As all eyes are on Nairobi for the July 24-26 Global Entrepreneurs Summit that will be graced by US President Barack Obama, Kigali, Rwanda is quietly but steadily building its reputation as a choice destination for meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE).
And things seem to be looking up for Rwanda’s MICE sector. Later this year, the country will host the Interpol General Assembly and next year the annual Africa Hotel Investment Forum, the World Economic Forum on Africa and the African Union Summit.
Since 2007, tourism has been Rwanda’s top foreign-exchange earner, generating up to $303 million in 2014 for the exchequer.
Rwanda is currently world famous for its gorillas tracking tours and over the past decade, growing number of tourists have been visiting on the Volcanoes National Park in the Northern Province to see the primates.
In the region, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have established tourism sectors but this has not deterred Rwanda from developing its hotels and conference centres to competitive standards.
Itching to grab a slice of the regional conferencing pie, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) is now moving to make meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions the base of its tourism sector as the country looks to events as one way of diversifying its tourism products and economy.
“We have recently noticed a growing trend of interest in holding international meetings in Rwanda. So, we now have a strategy to promote meetings, conferences and exhibitions in the country,” said Francis Gatare, the chief executive of RDB.
Today, Rwanda can proudly say that it has successfully hosted top international meetings and conferences, including the Transform Africa Summit in October 2013 (which was attended by 1,500 delegates), the African Development Bank Annual General Assembly in May 2014 (2,500 delegates), the Africa Insurance Summit in June 2014 (800 delegates), and the ICTs World Export Development Forum in September 2014 (800 delegates).
“MICE is not only a very powerful marketing tool for the country but also a big revenue generator,” said Yamina Karitanyi, the chief tourism officer at RDB, at a press briefing on July 8 to announce the annual Africa Hotel Investment Forum to be held next year.
Karitanyi’s remarks were based on RDB’s statistics, which show that the MICE sector has become a big boost for Rwanda’s tourism industry in the recent past. In 2014, Rwanda received 1.17 million tourists, of which 19,085 were conference visitors, accounting for 1.6 per cent of the total figure.
And even though leisure remains a vital part of Rwanda’s tourism industry, statistics show that conference visitors spend many times more than leisure tourists. Last year alone, the MICE sector earned Rwanda $50 million, accounting for 16.5 per cent of the total revenues generated from tourism, according to Karitanyi.
Today, Rwanda is ranked 13th most sought after MICE destination on the continent by the International Congress and Convention Association and, according to Frank Murangwa, head of the MICE division at RDB, the country’s MICE sector is growing at a rate of 12 per cent per year.
Rwanda’s MICE appeal lies in the country’s “good security and its record of getting things done,” said Mathew Weihs, managing director of Bench Events, the United Kingdom-based events company that is organising next year’s Africa Hotel Investment Forum.
“Security and the ability to get things done are key issues event organisers consider when choosing a conference venue,” Mr Weihs said. “Now all Rwanda has to do is to make sure that it paints the picture that this is for the long term.”
Increased air connectivity over the years is also one of the factors that have boosted Rwanda’s MICE sector by making the country easily accessible.
The number of international airlines operating in the country has increased from five in 2010 to nine in 2015. South African Airways, Qatar Airways, KLM, Turkish Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Kenya Airways, flydubai, Emirates Cargo and Ethiopian Airlines are all currently operating in Rwanda.
And with the steady revival of RwandAir, the national carrier, things are looking up for the country’s aviation industry. RwandAir is currently connecting up to 18 hubs in East Africa, West Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
Moreover, Africans coming to or transiting through Rwanda don’t need visas prior to travel; they can get them on arrival in the country.
Last year, in a bid to fuel the growth of the sector, the government upgraded the Kigali International Airport, increasing its annual capacity to 1.6 million passengers, up from 600,000 before last year’s expansion works, according to Tonny Barigye, Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority’s communications manager.
The upgrade, which included building new terminals, gates and a VIP lounge, earned the airport the number seven spot in Africa and number one in East Africa in UK-based consultancy firm Skytrax’s airports rankings.
But the government embarked on the expansion of Kigali International Airport only as a short-term solution to the problem of insufficient aviation infrastructure as passenger numbers increased.
For a long-term solution, there are plans to construct a new international airport in Bugesera — 20 kilometres south of Kigali — which is expected to provide both extra capacity for passenger transport and also develop the cargo freight business.
Rwanda’s MICE sector has also been boosted by the fact that English and French are two of its three official languages, which makes the country more international than its East African neighbours, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, which have only English as the official international language.
Investing in conference facilities
As the country seeks to establish itself as a quality MICE destination, the government has put in place a number of strategies to satisfy international event organisers who seek luxury conference facilities, one of them being the construction of the Kigali Convention Centre.
The multimillion dollar conference facility, which will have 11 conference rooms with a seating capacity of 2,600 people, a hotel and several bars and restaurants, is expected to open in the first half of 2016.
The RDB believes that the new conference facility will position Rwanda as the leading MICE destination in East Africa.
“With the Kigali Convention Centre, we will be able to bid for bigger conferences that we are not able to host right now,” Mr Murangwa said.
The Kigali Convention Centre aside, a good number of international hotel chains have also set up in the country, including Radisson Blu, Serena, Marriot, Park Inn, Sheraton, Zinc, Protea and Golden Tulip.
All these hotels have the capacity accommodate more than 3,000 people, Mr Murangwa said.
Still, according to industry players, there are still some hurdles to be overcome before the country can realise its target of generating at least $150 million annually in MICE revenues by 2017.
While infrastructure is a major concern, the country cannot ignore competition from neighbouring countries such as Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania that have established themselves as MICE destinations long before Rwanda joined the fray.
“There is no doubt Kampala and Nairobi will give Kigali a run for its money because their MICE sectors are well established. Even though I am optimistic the Kigali Convention Centre will add significant value to our MICE tourism, one cannot compare it to, say, Kenya’s Kenyatta International Convention Centre,” said Darius Dossantos, proprietor of Kings Tours and Travel in Kigali.
However, the tour operator believes that to keep up with neighbouring destinations the RDB shouldn’t completely shift focus to MICE tourism and ignore other segments of the tourism industry.
“You don’t invite a visitor to your house to smile at only you; he should smile at your entire family,” he said. “RDB should make sure that when conference visitors come to Rwanda they also visit our tourist attractions. If they are impressed by what they see outside the conference halls, the chances are that they’ll come back.”
If Rwanda is to be ahead in the game, Mr Weihs said that it should avoid comparing itself with its regional neighbours and focus on competing with more established MICE markets in Europe and Asia.
“By competing with established global markets in the MICE sector, Rwanda will be able to get ahead of its neighbours,” he said.
Away from competition, lack of a skilled labour force in the hospitality sector also poses a major challenge to Rwanda’s MICE ambitions, noted Francine Havugimana, the proprietor of Impala Hotels and current deputy chairperson of the tourism chamber at the Private Sector Federation.
RDB’s Murangwa concurred that skilled labour is a challenge, but said the country will be setting up colleges dedicated to hospitality training. “We have some investors who are interested in investing in hospitality training so we are optimistic that this problem will soon be addressed,” he said.