Destination marketing through sport sponsorship is not a new concept; it has been used successfully by Mexico, Bermuda, Florida, Alberta and many other cities, states, and countries.
However, the Visit Rwanda sponsorship of Arsenal Football Club’s jersey sleeve for $39 million over three years is raising eyebrows worldwide.
Though the reported objective of the partnership is to increase tourism to Rwanda, after studying the capacity of the country as a destination, the strategy is questionable.
Furthermore, it is widely known that the president of Rwanda is an avid fan of the team, something that has many people questioning the true motive behind this high-priced investment.
The main tourism attractions in Rwanda are trekking to see endangered mountain gorillas in the wild and visiting the genocide memorials to learn about the turbulent past of the country.
There are currently 10 gorilla families habituated to human contact, and each family can be exposed to one group of eight tourists for a one-hour period each day. This comes to 80 visitors per day or 29,200 maximum per year, which is just under the total number of US visitors to Rwanda for the entire year.
In 2016, Rwanda attracted 1,307,000 overnight visitors with the majority of tourists from Africa (84.63 per cent), Europe (5.25 per cent), and America (3 per cent).
Tourists from the US (30,078), the UK (13,277), and India (11,983) represent the majority of visitors from outside the African continent. Based on United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) historical data, tourism has increased 23 per cent since 2012.
Moreover, current trends show reduced interest in visiting the destination. This may have to do with the decision by the Rwanda Development Board in 2017 to increase the price of gorilla permits from $750 to $1,500.
The doubling of fees coupled with the limited supply of permits, quality hotels, and supplementary tourism products has encouraged tour operators to promote neighbouring Uganda as a more affordable and attractive option.
Taking a simplistic approach to return on investment, assuming each visitor spends $5,000 per trip, a total of 2,600 new tourists will need to book travel to Rwanda per year to break even on the Arsenal investment.
This equation does not account for the fact that, in developing countries, up to 90 per cent of the tourism dollars spent by each tourist does not stay in the country, a situation referred to as “leakage.”
Add to this the fact that, during the peak summer season, Rwanda is completely booked up with little room to add capacity; there are no non-stop flights to Rwanda from the UK nor does Emirates, Arsenal’s airline partner, fly there.
Rwanda would thus probably be better off spending its money on tourism development rather than on sponsorship to market a limited, somewhat inferior tourism product.
Many people have also expressed concern that Rwanda, which receives millions of dollars in aid from the UK, the Netherlands, and the US, among other countries, and question whether such funds should be spent on sponsoring a European football club.
Rwanda’s response is that the sponsorship money comes from tourism revenues and is being reinvested with the aim of doubling tourism revenues from the current $400 million to $800 million by 2024.
This rationale is questionable given the already pointed out limitation of tourism infrastructure and product to offer potential visitors.
In terms of media exposure, a sentiment analysis of Twitter activity after the sponsorship announcement with the keywords "Rwanda and Arsenal" yielded responses that were more negative than positive.
What was expected to be a benefit for both parties, generated considerable negative publicity instead.
Another stated benefit is that Arsenal players will visit Rwanda to promote local sport. Will this actually promote sport for health or dreams of being a professional player?
A better approach may be to organise a service trip where Arsenal players and fans travel to Rwanda to help build tourism, sport, and/or education related infrastructure and give back to the local communities.
In contrast with Rwanda, Uganda has focused on the development of its tourism product starting in 1991 and now has 15 habituated gorilla groups.
Habituated gorilla groups are accustomed to human beings, a process that takes a minimum of two years. Uganda also holds the advantage in terms of luxury safari-style accommodation and a more rounded tourism experience with additional national parks for safaris.
Rwanda opened its first sustainable luxury lodge in 2017 and is reintroducing lions and black rhinos into one of its national parks.
Although Rwanda was where early research on gorillas and the idea of habituation started, gorilla tourism began in the Buhoma section of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which is now the area with the best infrastructure including an excellent community hospital, lodges, activities such as mountain biking, village walks, and the Batwa Experience which consists of a hike into the forest with the Batwa pygmies, the first people of the forest.
Such focused product development strategies have helped Uganda grow its tourism; similarly, Rwanda can benefit from continuing to invest in such activities as opposed to dedicating large sums of money to programmes that, while flashy, have less of an opportunity to generate a sustainable return on investment and positive sentiment in the media and online communities.
Lisa Delpy Neirotti is a professor of sport management and tourism studies at George Washington University in the US.