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Bringing Tourism to South Sudan

The new Government in South Sudan is currently being formed whilst the country is facing the challenges of Covid-19, locust swarms and the impact of climate change in the Horn of Africa threatening health and food security. These challenges would test even the most stable and mature governments. To carry public opinion, it is said that the success of a new government is measured on performance in the first 100 days during which it must show real evidence of making a difference. For South Sudan this is going to be very difficult especially with key members of the leadership team including the Vice President and a number of Ministers (including the Minister of Health), recently testing positive for coronovirus. However, there does seem to be a growing determination to make this work and not least with international ‘encouragement’. Frankly, after years of civil war, South Sudan needs everything but some of the issues that need to be addressed to restore stability to South Sudan and to encourage tourism are discussed below.

Tourists need places to go and things to see. Much has been destroyed during the civil war. Conflict and famine has driven millions of South Sudanese to seek refuge in neighbouring countries including Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan. This displaced population needs to be convinced that it is safe to return to their villages. Shelter and a sustainable food supply may have to be provided.

Many other countries in Africa are evidence that well managed National Parks or Wildlife Reserves and associated wildlife safaris based on local lodges providing employment to the surrounding communities could be viable tourist attractions. Many of these parks have fallen into disrepair and facilities including accommodation need to be refurbished or built. Roads, bridges and airstrips need to be brought up to standard. Conservation programs need to be established to safeguard wildlife whilst protecting and compensating local communities from the loss of crops and any damage caused by wildlife to fencing, buildings or other property. Rangers and Vetinary services need to be established, trained and equipped. Parks and areas to consider visiting include:

  • Boma National Park

  • Bandingilo National Park

  • Sudd

  • Southern Park

  • Shambe

  • Kidepo Game Reserve

The White Nile is the lifeblood of South Sudan but agriculture largely remains at subsistence level with average field sizes of two acres per household. Crop yields are typically very low: hardly one ton per acre due to use of poor quality seeds, tools and agronomic practices. The same applies to the livestock and fisheries sectors. Potable water, low cost housing with solar power, healthcare programs, arable land, seeds, fertilisers and access to markets to buy and sell produce are also required for these communities to thrive.

Pastrolists are competing for grazing with wildlife, tribal disputes, squabbles with cross border neighbours and desertification caused by climate change. Cattle raids have become more frequent and violent in recent years with hundreds being killed and injured during skirmishes and somewhat 'over enthusiastic' responses from the military. This highlights the need for transition from military enforcement to a well trained and resourced national police force, supported by an effective legal system.

The population needs access to healthcare. Good healthcare will also give comfort to international visitors who may need access to well equipped hospitals and clinics with trained Doctors and nursing staff in case of minor injuries, illness and for stabilisation after major trauma (for example road traffic accidents). A South Sudanese air medical evacuation service would be a great national asset to recover injured or seriously ill casualties from remote areas in South Sudan to clinics or hospitals for stabilisation prior to international medical evacuation. Various tropical diseases are present in the country including rabies. Appropriate medicines need to be available and development of a program to make South Sudan rabies free should be considered.

Tourists must be able to travel within the country to visit different places and experience the countryside. Most roads in South Sudan are unpaved. Gravel roads from Juba to the borders of Uganda and Kenya have been extensively mined and bridges destroyed during the civil war. The roads have not been maintained and have fallen into disrepair. Roads are the trading lifelines of the nation and a program of demining and reconstruction will be required. In the mean time, a well maintained domestic civil aviation sector supported by charter aircraft could reduce ‘in country’ travel risk.

Today only about 1% of the population have access to power in South Sudan and power cuts are a regular occurrence. There is currently a shortfall of approximately 170 megawatts and this is likely to grow as peace returns and industry is developed in the country. It will be hard to avoid the 'dash for power' through the building of dams on the White Nile and other rivers but hydro power is not the panacea it may at first seem (see Gilgel Gibi III dam). The impact of dams inevitably causes displaced communities, loss of livelihoods, have a massive environmental impact and international experience shows they eventually cost more to remove than they make during their lifetime. Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam is evidence of how international relations can become strained where countries down stream suffer reduced water flows as dams fill. There is an opportunity to do something different in South Sudan using wind, solar and geothermal to create 'Mini Hubs' to power communities reducing distribution costs and the national power deficit. A change to building regulations requiring solar to be included on all new buildings with connections to a local ‘mini grid’ might be a positive first step. Strategic trade swaps could also be considered (for example power for fuel, minerals or agricultural commodities).

South Sudan is a landlocked nation and very reliant on Port Sudan for its connection to international maritime trade routes. Sudan is understood to be negotiating responsibility for the operation of Port Sudan with UAE's Dubai Ports World. This should bring investment to modernise the port, make it more efficient and should therefore also be good for South Sudan. However South Sudan is reliant on goods safely transiting the highway over 1700 miles from Port Sudan to Juba and a pipeline for the export of crude oil and refined petroleum products. It will be important to establish and maintain good relationship with Sudan.

It needs to be easy for both business and tourist travellers to obtain VISA's to visit South Sudan. Easing the administrative process required to visit South Sudan will remove what can be a significant barrier to some visitors denying opportunities for much needed foreign investment and tourism. Most visitors will arrive via the international airport in Juba where the first impressions of the country will be formed. Efficient well trained courteous staff, low bureaucracy good facilities and security processes designed to keep travellers safe are all required.

Business travellers and tourists need somewhere to stay. Hotels for business customers need to be of an appropriate standard with good quality food, facilities communications (cellular phone, wifi and internet access). Ideally tourist hotels / lodges / camps will also include good cellular communications and wifi too and of course the ability to pay by international credit card and 'in house' currency exchange, all at reasonable market rates.

So how does South Sudan finance all these activities when historically monies loaned have apparently 'disappeared' and the international appetite for further support is largely exhausted? It will take years for South Sudan to rebuild the good will and confidence of institutions such as the World Bank, Africa Development Bank and the Central Banks. The country desperately needs access to the US dollar as the currency of international trade. Foreign investment needs to be attracted without giving away ownership of national assets; associated natural resource sectors need to be supported by robust legislation and an effective national legal system.

In the mean time South Sudan NGO Forum has 263 national and 116 international NGO members and supports them in effectively responding to the humanitarian and development needs in South Sudan. The collective objectives being the delivery of aid assistance to save lives and improve lives in South Sudan. Reliance on charity is not sustainable nor is it in the country's long term interest. The country must be weaned off charity and helped to stand on its own feet. In the short term, coordination of the charity sectors activities should improve impact and ensure that the right aid is available in the right places. South Sudan has the natural resources and the potential for a vibrant agricultural sector to become the ‘bread basket’ of the Horn of Africa. Foundation Five is keen to work with government and industry in South Sudan to apply its philanthropic business model and assist in rebuilding South Sudan and especially wildlife conservation, tourism and community development.

The South Sudan Tourist Board certainly has its work cut out but there are already active social media accounts like @VisitSouthSudan doing a great job to promote wildlife in South Sudan to entice the return of tourism. South Sudan could present an attractive route for the more adventurous Overlanders but I'm guessing mainstream tourism is still some ‘way off’. A YouTube channel (Dolku Media) with a video interview series called 'Fixing South Sudan' discusses some of the issues and seeks ideas across all business sectors. Talking of course is the start but 'doing' is required, and there is much to do and currently little to do it with!

These are just some of the challenges faced by the new Government of South Sudan. It cannot happen overnight. For now an overland transit of South Sudan remains high risk. Tip Toe would really like to include South Sudan in the travel itinerary, but unless things change dramatically over the next 12 months, any visit is likely to be done as a side trip flying in from a neighbouring country.

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