Uganda Slayings Prompt Gov't. Caution; Industry Watches, Waits

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In the wake of the brutal slayings of eight tourists in Uganda, including two U.S. citizens, the State Department has issued a public announcement urging Americans who may be planning to visit western Uganda "to postpone their travel until further information becomes available."

The United States Embassy in Uganda is closed.

Those reported dead are two Americans, four Britons, and two New Zealanders; four men and four women. London-based Acacia Expeditions said six of those killed were on its tour.

Sue Ockwell of Acacia Expeditions, told AP that customers were warned of certain dangers. "People should understand there are some risks. They understand that it's not a conventional holiday." Ockwell said the area the tour group of 15 was visiting was believed to be safe.

Thirty-one tourists were intially abducted at dawn on Monday, 3/1/99. Seventeen of the hostages escaped or were freed soon after. Of the fourteen remaining, six were released and eight were slain.

The tourists were abducted at campsites in the Bwindi National Park, also known as the Impenetrable Forest, which is the starting point for visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of rare mountain gorillas.

Civil war and widespread violence kept tourists away from Uganda for 25 years. When travelers ventured back in the late 1980s they came to track the mountain gorillas made famous by the movie "Gorillas in the Mist." Tourism in Uganda has thrived in recent years primarily because of the gorillas.

The Uganda government said it "strongly condemns this barbaric act."

"On the one hand, it is the criminality of the Interahamwe (rebels), but on the other hand there was also laxity on our own people in respect to guarding these wonderful visitors of ours."

Meanwhile, tour operators specializing in Africa considered the impact of the killings.

Christa Brantsch, Director of Public Relations at Abercrombie and Kent said one client from Abercrombie and Kent International Inc. was involved in the kidnapping, but survived the ordeal. She was immediately flown to Nairobi and her family was notified.

"We then cancelled all operations and closed down our camp for the next two months. We contacted all clients scheduled to take the Uganda trip--about 20 people--and apprised them of the situation." Clients were given the option of a full refund or another trip.

"This is indeed a tragedy," said Brantsch. When asked what it would take to reopen the Abercrombie and Kent operation she replied, "We'd need a full report from our Bwindi office, government insurance that it's safe, and evidence that security has been beefed up at the borders."

Asked if this will affect other Africa itineraries Brantsch said "It may but I don't know if it needs to. People very often lump a whole country together when there's violence in one area. In this case it would be [condemning] a whole continent."

Jennifer Kunath, Program Coordinator for Alabama-based International Expeditions, a eco-travel operator, said that while the company did not have any clients there at the time, they did have two clients arrive in Uganda on Monday for the start of their trip. They were met at the airport and are back home now. "Our camp was not tampered with but was used to house and comfort some of the survivors."

She believes the Uganda killings "are going to change things drastically."

"We have sixteen-day programs in Uganda and only three of those days are spent in the Bwindi National Park, but those three days are the reason people come to Uganda: to track gorillas. The mountain gorillas are not only the highlight of the trip, but for most travelers it is the objective for the trip."

International Expeditions offers about ten Uganda trips a year encompassing around 100 clients.

"It's important to see how the government will respond to get tourism back because tourism is going to be hit real hard by this," Kunath said.

Scott Senauke, Marketing Director, for California-based Wilderness Travel, said there was a March 7th tour scheduled for Bwindi. They immediately canceled it and gave clients the option to either get a refund or postpone the trip. "None chose to cancel; all 10 clients want to go on this trip in the future," Senauke said. "Our clients are not your garden-variety travelers, they are adventure travelers and are aware of the hazards and risks involved."

When asked about future travel to Uganda, Senauke said the next planned trip is June 20th. "About a month before the departure we have to reassess the situation and of course we can't go if Bwindi Park doesn't issue permits." Park headquarters stopped issuing permits after the kidnappings.

As for safety, Senauke adds, "It would be different if we were talking about war here, but with this incident it's hard to assume that this will last."

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