East Africa tourism investors bet on conferences to lift sector fortunes

Tuesday June 13 2023

The official opening ceremony of the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held at the Kigali Convention Centre in Rwanda. PHOTO | PSCU


Tourism players in the East African region are banking on the recovering conferences sub-sector to stabilise earnings, following three difficult years ofCovid-19 and other global crises.

In the region, Rwanda could be on track to become a regional hub for MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions/Events) with the country earning $ 62.4 million in 2022 from hosting 104 events. This was a growth from $12.5 million in 2021, signaling a strong recovery from the pandemic.

While several countries in Africa are popular for MICE including South Africa, Morocco and Egypt; in East Africa, Kigali is now competing with Kenya and Tanzania which have a better-developed MICE industry, stronger air connectivity and tourism infrastructure with diverse wildlife and natural attractions.

In fact, Kenya’s own sector is showing signs of recovery with stakeholders diversifying more to reap from MICE.
According to a May 2023 National Bureau of Statistics report, the number of conferences, delegates and bed occupancy at hotels have increased.

The report indicates that the number of local conferences in 2020 were at 1,176, as it hosted just 28 international meetings. Those local meetings have since jumped to 8117 while international conferences reached 292 in 2021.

And despite countries generally easing their Covid-19 protocols, the number of meetings in 2022 grew at a slower pace. There were 9662 local conferences and 896 international workshops.


Read: Cautious optimism as EA economies rise post-Covid

Stakeholders have remained positive in 2023, as the sector says it hosted 615,373 delegates and another 23,105 from other countries in 2022. It is a recovery from virtual meetings that were often held via Zoom, Webex and Skype among other virtual tools.

MICE industries make a substantial part of the revenue for hospitality and accommodation from these events involving booking accommodation and catering and restaurant services, bars, halls, transportation, spa, and many others.

Hospitality industry players from the East African Community including general managers and hotel owners from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are deliberating on how to boost the tourism sector post-Covid-19.

“The Ministry has not allowed the requests of Emirates, KLM, Turkish Airlines, and Qatar Airways to land at the Moi International Airport in Mombasa. This is Kenya’s tourism hub and it denies us international tourists,” said the Kenya Coast Tourist Association (KCTA) Chief Executive (CEO) Julius Owino. Tanzania allows some of these airlines to land directly in Zanzibar, their tourism hub.

Hanze Tours Managing Director Mr Sam Asasiira said policy formulation is the biggest hindrance facing the sector in Uganda.

“We need to diversify and tap more into our tourism products to attract foreigners and regional guests. We must have one common ground and sell EAC as a destination,” said Mr Asasiira.

Uganda, for instance, expects to reap from its leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) starting January 2024 as it will host the 19th Summit of the NAM Heads of State and Government in Kampala. The country will host the 19th Summit at the Speke Resort Munyonyo in January, which could provide local hotels with good clientele.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged international travel in 2020, Uganda had recorded an impressive 1,542,620 foreign visitors the previous year and about $1.6 billion (Ush5.67 trillion) in tourism revenue.

Read: S&P sees slow 2023 growth in key African economies

Hotel brands such as Onomo Hotels, Marriott International, Golden Tulip, Radisson Blu and Hilton International have all come into Uganda in the last seven years.

Now they see the Summit as a key starter. Marriott International, which debuted in Uganda in 2016 with the acquisition of Starwood Hotels (owner of Sheraton), is expanding its portfolio with the 142-guestroom Four Points by Sheraton.

Hilton International, which arrived in Uganda in 2019 with the opening of the 96-room Hilton Garden Inn Kampala, plans to expand its footprint in the country with the new, 244-guestroom Hilton Kampala Hotel, which is also currently under construction in the upscale Nakasero suburb.

Onomo Hotels, which currently runs properties in Senegal, Rwanda, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, South Africa, Mali, Togo, Morocco, Guinea, Cameroon, Mozambique and Tanzania, is also set to open another property in Kampala as it seeks to have at least 3,700 rooms across Africa by 2023.

Rwanda, meanwhile, is banking on the successful hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) last year to keep up the pace. The CHOGM attracted about 5000 delegates.

Next month, Rwanda will this year host another global event - the Women Deliver 2023 Conference (WD2023) from 17-20 July 2023. At least 6000 delegates are expected in person and 200,000+ people online. It will also host the World Travel and Tourism Council Global Summit in November.

Kigali’s prospects as a MICE destination have been enhanced by recent multi-million investments in infrastructure to host conferences and events - including the Kigali Convention Centre, a facility with a seating capacity of up to 2,600 delegates.

It offers a range of conference halls, exhibition spaces, and meeting rooms equipped with the latest technology. It also has a 10,000-seater arena a multipurpose facility that hosts indoor sporting events, concerts and a training center for sports coaches.

To enhance its competitiveness as a conference destination, Rwanda has implemented simplified visa procedures to facilitate the entry of international participants attending conferences and events. Visitors from many countries can obtain a visa on arrival, making it easier for delegates to attend meetings and conferences.

Read: IFC to invest $17.5m in mega complex in Kigali

Growth is also linked to improved air connectivity which has made it easier for international delegates to travel to the country. The national carrier, RwandAir, has expanded its routes and increased flight frequencies, connecting Rwanda to various global destinations.

RwandAir currently operates 28 destinations in 22 countries across Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
However, there are still limitations in terms of direct flights from various international destinations.

This can make it less convenient and potentially more expensive for delegates to travel to Rwanda for conferences and events.

This could be addressed when it concludes its ongoing negotiations with Qatar, which is set to acquire a 49 per cent stake which is expected to double its capacity.

Last week, President Paul Kagame told the Qatar Economic Forum, the new multi-million airport -Bugesera Airport which is partially owned by Qatar - (60 per cent) will be completed in the fourth quarter of next year.

The new airport was redesigned to accommodate seven million passengers per annum, with a second phase for 14 million passengers a year expected to start by 2032.

“We are seeking partnerships with market leaders in different areas…” said President Kagame responding to a question about the nature of its partnership with Qatar.

He said that the country is actively seeking partnerships around the world to grow its economy, citing its recent partnerships including vaccine manufacturing with Germany based - BioTech which is set to start manufacturing vaccines in Kigali, and the Basketball Africa League (BAL), a partnership between the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) and the NBA, a new professional league featuring 12 club teams from across Africa.

Kigali hosted the BAL playoffs and finals from May 20-27.

Read: The magnetic charm of the Kigali Arena

Rwanda has also actively promoted itself as a MICE destination through targeted marketing campaigns and participating in international trade shows and exhibitions.

This week, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) announced that the country will host the inaugural TIME100 Summit and Impact Awards Africa which recognize the most influential people in the world. The events will take place on 17 November at the Kigali Convention Center.

TIME is a 100-year-old global media brand that reaches a combined audience of more than 100 million around the world through its iconic magazine and digital platforms.

“Rwanda is excited to host the prestigious TIME100 Summit and Impact Awards this year. We are a beautiful and diverse destination, rich in cultural heritage, natural wonders, and unique experiences that reflect the warmth and hospitality of our people.

From vibrant cities with picturesque landscapes to pristine beaches, there is something for everyone to discover and enjoy. We look forward to welcoming all TIME100 delegates for memorable experiences this November,” said Rwanda Development Board Chief Executive, Clare Akamanzi in a statement announcing the partnership.

In the same week, Trace, a multimedia and digital platform featuring Afro-Urban music and cultures announced that the Trace Awards & Festival will take place in Kigali, Rwanda from Friday 20 to Saturday 21 October 2023.

Fact box

MICE revenues have grown from $55 million in 2018 peaking at $66 million in 2019 just before the COVID-19 pandemic that hit the sector hard with revenues declining to $4 million in 2020. Since 2021, the sector has been on a rebound fetching $12.5 million in 2021 &$62.4 million in 2022.

Read: African economies set for faster recovery: AfDB

In 2022, Rwanda received a total of 1, 105,460 international visitors. Of these, more than 60 per cent came from African countries. 47.5 per cent of the visitors came for business purposes, reflecting Rwanda’s positioning as a hub for business activities.

Rwanda has collaborated with international organizations and partners to enhance its MICE industry. For example, the Rwanda Convention Bureau (RCB) works closely with international event planners, associations, and conference organizers to attract and host major events in the country.