Rebuilding Africa tourism

Pirates fired on a cruise ship off the coast of Somalia this weekend. Uganda launches $1 million ad campaign.

It wasn't the Africa they expected to see.

When 151 tourists aboard a boutique cruise ship awoke Saturday morning 100 miles off the coast of Somalia, they had planned to spend the latter part of the day in the coastal Kenyan town of Mombasa.

Instead, as they peered out from under their comfy duvets, a band of pirates careened toward the ship in inflatable boats, firing machine guns and a grenade launcher. One couple even had an unexploded grenade lodged in their stateroom's wall before the ship could escape.

The attack comes at a delicate time for East Africa's tourism industry, which is finally getting past the fallout from the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania - and making headway at recasting the region's image away from being a dangerous place for travel.

Kenya's tourists brought in a record $577 million last year - a 70 percent jump over 2003. Here in Uganda, the government just began a $1 million ad campaign to 'rebrand' its lush, animal-filled country as "Gifted by Nature." Already tourism brings in more foreign currency than Uganda's top two exports, coffee and fish, combined. So when long-simmering violent conflicts intrude on otherwise safe, majestic tourist trips, it causes great dismay in places craving tourist cash.

That's why officials quickly distanced their countries from the latest pirate attack. "This was well away from our waters," Kenya's Tourist Board chief Jake Grieves-Cook insisted. "There is no threat."

Meanwhile, most of the passengers on the Seabourn Spirit reportedly absorbed the whole event with admirable aplomb - as did the captain and crew, who improvised using a high-decibel sonic gun to scare away the pirates and did some quick maneuvers to extricate the ship from danger.

With famed British understatement, London lawyer Norman Fisher told Britain's Press Agency in an e-mail that when a rocket went "through the side of the liner" into the stateroom, the couple inside had "a bit of an unpleasant experience."

Or as Edith Laird of Seattle put it in an e-mail to the BBC, "We had no idea that this ship could move as fast as it did, and the captain did his best to run down the pirates." She added, "It was all a very surreal experience. Not the kind of thing you expect on a cruise."

In this case, the "other Africa" that intruded on the seafarers' morning was the increasing chaos in Somalia, where a fledgling interim government is struggling to establish control. Experts say the attackers were probably from one of three pirate gangs that operate along Somalia's 1,880-mile coastline. They may have been working for Somali warlords, who fund arms purchases by smuggling drugs, weapons, and people - and with piracy.

Just to be safe, the cruise company diverted its ship to the Seychelles Islands, away from Kenya's main tourist port, Mombasa - a city where growing Islamism has also created more and more problems for tourists. In 2002, militants bombed an Israeli-owned hotel near Mombasa - and fired two missiles at an Israeli jet, but missed.

A major problem with attacks like these is that they hurt tourism across Africa, says Ugandan Tourism Board chief James Bahinguza. That's because many Westerners - particularly Americans - don't know Africa is made up of 53 countries and is roughly three times the size of the continental US. "Even when there's a problem in West Africa" - thousands of miles away - "it hurts Uganda," he laments.

To counter this, Uganda's $1 million campaign presents picturesque images of the country Winston Churchill dubbed "the pearl of Africa."

It doesn't mention, of course, that Uganda is home to Africa's longest civil war - although the conflict is far from most tourist spots.

If travelers do come, there are many wonders to see. Uganda is famous for its mountain gorillas. It's also home to the source of the Nile River, and has 1,200 species of birds.

On a recent white-water rafting trip that started a mile from the Nile's source, the most dangerous thing this pasty-skinned reporter faced was the blistering equatorial sun - and getting tossed from the boat while running rapids, but always with a dutiful kayak spotter nearby. Floating along, rafters saw monkeys in trees, locals fishing from dugout canoes, and women drying laundry on sunbaked rocks.

As for Uganda's image problem - and Africa's - with things like civil wars and the pirate attack off Somalia, Mr. Bahinguza says, "If this nonsense would stop, we wouldn't have enough places to put all the tourists."

• Wire service material was used in this report.

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