uganda with little resistance until 2005 when the Uganda military took significant action to rid itself of LRA. By the end of 2006, the LRA had been completely removed from northern Uganda and has ceased all activities in the country since then.
Today, Uganda enjoys a decent level of political stability and security and the international community applauds its remarkable turnaround. Criminal elements of roving bandits still carry out sporadic attacks on vehicles which is why certain parts of Uganda are no-go areas for tourists. In particular, travel at night in these parts is prohibited.
TERRORISM IN UGANDA
Acts of terrorism have been carried out in Uganda, but these have been sporadic and not necessarily targeted at foreigners. However, after the terror attack at a hotel in Nairobi, the Uganda government has intensified security measures to protect its citizens and visitors. This includes increased police presence and security checks, in particular baggage checks and car searches in public places and hotels.
Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the bomb attack in 2010 in Kampala at venues screening the World Cup soccer tournament. Over 70 people were killed and many more injured. The attacks were linked to Uganda’s military presence in Somalia as part of an African Union peacekeeping mission.
As a tourist, be vigilante at all times. Opt to travel with a reputable tour operator which will ensure your safety at all times and avoid places that are prime targets for a terrorist attack. This includes crowded sports events, public bars and musical concerts.
NO-GO AREAS FOR UGANDA
The Karamoja region in north-eastern Uganda should be avoided due to the threat of bandit activity, violent crime and armed clashes.
Uganda border with South Sudan
Avoid travelling within 30 kilometers of Uganda’s border with South Sudan due to the threat of bandit activity, violent crime and armed clashes.
UGANDA BORDER CONTROLS
Uganda is regarded as a safe and politically stable country to visit; however, it is renowned for having porous borders that are not adequately monitored by the police force. As a result, there is a fairly unmanageable flow of illicit trade and immigration.
Areas flanking the western border of Uganda should be avoided because of the risk of rebel groups operating in the region. In addition, Uganda’s northern border with Southern Sudan is deemed a no-go area because there is limited police presence to control bandit activities which are a spillover from Southern Sudan.
The eastern border with Kenya has limited police presence except along the main roads and at the border crossings. A Uganda-based insurgency known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) operates in the eastern DRC and is a listed terrorist organization. They are not a threat to mainstream tourism but the porous eastern border means they can easily filter into the country unchecked.
CIVIL UNREST IN UGANDA
There is a medium-to-low risk of experiencing civil unrest, public protests, strikes, demonstrations and political violence while visiting Uganda as a foreign tourist. These occur at times of political uncertainty around elections, during wage negotiations or in protest to high commodity prices, power outages and hikes in interest rates.
Civil unrest in the form of protests and demonstrations tend to be peaceful and occur usually in the capital city of Kampala and other major towns and cities. Reputable tour operators in Uganda stay up-to-date with current affairs in the country and will re-direct routes to gorilla trekking destinations if there is any likelihood there’ll be unrest or conflict in an area.
CRIME IN UGANDA
There has been a significant reduction of crime in Uganda with increased policing but as always, tourists must follow the usual precautions to keep safe and avoid becoming a victim of petty crime and tourist scams.
On a visit to Kampala, you’ll notice an increased number of police on the streets. General crime in the city’s tends to be pick-pocketing, smash and grabs, bag snatching and street muggings after dark. Violent crime is rare in the upmarket areas in the major towns and cities in Uganda, and tends to be isolated to more impoverished areas.
Remember, Uganda is a very poor country with high unemployment and high cost of living. Be vigilante when visiting local street markets; don’t flash your cash, don’t wear expensive jewelry and keep your backpack or handbag closed and close to your body.
Theft out of hotel rooms will happen if temptation is put in someone’s way. Make use of the digital safes in hotel rooms and if possible, avoid leaving behind in the room expensive equipment and money.
Uganda national emergency police response number: 999
SAFE TRANSPORT OPTIONS IN UGANDA
Probably one of the more worrying concerns about travelling around Uganda is its high rate of traffic fatalities per vehicle. Roads in Uganda are not well maintained and not well-lit at night and poorly marked, if at all.
Driving at night is particularly hazardous with vehicles with no lights on the road and broken-down vehicles left unattended. Drunken driving and speeding is also an issue. During the day, pedestrians and livestock walking in the road is a problem, as well as locals generally not driving well and ignoring basic traffic rules.
Police enforcement of traffic violations is minimal. If you’re travelling in the care of a reputable tour operator you have less to be concerned about because the drivers make your safety a priority and strictly abide by the laws of the road. However, if you’re travelling solo using public transport; you need to be careful what mode of transport you choose and, if possible, avoid travelling anywhere at night in Uganda.
Aerolink is a reputable private aviation company offering flights to Fort Portal, Jinja, Kasese, Kisoro, Murchison National Park, Mweya (Queen Elizabeth National Park), Kidepo National Park and Semliki. Minimum passenger requirement is 4 – 7 travelers, depending on the destination. Passengers are allowed 15 kgs of luggage per person in soft bags.
Fly Uganda is the official domestic airline servicing destinations throughout Uganda, including Kisoro, Kihihi, Mweya, Kasese, Fort Portal, Gulu, Kidepo NP and Moroto. Kajjansi Airfield is located 20 kilometres from Kampala, towards Entebbe.
Public buses and taxis are not recommended as safe transport options for foreign visitors. Shuttle buses operated by a reputable transport company are a safer option.
The Pineapple Express is a safe, convenient and relatively cheap mode of transport for any combination of Entebbe-Kampala-Jinja. It departs from Oasis Mall in Kampala at 1h30, 10h00 and 16h15 every day. A trip from Kamala to Entebbe costs approx. US$12 for a 2-hour trip; and Kampala to Jinja is approx. US$14 for a 1.5 hour trip.
This is a public form of transport but it’s more comfortable, reliable and safer than the regular buses. The Post Bus picks up passengers from post office in the main towns and cities of Uganda. It’s not recommend for high-end travellers but a safer option for backpackers.
Jaguar Executive Coaches
This is a safe and reliable service run by a private bus company. It services the route from Kampala to Kigali at a cost of approx. US$40; departing from Kampala at 1h00, 3h00, 9h00, 18h00 and 20h00. Passengers have the option of a VIP section with more comfortable seats.
Wemtec Car hire
Wemtec is a reputable car rental company operating out of Jinja but servicing destinations throughout Uganda. You have the option of hiring a Land Rover with a qualified driver at a cost of approx. US$200 per day. Price excludes fuel.
Safe Boda motorcycles are a popular mode of transport in Kampala. The motorcycle drivers are well-trained and professional, and arrive with helmets for their passengers. The motorcycle service is booked and paid for using an app similar to the Uber app.
LGBT RIGHTS IN UGANDA
Same-sex relationships are illegal in Uganda, governed under the Anti-Homosexual Act, 2014. It has been a crime to be gay in Uganda since British rule and in the past a person exposed and prosecuted for homosexual relationships faced a seven year jail term. However, in 1918, the president of Uganda, Kaguta Yoweri Museveni signed in a new draconian and dangerous law which means homosexuality now carries a life sentence.
The Anti-Homosexuality Act was ruled invalid on procedural grounds by the Constitutional Court of Uganda, and the new anti-homosexual legislation passed recently has been strongly condemned by the international community. Regardless of the outcry, public displays of affection by same sexes and/or homosexual relationships still carry the threat of severe punishment.
TOP SAFETY TIPS FOR UGANDA
Be vigilante in Uganda
Take care when walking around the large towns and cities of Uganda. Pickpocketing, bag snatching and petty theft of phones and electronics is fairly common in crowded market areas. Avoid attracting unwanted attention to yourself in the large towns and cities in Uganda. Don’t flash fancy camera equipment, cash or expensive jewelry; leave your valuables at home or in a safe in your hotel.
Avoid at all costs walking around after dark, particularly if you’re on your own. Most crimes committed in the city are non-violent but it’s not worth taking the risk. At the very least, a mugging where you lose your camera, phone and possibly important documents can derail your holiday plans.
Don’t do drugs in Uganda
The possession, use and trafficking of drugs in Uganda is illegal and offenders will be fined heavily and face potential jail time. Do not offer to carry a package from an unknown of suspicious source in your luggage as you risk being used as a drug mule.
Be careful what you photograph in Uganda
You are prohibited from taking photographs of military, government buildings and border crossing points. If you’re unsure if it’s safe to take a photograph of something, ask your tour guide for permission.
Don’t drink and drive in Uganda
Drinking and driving is illegal and punishable by a heavy fine or possible jail time. The same applies to using your mobile phone while driving. Remember, if you get tipsy or very drunk on a night out on the town, you are vulnerable. Your senses are dulled and you make poor decisions. You risk being followed home, falling victim to a crime and being seriously hurt.
Do your research on common tourist scams
Whether you’re in Paris or Kigali, you’ve got to watch out for the same old tourist scams. This includes card cloning, online fraud and overcharging. Do research on common ways tourists are ripped off in foreign countries and keep your wits about you so you don’t fall victim to whatever is popular in that country. Don’t trust people too quickly, rather rely on the advice and help of your tour guide.
Book your holiday in Uganda with a reputable tour operator
For gorilla trekking safaris, always book a tour with a reputable tour operator. These tour operators make your safety a priority and will be quick to alert you to potential risks that could see you get badly hurt or put in a dangerous situation that could get you killed.
Be respectful of local cultures in Uganda
Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Uganda but it’s still considered taboo and not widely accepted. LGBTQ travellers should avoid public displays of affection out of respect for the local people who are still largely conservative, although not homophobic. Kigali is more gay-friendly and has a few popular restaurants and bars you can visit where you’ll feel safe.
Travel with a reputable tour operator in Uganda
Consider all modes of road transport in Uganda as highly unsafe. The drivers are reckless, the roads are in a poor condition and most vehicles are not roadworthy. For this reason, you are safest in Uganda with a reputable tour operator in a luxury vehicle and a driver who’ll navigate the dangers.
Be law abiding
You do not want to find yourself locked up in a Uganda jail so it’s highly recommended that you abide by the country’s laws and stay out of trouble. Uganda’s legal system is efficient and relatively uncorrupted, although it’s fairly common you’ll be asked to pay a bribe to get off a traffic fine. If arrested, you’re treated as ‘innocent until proven guilty’ in Uganda and you have a legal right to a lawyer.
MEDICAL FACILITIES IN UGANDA
Medical facilities in smaller towns and the rural areas of Uganda are limited and wholly inadequate. There are better hospitals and clinics in the capital city of Kampala but even then, the facilities have old equipment, lack of supplies and shortage of qualified medical staff.
If you take chronic medication or prescription drugs, you need to carry your own supplies which will last you through to the end of your holiday in Uganda. Don’t rely on finding a pharmacy or medical doctor if you run out.
On the same note, pack a selection of medical products to treat minor ailments or injuries. This includes painkillers, cold & flu remedies, anti-inflammatories, anti-indigestion and the usual supply of antiseptic cream, plasters and bandages.
Travel insurance is highly recommended for Uganda. It should theft, loss and medical emergencies and evacuations. Check the small print when taking out travel insurance and some policies will not cover dangerous activities such as paragliding, scuba diving, helicopter rides and even motorbiking, cycling and hiking.
Medical insurance for Uganda is very important. You can take it out as part of your travel insurance cover or request extra cover from your existing medical aid company. In most African countries, doctors and medical facilities expect payment in cash if you’re a foreigner. Find out from your insurance company if they make payments directly to a medical provider or reimburse you when you return home.
One of the crucial things to cover is transport for an emergency evacuation. This might be an ambulance or helicopter. If you need urgent medical help when you are far from a city or town, sometimes the only option is to have you evacuated by air.
HEALTH WARNINGS FOR UGANDA
Uganda is a very poor country but remarkably it has one of the best organized health care systems in Africa. There is an organized network of health care providers including district and referral hospitals as well as local health clinics.
There are 3 main hospitals locate in the capital city of Kigali; King Faisal Hospital is the one most foreign tourists will go to as it provides health care to private patients with private insurance cover.
Uganda is a medium-to-high risk malaria area, depending on the season and where you are travelling to. The risk of contracting malaria is higher in the humid summer and rainy season. The risk is lower at altitudes higher than 2 000 metres. The highest risk area for malaria in Uganda is in the eastern region.
It’s highly recommended that all travelers take anti-malaria tablets for a trip to Uganda. Malaria is a life-threatening disease. If left untreated or not diagnosed early, it can lead to death. Speak to your doctor or a travel clinic for advise on anti-malaria tablets.
To prevent being bitten by an infected mosquito; sleep under a mosquito net and use a mosquito spray or coil to repel mosquitos, cover your arms and legs before the sun sets wearing long pants and long-sleeve shirts and apply mosquito repellent on exposed areas of skin. Mosquitos are most active from sunset to sundown but it’s advisable to spray yourself during the day as a precaution.
The symptoms of malaria show between 10 to 14 days after being bitten. Depending on the severity, malaria symptoms range from flu-like aches and chills to abdominal pain, fever and unconsciousness. If you experience any of these symptoms once home from your holiday to Uganda, seek immediate medical attention and request a malaria blood test.
Bilharzia is a disease spread by minute worms that are carried by a species of freshwater snail. The parasites penetrate human skin when someone is paddling or swimming and then migrate to the bladder or bowel. Symptoms range from a light fever and rash to blood in the stool or urine. If left untreated, the bilharzia infection can cause kidney failure and permanent bowl damage.
Avoid swimming, paddling or wading in remote freshwater lakes or dams that make be suspect or slow-moving rivers. If you are concerned you’ve been infected, visit a specialist infectious disease clinic and request a blood test.
Travelers need to have a yellow fever vaccination before arriving in Uganda and must carry their certificate with them. It needs to be presented to the immigration official on arrival in Uganda.
Yellow fever is spread by infected mosquitoes. Symptoms are similar to malaria ranging from flu-like chills and fever to server hepatitis and jaundice. If left untreated or not diagnosed early, the disease is life-threatening.
Ebola & the black plague
Uganda made international headlines in 2008 when there was an outbreak of Ebola in the western district of Bundibugyo. The northern districts to the west of the Nile River have experienced sporadic outbreaks of the black plague. The government of Uganda has intensified methods to control these outbreaks and they don’t present a real threat to foreign tourists visiting the popular destinations for gorilla trekking in Uganda. However, it’s wise to check the press for updates on these infectious diseases and check with your travel agent if it’s safe to visit if there is a reported outbreak.
The risk of contracting HIV is extremely high but only a concern if you have unprotected sex or receive a blood transfusion in the region. Always use a condom when having sex with anyone on a holiday in Uganda who’s not known to you and a trusted partner.
For an emergency blood transfusion, contact The Blood Care Foundation (www.bloodcare.org.uk) which can provide safe, screened blood transported to any part of the world within 24 hours.
It’s advisable that you don’t drink tap water in Uganda unless it’s been filtered, boiled or disinfected with iodine tablets. Rather opt for bottled water from a trusted source. Avoid drinking water from streams, rivers and lakes as a precaution against contracting bilharzia.
The majority of places in Uganda have western-style flushing toilets. The popular tourist hotels and safari lodges in Uganda have clean, quality toilet facilities. It’s only the more remote areas that you’ll find public ablutions that are fairly unsanitary. Avoid sitting on the seats and always wash your hands after a visit to a public toilet.
VACCINATIONS NEEDED FOR UGANDA
The following vaccinations are recommended by the World Health Organization (www.who.int) for Uganda: diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, polio and hepatitis B.
Consult your doctor or travel clinic for advice on the following vaccinations for Uganda: hepatitis A, meningococcal meningitis, rabies and typhoid.
Proof of a yellow-fever vaccination is mandatory for travel to Uganda.
IS UGANDA SAFE FOR WOMEN TRAVELLERS?
Uganda is a safe country to visit and there’s not real risk for female travelers as long as they take the usual precautions to avoid becoming a victim of crime, rape or other serious offences. Avoid wearing revealing clothes like short shirts and halter tops, mainly out of respect for the Ugandans culture. Local women generally dress conservatively, covering up their shoulders and legs.
IS IT UGANDA SAFE FOR CHILDREN?
It’s safe to travel around Uganda with children as long as you follow the usual precautions to keep them out of harm’s way. Children are welcome at restaurants and safari lodges and it’s an opportunity of a lifetime for them to go on a safari in the Uganda national parks.
However, there is an age restriction on gorilla trekking in Uganda and it’s strictly enforced by the park authorities. The minimum age for gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park in Uganda is 15 years and older. You need to present an original passport before being permitted to continue with gorilla trekking so your age can be verified.
The main reason behind the age restriction on gorilla trekking is because children are more likely to have common colds and flus or other childhood diseases that can easily be transmitted to mountain gorillas. Another reason is children can be unpredictable and loud noises or screaming or a child running amok could cause a big problem.
SAFEST TIME TO VISIT UGANDA
If you’re interested in gorilla trekking, the safest time to visit Uganda is during the short dry season from mid-December to early February or over the long dry season between June and September. The dry weather makes hiking in the impenetrable forests easier and the risk of contracting malaria is lower as malaria-carrying mosquitoes are more of a nuisance in the wet, rainy season.
If you’re interested in chimpanzee trekking, the best time to visit Uganda is during the two rainy season; mid-February to early June and mid-September to mid-December. This is because the apes are easier to find. In the dry season, food is hard to find for the chimps and they tend to extend their foraging range far into the forest interior. The rainy season is not the safest time to visit in terms of hiking because the paths are slippery and muddy. Bring good quality hiking boots for the trip.
UGANDA SAFETY UPDATE
At the time of writing, Uganda was regarded as one of the safest countries in Africa to visit. However, there is tension brewing between Uganda and Rwanda and the international travel community is on alert that the situation may escalate. This only applies to rebel activity on its borders which are no-go areas anyway for foreign tourists.