Rwanda takes lion’s share of gorilla tourism

Friday June 27 2014

A baby gorilla. Rwanda remains a popular tourist destination for mountain gorilla trekking. Gorilla tourism in the Virunga Massif earns the country more revenue than Uganda and the DRC even though it is more expensive to see them in Rwanda. Photo/FILE

A baby gorilla. Rwanda remains a popular tourist destination for mountain gorilla trekking. Gorilla tourism in the Virunga Massif earns the country more revenue than Uganda and the DRC even though it is more expensive to see them in Rwanda. Photo/FILE 

By GILBERT MWIJUKE

As Rwanda welcomes conservationists from around the world to celebrate 10 years of Kwita Izina on July 1 in Kinigi, in the Northern Province district of Musanze, the country will also be celebrating its status as the biggest beneficiary of mountain gorilla trekking in the Virunga mountains.

Kwita Izina is an annual naming ceremony for baby gorillas.

The last of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas live in just two locations in the world: About 490 inhabit the Virunga Massif, a chain of volcanic mountains straddling Rwanda’s Volcanoes Park, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga Park, and Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park; another 400 live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Rwanda remains a popular tourist destination for mountain gorilla trekking. Gorilla tourism in the Virunga Massif earns the country more revenue than Uganda and the DRC even though it is more expensive to see them in Rwanda.

Rwanda charges $750 per tourist, while Uganda and the DRC charge $600 and $465 respectively.

Data from the International Gorilla Conservation Programme — a non-profit organisation that works to ensure the conservation of mountain gorillas and their regional afromontane forest habitat in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC — shows that the annual revenue earned directly from gorilla tourism in the Virunga Massif is about $3 million.

With the additional income from hotels and restaurants, the total revenue is about $20 million, which is shared between Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC. The Rwanda Development Board says gorilla tourism earns the country over $10 million per year.

Rwanda’s advantage

Volcanoes National Park is the closest to an international airport, an advantage for Rwanda as the high cost of the gorilla trekking permit is offset by low local transport costs. Tourists can reach Volcanoes in just two hours by road  — good roads at that — from Kigali International Airport.

Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park  is about 10 hours by road from Entebbe International Airport. Tourists  have the option of a two-hour chartered flight  — but this adds to their travel costs.

To get to the DRC’s Virunga National Park takes about six hours from Kigali. However, delays could occur at the Rwanda-DRC border in the process of securing a tourist visa. In addition, the DRC continues to struggle with political instability and official corruption.

The Kwita Izina effect

Since the inception of the Kwita Izina festival in 2005, the mountain gorilla population in the Virunga massif has grown from 370 to 490 in 2014. The gorillas have become accustomed to humans and are a major tourist attraction.

Even though the ceremony of naming newborn gorillas has been part of Rwanda’s culture and tradition for centuries, it was not until 2005 that the Kwita Izina festival was introduced with the aim of creating awareness of conservation efforts to save the endangered mountain gorillas. Since then, newborn gorilla babies have been celebrated in an event held outside the Volcanoes National Park.

According to RDB’s Tourism and Conservation Department, this year’s event — under the theme “A Decade: Conserving, Empowering, Growing” — will see 18 baby gorillas named, the newest arrivals born after last year’s ceremony where 13 babies were named. Some 161 baby gorillas have been named since 2005.

The naming of baby gorillas facilitates the monitoring of each individual in their families and habitat.

“The annual Kwita Izina celebration has further elevated the profile of mountain gorillas globally,” said Anna Behm Masozera, director of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.

“The event not only promotes Rwanda’s tourism by showcasing the unique experience of viewing great apes in the wild, but also raises awareness of their plight as a critically endangered species worthy of every effort to protect them. Equally powerful is Kwita Izina’s celebration of partnerships at the grassroots level, further enhancing an enabling environment for conservation — between people, the park and the gorillas, and across borders,” she added.

Threatened by illegal hunting, war, disease, and habitat loss due to deforestation, the number of mountain gorillas declined dramatically during the 1960s, but started to increase in the 1980s.

The Rwandan group is the only population whose numbers are rising, and the country is home to two-thirds of the Virunga Massif’s endangered mountain gorillas.

This year’s Kwita Izina presents an opportunity to celebrate Rwanda’s achievements in protecting this highly endangered species.

Visitors from East Africa are expected to gather in Rwanda for the festival — one of several events organised by the tourism boards of Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya to promote tourism in the region.

Invited guests and tourists will go on a familiarisation trip across Rwanda’s five provinces, with the aim of acquainting them with the country’s other tourist attractions apart from gorilla trekking. 

In addition to promoting tourism, Kwita Izina has also benefited communities around the Volcanoes National Park. This year’s event will see the official launch of Basumba Primary School in Nyabihu district, which is funded by the RDB under its Tourism Revenue Sharing Scheme.

Over the years, the scheme has raised funds for schools, hospitals, cultural centres, provision of clean water and construction of roads in the community.

This year, tour operators in Musanze expect over 2,000 visitors to throng to the northern Rwandan district to mark a decade of Kwita Izina, according to Greg Bakunzi, the managing director of Amahoro Tours, a local tour and travel company that has been operating from Musanze for the past 16 years.

“During the festival we expect each visitor to spend an average of $120,” Mr Bakunzi said, adding that Musanze’s hospitality industry can accommodate up to 3,000 visitors.

However, even though Kwita Izina comes with all these benefits, local tour operators believe the country should invest more in the promotion of other attractions if Rwanda’s tourism industry is to compete favourably with neighbours like Uganda, which boasts of the Nile, Rwenzori and Elgon mountains, as well as Lake Victoria. 

“Tourists have limited options when they visit Rwanda, because only gorilla trekking gets significant promotion. We need to invest more in other attractions with equal vitality, like cultural tourism for example, if tourists are to come here and stay for a number of days,” Mr Bakunzi said.