As Rwanda started rebuilding after the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, tourism was considered one the economic pillars that would not only bring in much- needed foreign exchange, but also change the image of hopelessness that the international community had of the country.
The government worked on restoring peace and security in the country, and especially secured the Volcanoes National Park in Musanze district, Northern Province, the home of the endangered mountain gorillas.
“Rwanda was difficult to sell in the first years that followed the end of the genocide because tourists out there perceived it to be dangerous. The genocide gave Rwanda a very bad image abroad,” said Greg Bakunzi, who started working as a tour guide in the country in 1997 and is currently the founder and managing director of travel concern Amahoro Tours.
Two decades later, things have completely changed and the country is now an established tourist destination.
Rwanda’s tourism sector has enjoyed tremendous growth in the past 15 years, growing from a sector earning $62 million a year sector in 2000 to $303 million a year in 2014 — a boom that has been driven by the country’s economic and social revival. Tourism is currently the country’s highest foreign exchange earner after tea and coffee.
Bakunzi attributes this to security, good infrastructure and sanitation.
“Bad transport infrastructure and insecurity tend to keep tourists away; in Rwanda, all these components are fine,” he said.
Kenya, on the other hand, which has traditionally had a very successful and lucrative tourism sector, has suffered from the effects of insecurity at its Coastal circuit, which has almost killed off the sector.
According to the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), 1.17 million tourists visited Rwanda last year, mainly drawn by the prospect of seeing mountain gorillas, especially the silver backs — an endangered species found in the Volcanoes National Park.
The majority of tourists to Rwanda come from the US, India, Britain, Belgium and Germany. American tourists contribute 20 per cent of Rwanda’s total tourism revenues, according to RDB.
To kick-start the sector after years of stagnation, the government began by aggressively marketing the mountain gorillas, which are only found in the Virunga chain of volcanic mountains that straddle Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Gorilla trekking is considered a unique product and is sold to tourists at a premium of $750 per permit per person (Uganda charges $600). However, Rwanda’s pride is in the ability for one to do the gorilla trek day and fly back home, which is impossible for Uganda.
In 2005, RDB introduced the Kwita Izina festival as a highlight of the tourism year. This is an annual baby gorilla naming and conservation ceremony aimed at creating awareness of efforts to the critically endangered species. This festival has inculcated community ownership of gorilla tourism.
Since the inception of Kwita Izina a decade ago, RDB says the country’s mountain gorilla population has grown from 370 in 2005 to about 514 in 2015 and is the country’s biggest tourist attraction. Rwanda earns $10 million annually from gorilla tourism alone, RDB says.
Gorillas aside, the over one million annual visitors to Rwanda also have the option of going fishing on Lake Kivu, doing the canopy walk in the Nyungwe National Park, or going on a guided walk among the herds of elephant and buffalo in the Akagera National Park, which is also home to about 525 bird species, according to recent RDB data.
Last year alone, Rwanda earned $16.8 million from 67,696 visits to its three national parks, with the Volcanoes National Park raking in 93 per cent of all revenues generated from the parks.
Quest for more
Now RDB wants to attract more tourists and earn at least $860 million from tourism by 2016.
“The target for the tourism industry in Rwanda is to grow by 25 per cent per annum; and we believe that it is achievable,” said Faustin Karasira, the head of the tourism department at RDB.
Karasira cites the East African single tourist visa as one of the innovations that will boost growth in the tourism sector. The new $100 visa, which was introduced in February last year, allows multiple entries to Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda for 90 days without added costs or bureaucracy.
However, tour operators say the visa may not add significant value to Rwanda’s tourism sector.
“The single tourist visa is not working for us because not many tourists are interested in visiting all the three countries,” said Darius Dossantos, the business development manager at Kings Tours and Travel in Kigali.
Dossantos argues that the single tourist visa is expensive for most tourists who come with only one or two East African countries in mind, given that the cost of a one country-entry visa is after all just $50.
Out of the over five million tourists who visited East Africa last year, only 1,560 applied for the single tourist visa.
But the multiple entry visa aside, the RDB is not satisfied with just gorilla tourism. It is also banking on new products such as religious tourism, cultural tourism, chimpanzee trekking, caves tourism and the Congo Nile Trail to grow tourism further.
“Almost every year, we have been introducing new tourism products into the market and new investments from both the public and private sectors will keep contributing to the growth of the industry,” said Mr Karasira.
The Congo Nile Trail has been hailed by tour operators as the best product RDB has packaged in recent years. It is a 10 day, 227-kilometre hike that begins from the shores of Lake Kivu in Rubavu district and goes through Rusizi and Karongi before ending in Nyamasheke district.
“That is RDB’s best initiative so far,” says Dossantos. “Tourists who come for the Congo Nile Trail have to stay in the country for a couple of days more than those who come to see the mountain gorillas, for instance. The more days they spend in the country means the more money they spend, hence more tourism revenue.”
Dossantos thinks that Rwanda can do better if RDB thinks outside the box when it comes to creating new experiences for tourists by going beyond the traditional safari and also investing more in marketing.
“We need to look at how to develop cultural activities that will attract more tourists,” he said.
The tour operator believes that, like the Octoberfest beer tasting festival in Germany or the music festivals in Zanzibar and Cape Town that attract thousands of visitors from around the world, “Rwanda also has a unique and interesting culture that it can expose to the world and draw more tourists. Like the Rwandan traditional dance, for example,” he said.
On the marketing end, Mr Dossantos takes a swipe at RDB: “It should stop marketing mountain gorillas year in year out and start marketing the country’s hidden treasures.”
Speaking in a metaphor, he added: “Having good tourist attractions that are not well-marketed is like winking at a beautiful girl at night.”
Also, Mr Dossantos says Rwanda should invest more money in marketing if it is to rank favourably as a competitive destination in East Africa. Currently, Rwanda spends $5 million in marketing tourism. Kenya’s budget is $40 million, Uganda’s is $8 million while Tanzania spends $20 million, according to Mr Dossantos.
Burundi, which earns about $50 million from the sector, invests about $1.5 million in marketing.
Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania all earn more than $1 billion from tourism per year. However, Kenya’s tourism has in the past year been in the doldrums.
It could also be argued that Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania are bigger countries in size and each one of them has more national parks than Rwanda or Burundi. Uganda has 10 national parks while Kenya has close to 40 national parks and wildlife game reserves. Tanzania has 15 national parks while Rwanda and Burundi have three each.
Rwanda’s flourishing tourism industry has led to a growing demand for accommodation, which has attracted international hotel chains such as Serena, Hilton and Marriot.
The coming of international hotel chains has made Rwanda a much sought after destination for conferences and meetings in the region. Last year alone, Rwanda hosted 19,085 conference visitors, earning the country $29 million in revenue.
So-called meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) tourism is expected to expand after the opening of the Kigali Convention Centre whose construction is expected to be complete in 2016. It will have 11 conference rooms with a seating capacity of 2,600 people and will have a hotel and several bars and restaurants.
Unfortunately, Kigali’s nightlife, which was fairly vibrant a few years ago, has now been stifled by noise restrictions by the Kigali City Council.
The city’s nightlife was booming following Rwanda’s admission into the East African Community bloc in 2007, a move that led to an influx of foreigners with a tradition of late-night partying.
This was boosted by the proliferation of classy nightclubs in the swanky Nyarutarama suburb and a string of hangouts for middle and low-income Kigalians in Nyamirambo, with the latter being one of the few places in Kigali that stay open late into the night.
However, industry players like Greg Bakunzi of Amahoro Tours said city authorities need to come to a compromise on noise restrictions with players in the hospitality industry for the sake of the country’s tourism industry, because a vibrant nightlife is key to attracting visitors.