(Bloomberg) -- Ugandan LGBTQ rights activist Clare Byarugaba was looking forward to showing her country off to her French partner’s parents. They were interested in visiting her hometown, and she planned to take them hiking into Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, in the country’s lush southwest, to track one of the more than 400 mountain gorillas. But the parents scrapped their plans because they disapproved of Uganda’s new, more extreme anti-LGBTQ legislation.
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The Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2023, which Uganda’s Parliament passed twice between March and May with few changes, imposes a harsh penalties on members of the LGBTQ community, including life imprisonment for sexual acts; the death penalty applies for “aggravated homosexuality,” defined in part as engaging in sex if one is HIV-positive.
The bill currently sits on the Republic of Uganda President Yoweri Museveni’s desk to sign or to veto. And its impact on tourism is being felt.
The Uganda hotel sector is “already getting cancellations” because of it, said Jean Byamugisha, executive director at the Uganda Hotel Owners Association, in a March news report.
As in much of Africa, homosexuality is widely disapproved of in Uganda, where homosexual acts are already illegal, but under the new legislation the sanctions are tougher—gay marriage or “promotion of homosexuality” provisions will impose 10 and 20 years of imprisonment, respectively.
Under the new law, Uganda would join Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen as the only countries in the world imposing the death penalty for consensual LGBTQ sexual acts.
“We have had a handful of clients that asked us about these changes in policies and have chosen not to travel to these areas because of the advancing laws not lining up with their personal beliefs,” said Teresa Sullivan, co-founder and travel adviser at boutique travel company Mango Safaris, in a statement to Bloomberg.
Whether or not the topic comes up, the agency “absolutely addresses these topics in conversations with LGBTQA+ clients because these types of laws could impact them directly,” she added.
Similar to Indonesia’s recent ban on extramarital sex, and by extension all same-sex relationships, the sweeping provisions of this bill would apply to everyone in the country and could lead to wider repercussions for all visitors.
Anti-LGBTQ stances continue to have popular support in many African countries, whether or not a law is on the books. In Uganda, given the heightened level of state-sanctioned homophobia, tourists could be at risk of vigilante justice—even if they’re not gay, and even if the amended bill does not criminalize anyone for appearing gay or identifying as such. An earlier version suggested imprisonment.
Read more: Why Uganda’s LGBTQ Community is Under Renewed Fire
Traveling with a gay friend or a gay family member, traveling with a same-sex friend or being an outspoken ally, for example, may not be well received by locals.
A gay couple would have to pretend to be siblings or friends and stay in separate rooms from the moment they reached immigration. Same-sex siblings could also be prevented from sharing a room, which has happened in the past, Byarugaba says, or they could be targeted by the hotel staff because businesses can be held liable for “offering premises for purposes of homosexuality” under the bill.
“It’s going to have far-reaching consequences,” says Byarugaba, who is the coordinator for the equality and nondiscrimination program at Chapter Four Uganda, a civil liberties nonprofit. Given the safety risks it places on every person, straight or gay, she’s discouraging tourism at this time, despite realizing there are Ugandans who depend on the sector, unlike the members of Parliament pushing the bill.
President Museveni’s rhetoric of White people bringing gayness to to Uganda, aside from its erroneousness, is causing division, she says: “It’s creating an atmosphere of ‘them against us,’ which is unacceptable—and that is not a good look for tourism.”
Yvonne Muthoni, Kenya country director at Open for Business, agrees: “International conferences might not want to host their [events] in an environment that is not safe for everyone to attend regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Open for Business’s coalition of major global companies such as American Express Co., AT&T Inc., Google (part of Alphabet Inc.) and Virgin Group Ltd. conducts research into the business development and economic effects of antigay policies.
The Economic Impact
In Kenya, discriminatory LGBTQ+ practices cost the economy up to $1.3 billion every year, according to a 2019 Open for Business report, with $102 million of that being tourism revenue. As of 2021, anti-LGBTQ laws and discrimination in the English-speaking Caribbean islands, cause an annual loss of $4.2 billion to their economies, with up to $689 million a year in lost tourism.
The potential costs are likely to be high for Uganda as well, Muthoni says—“it’s a safety and security issue.”
Tourism was a sector that was steadily growing pre-pandemic, reaching 1.5 million international visitors in 2019 who spent $1.24 billion, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics. It’s recovered quickly, with 815,000 visitors returning in 2022, spending $730 million.
The travel industry was also helping to reduce the country’s trade balance deficit, according to a recent presentation emphasizing the sector’s importance, and provides 14% of all jobs or about 1.5 million Ugandans.
In recent years, a number of African countries have advanced LGBTQ rights by decriminalizing same-sex relationships, including Angola, Botswana, Mozambique and the Seychelles; South Africa is the only African country where gay marriage is legal. Meanwhile, Ghana and Kenya, two African tourism heavyweights, have anti-LGBTQ legislation making its way through their parliaments.
Visiting Uganda Now
The anti-LGBTQ bill in Uganda comes amid socioeconomic issues in the country, Byarugaba says, including labor strikes and a spate of gun violence, and she believes it’s being used to divert the nation’s attention.
“We plan to go to court immediately if and when the president assents to the law,” she adds, noting that a similar anti-LGBTQ law introduced in 2013 brought major backlash and was struck down a year later when the Uganda Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.
In the meantime, the US State Department travel advisory for Uganda doesn’t warn about antigay sentiment in the country, but it’s likely to do so if the bill becomes law. In providing advice to tourists, Mango Safaris’ Sullivan said the company “will strongly suggest other destinations and experiences for our LGBTQA+ clients.” She added, however, that Uganda is more than just one law and that the travel company doesn’t want to penalize a country for the actions of a select group of politicians.
As for Byarugaba, as much as she’d like her partner’s parents to know her country, she prefers that tourists wait until Uganda drops this law before visiting. “I would encourage tourists to understand the impact of this law, to stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community in Uganda and the rest of Africa,” she says, “and not be complacent to the legalized homophobia that is encompassed in this bill.”
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