Interview: Uganda has lost its rainbow colours


In collaboration with fairunterwegs, we conducted an interview with Michael Kajubi, proud member of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), and founder of McBern Tours - the first company to openly promote diversity and inclusion in tourism in Uganda - and the McBern Foundation, which supports elderly and minority youth.

Article 21 of the Ugandan Constitution clarifies that everyone should be treated equally under the law and be safeguarded against unfair laws. But, despite this clear mandate, the Ugandan Parliament recently approved the "Anti Homosexuality Act 2023," signed by the President on May 26th, 2023. This law is one of the toughest in the world, even including a punishment by death for what's called "Aggravated homosexuality." The law also says that anyone who promotes homosexuality could go to jail for 20 years.

In the midst of all these changes, the situation for LGBTQI+ individuals in Uganda has worsened. The hostility and agitation against queer people has increased massively, not only from the state side, but also among the population. The consequences of this law are severe human rights violations.

This also has significant implications for the tourism industry. Uganda has long been a popular tourist destination, drawing visitors from around the globe to experience its rich cultural heritage and natural wonders. Yet, with the introduction of this law, there is a rise in harassment and demonstrations from religious leaders, causing a decline in the country's reputation as a safe and welcoming place for all.

The tourism industry relies heavily on seeing Uganda as a friendly and hospitable nation. The Anti-Homosexuality Law has tainted this image, making tourists and potential investors question the safety and inclusivity of our country. As a result, we have seen a decline in tourism revenue and a loss of potential business opportunities.


Michael, you run an inclusive travel company that offers tours to all travellers, both LGBTQI* and others… Not anywhere, but in Uganda - a country that has recently criminalized homosexuality and, even worse, introduced the death penalty for gay people. What consequences has had this for you as a tourism business owner?

The harsh law has come biting again, reminiscent of the 2014 "Kill the Gay" Legislation. It has caused a noticeable reduction in inquiries. Regrettably, some LGBTQI+ travellers have arrived at the disheartening decision to cancel their prospective trips to Uganda due to concerns over their safety. Additionally, some of our foreign partners have decided to remove Uganda from their list of potential destinations, motivated by a principled stance against supporting nations with discriminatory Legislation.

Sadly, not only Uganda is going backwards when it comes to gender equality – but also many other countries – foremost the USA, but also Poland or Indonesia have recently introduced tighter legislation. How do these decisions affect tourism in those countries?  

The future trajectory of tourism trends in these countries remains uncertain, and time will tell the repercussions of these developments. Given my limited familiarity with these specific nations, I'm cautious about making definitive assertions regarding the precise impact of these decisions. Nevertheless, from a broader perspective, it's reasonable to anticipate that destinations where LGBTQI+ travelers perceive a lack of safety may witness a decline in their visitor numbers. A sense of security is a pivotal factor influencing travel choices, and it's likely to influence the decisions of this community when selecting their destinations.

Do you have general tipps/ links for LGTBIQA* travellers that you find worth sharing?

Understanding the legislation in the destinations LGBTQI+ travellers intend to visit holds paramount significance. Establishing a local point of contact, whether a knowledgeable tour guide, a hospitable host, or a dedicated activist, is equally crucial. This individual should be familiar with the prevailing conditions and have the expertise to navigate these destinations safely.

A vital component of responsible travel entails respecting the cultural norms and regulations of the host countries. While exploring these destinations, travellers must embrace an attitude of cultural sensitivity and adherence to local rules. This approach ensures the safety of LGBTQI+ travellers and contributes to fostering harmonious interactions with the local communities.

And specifically for Uganda: what is your recommendation? Is a trip worth the risks gay travelers are exposed to?

Uganda, hailed as the "Pearl of Africa" by Winston Churchill, has a lot to offer for its visitors. Uganda's allure is undeniable, from the Source of the Nile, the world's longest river, to its abundant wildlife featuring the iconic Big Five—Lions, Rhinos, Elephants, Leopards, and Buffalos. The country lies along the Equator, hence the perpetual summer climate and evergreen landscapes throughout the year. Notably, Uganda proudly claims 54% of the global population of mountain gorillas, making a trek to observe these majestic creatures a genuinely unforgettable experience.

The question of whether the rewards justify the associated risks is a nuanced one. While personal safety and well-being should always take precedence, the allure of exploring Uganda's wonders remains undeniable. The key to harmonizing these two considerations lies in a traveller's ability to embrace Uganda's cultural nuances and legal parameters. Notably, a person's sexual orientation may not be detectable by any measuring gauge visible in a crowd. Thus, reiterating the point, same-sex travellers can indeed enjoy Uganda's offerings without endangering their well-being, provided they abstain from displaying public affection. In essence, the decision to explore Uganda becomes an exercise in balancing risk and reward, where responsible travel practices and cultural awareness ensure that the unique treasures of the "Pearl of Africa" can be cherished without compromising personal safety.

And what about other travelers:  should Uganda as travel destination – or in general countries that violate basic human rights - be avoided by travel agencies, airlines and travelers as an international sign of protest? Or does the absence of foreigners only harm innocent people who depend on the income from tourism without actually having an impact on the political decision making?

Certainly, protests are a valuable tool, resonating with legislators, as exemplified by the World Bank's recent impactful statement and restricting loans to Uganda because of the law. A complex situation arises considering the choice of distancing travel agencies, airlines, and travellers from Uganda. While this approach could isolate Uganda globally, it significantly affects the local population.

Rather than avoiding Uganda, establishing partnerships between travel agencies, tour operators, and local inclusive tour companies and operators presents a viable solution. Envision a scenario where every traveller's journey echoes beyond their footsteps, generating a cycle of empowerment. For instance, collaboration between tour operators and local entities dedicated to community support is noteworthy. Our own company serves as an example; I founded McBern Tours with a mission that transcends conventional tourism. Our commitment to the well-being of marginalized youth and the elderly underscores each transaction's role in providing sustenance, education, medicine, and dignity to those at risk.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the travel community? 

St. Augustine once said: “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” I know the power that travellers can have, not just on the people but also the places they visit. Travellers make a big impact on the society they visit knowingly or unknowingly.

The topic is not only of high relevance for travelers, but also for travel agents/ operators alike. How should tour operators behave towards potential clients when they want to book Uganda?

Tour operators bear a significant responsibility in equipping potential clients with comprehensive insights. In the context of Uganda, I strongly advocate for tour operators to offer detailed travel tips, including clear bullet points outlining the Anti-Homosexuality Law. This proactive approach ensures that clients are well-informed about the legal landscape they might encounter.

What info should they give them?

Operators need to present all relevant facts unreservedly, allowing clients to grasp the realities before them. By adopting this transparent and objective stance, tour operators empower clients to exercise discernment as they shape their travel itineraries. This commitment to transparency not only enhances customer satisfaction but also upholds the ethical standards integral to the travel industry. In essence, this practice bridges the aspirations of travellers and the genuine experiences awaiting them. As advocates of responsible travel, operators play a pivotal role in facilitating a harmonious balance between exploration and awareness.

Should there even be a query regarding belonging to the queer community – and if you think this would make sense, how could this be done in a respectful and non-intrusive way?

Certainly, it is prudent to include a query regarding the client's affiliation with the queer community. However, it is imperative to ensure that the client is provided with the option to withhold disclosure of their sexuality, should they opt for privacy.

In the interest of transparency and the client's safety, it is advisable for the operator to communicate the rationale behind this inquiry. The context of the new Anti-Homosexuality Law in the destination should be articulated, underscoring that this information is sought to facilitate a secure and informed travel experience for the client. Such a considerate approach not only respects the client's autonomy but also aligns with ethical and responsible travel practices.

What can tour operators advise their local partners, especially hotels, etc., not to endanger them or clients regarding the law, and, at the same time, not further contributing to discrimination?

Respecting the equality of every client, irrespective of their sexual orientation, is paramount. Tour operators should undertake the responsibility of ensuring that their local partners uphold inclusivity as a fundamental principle.

Furthermore, respecting an individual's autonomy should extend to matters of disclosure. Obtaining consent from the client that they are part of the queer community before acknowledging to the local partners is essential. This approach reflects a commitment to ethical conduct, recognizing the sensitive nature of personal information while fostering a climate of trust and respect.

To what extent can international tour operators continue or even start to describe or position themselves as "LGBTQI+ friendly" in Uganda under the new law?

I highly recommend that tour operators embrace language that encompasses a wide spectrum of minority groups, extending beyond LGBTQI+ inclusivity. By adopting terminology that embraces diversity, tour operators position themselves as entities committed to upholding principles of equity and inclusion.

This approach not only fosters a more expansive and comprehensive inclusivity but also underscores the operator's dedication to creating a welcoming and respectful environment for all travelers, regardless of their background. Such proactive engagement with diversity aligns seamlessly with contemporary values of social responsibility and resonates positively with an increasingly discerning and diverse clientele.

What leverage do you think international tour operators have in Uganda in particular, both individually and as an industry? How should they behave on the ground against local authorities, suppliers?

Tour operators have a crucial duty to respect the laws and rules set by the countries they visit. Here, I want to highlight the critical task of carefully selecting suppliers who promote inclusivity and diversity. Even more importantly, they must prioritize the safety and well-being of their LGBTQ+ clients. They need to fully commit to keeping them safe throughout their entire trip. Suppliers and operators must always be there for them, providing constant support and ensuring they feel secure at every step of their journey.

What would you wish from tour operators offering travels to Uganda?

To establish partnerships with local enterprises that engage in community upliftment initiatives, thereby effecting positive transformation in the lives of marginalized populations.

About the person

Michael Kajubi is the founder of McBern Tours and Travel, an Inclusive tour company offering top-tier travel experiences across Uganda and the broader East African region. Founded in 2013, the company serves a dual purpose, with a significant portion of its efforts channelled into the McBern Foundation. This foundation assists marginalized elderly individuals and resilient youth facing family rejection due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, focusing on education, skills empowerment, and healthcare support.

As a seasoned entrepreneur, Michael's passion for travel harmoniously aligns with his unwavering advocacy for gender minority human rights. He proudly associates with the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), signifying his deep commitment to these principles. His dedication to fostering Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion reverberates through his business and the broader community as he strives to integrate these values into workplaces and society seamlessly.

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