The decision by Rwanda to increase the price of gorilla trekking permits is likely to benefit its neighbours Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the world-famous mountain primates are also found.
The Rwanda Development Board (RDB) has increased the fees for both local and international visitors effective from May 6, when the announcement was made.
Foreign tourists will now pay double from $750 to $1,500, while locals and East Africans will pay a similar amount from $36.3, an over 4,000 per cent increase.
RDB has also introduced a new package for tourists wishing to book an entire family of gorillas at a cost of $15,000. The package includes exclusive personalised tour guide services, it says.
The decision to review the charges upwards has elicited concerns from players in the tourism sector, who argue that the new fees will reduce the country’s competitiveness.
Though the rare primates are most popular in Rwanda, the volcanic Virunga mountains range that is home to the gorillas is also shared by Uganda and the DRC.
It is feared that the new rates are likely to force tourists to abandon Rwanda in favour of its neighbours who have not increased their charges.
“We are targeting high-end tourists. I don’t think the low prices in Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo will divert the traffic to those countries,” the RDB chief executive Clare Akamanzi told The EastAfrican.
“Gorilla trekking is a highly unique experience. We have raised the price of permits in order to ensure sustainability of conservation initiatives and enhance visitors’ experience,” she said.
She added that fees would also generate more revenues for communities living around the Volcanoes National Park that will fund development projects and empower them economically.
But the Rwanda Tours and Travel Association (RTTA) said that while it support efforts to conserve the endangered species, the sudden increase of the permit fees will affect the industry adversely.
“We believe an immediate doubling of gorilla permits will be taken negatively by the market, it will affect our businesses and the entire tourism value chain, and we risk losing substantial revenue for the industry and government as a whole,” RTTA said in a statement.
The association accused RDB of failing to consult the stakeholders, adding that this will make it hard for the firms to “manage the sudden and abrupt change.”
The concerns were reiterated by the Rwanda Safari Guides Association (RSGA), which expressed its frustration with the new development.
“We were not given enough time to adjust to this abrupt change.
“As transporters I can assure you that we are not amused by this change. We made big investments and the least we should have got is a question of what we think before the change,” said Patrick Kwizera, the chairman of RSGA.
While RDB said the price increase will not affect tourists who had purchased their tickets before May 6, the decision was met by criticism from hoteliers who said tourists have begun cancelling their bookings.
Rwandans too criticised the move saying the sharp increase locked many of them out.
But Ms Akamazi, defending the raise, said only about four per cent of locals visit the Volcanoes National Park, an indication that they were not interested even when the prices were low.
Rwandans and other East Africans who have been paying $36.3 will now pay $1,500 per permit per visit.
The gorilla permit for foreign residents has gone up 328.5 per cent from $375 to $1,500.
In Uganda, tour operators warned their government against “blindly copying” what the neighbour had done, arguing that it could be detrimental to the region’s tourism sector.
“The immediate change by RDB does not give tour operators in the region enough time to adapt to the tariffs… the decision to increase the price is discriminatory and presents a challenge to the operators to honour contracts made with clients based on the previous rates,” a statement by the Ugandan tour operators reads.
They further argued that while it is undeniable that gorilla trekking is a luxury activity, it should not be limited to high-end individuals only, but should be made accessible to “every conservative conscience” person.
Uganda Wildlife Authority Executive Director Andrew Sseguya told The EastAfrican that the country would not review its fees in reaction to Rwanda.
“It is not yet time for Uganda to revise the fees upwards. We still charge $600 per permit per trek,” said Mr Sseguya.
The gorilla trekking permit in DRC, according to tour operators, is $450 per permit and decreases to about $250 during the low seasons.
On Tuesday, Ms Akamazi, through her Twitter account, said the first $1,500 gorilla trekking permit had already been sold to a Swiss tourist.
Rwanda’s tourism is a major GDP contributor with the gorilla trekking earning the industry huge revenues.
The country targets to earn $444 million in 2017 from the sector with about $64 million expected to be generated from conference tourism.
Despite charging higher than Uganda and DRC, Rwanda has been attracting more gorilla trekking visitors. According to RDB, the country has been issuing about 80 permits each day.
Mountain gorillas are an endangered species with only about 880 remaining in the world.
Of those in the Virunga massif, Rwanda accounts for 62 per cent of the gorilla population. Rigorous conservation measures have seen the gorilla numbers rise in recent years. There are currently 20 gorilla families up from just 9 families in 2010.
Reporting by Edmund Kagire, Kabona Esiara and Ivan Mugisha