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News Article

Rwanda: Africa’s expanding high-end tourism destination


Luxury and business sectors targeted for tourism

Last week, I was gorilla trekking in Rwanda, at the end of a journey from Nairobi to Kigali. Checking the travel news when back in the office, I found a Bloomberg Business article from 28 September describing Rwanda as the “unlikeliest tourism destination in Africa”. Considering the situation in the country in the 1990s, it could certainly not have been predicted 20 years ago that tourism could have become the nations leading foreign exchange earner by 2016. For countries currently experiencing conflict and natural or manmade disasters, Rwanda shows what is possible with stable government and policies which support and invest in tourism.

Rwanda in 1994 experienced war and genocide in which at least 800,000 people lost their lives, and millions more were either internally displaced or forced to flee to neighbouring countries. In 1990, approximately 22,000 people visited Rwanda’s three national parks, but this number fell to almost nothing in 1994-1998 before starting to recover. A paper by Okello (2014) reports that by 2007, there were 710,000 tourists to Rwanda generating close to USD 65 Million, which remained a stable figure until it shot up in 2011 (1,089,000 tourists) and 2012 (1,199,000) with tourist numbers over the 1 million mark (a better performance than Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi, and closer only to Kenya). In 2015, arrival numbers were around 1.3 million, and the economic value of the industry continues to increase. Rwanda’s national parks attracted around 68,000 visits in 2014, with the Volcanoes Park providing 93% of all revenues from the three parks in the country.

The main economic contribution of tourism comes through high-value leisure travel dominated by wildlife (particularly gorilla) tourism, and a growing business and conference tourism sector. The American business website export.gov reports that for the first time in 2016, tourism was the country’s leading foreign exchange earner, with total revenues estimated at USD 390 million [more recently reported as $404 million], according to the National Bank of Rwanda. Rwanda Development Board (RDB) has projected that the tourism sector will bring in about $444 million (about Rwf370 billion) in 2017.

The World Bank reports that Rwanda is shaping up as one of East Africa’s premier business tourism destinations, following efforts by the government and its partners to help strengthen and grow the private sector in the meetings, incentives, conferences, and events (MICE) market. In 2016, Rwanda hosted over 40 international conferences, with the Convention Bureau directly engaged in organizing several high-profile events. In 2017, revenues from all business tourism in the country are projected to reach US$64 million, up from $47 million in 2016. To pursue its strategy of growing the business tourism sector, Rwanda has invested in a new convention center in Kigali near major hotel chains, which collectively offer numerous meeting spaces. By the end of 2016, Kigali had 3,400 upper- and middle-range hotel rooms available to accommodate delegates.

The development of MICE tourism, and the re-introduction of big game into several national parks, are part of a deliberate policy to diversify tourism away from Rwanda’s undoubted jewel in the tourism crown: gorilla tracking. Of gorillas in the Virunga Massif, Rwanda accounts for 62% of the gorilla population. The Rwanda Development Board reports that there are currently 20 families habituated for tourism and research in Rwanda, up from just 9 families in 2010. Earlier this year, the country controversially doubled the price of a gorilla permit from $750 to $1500, and removed the cheaper fees previously available to Rwandan residents. But as part of government policies aimed to keep tourists in the country for longer, tourists who visit other national parks (Nyungwe and Akagera) for a minimum of three days, in addition to gorilla trekking, will receive a discount of 30%. Similarly, conference tourists, who stay pre or post conference dates to see gorillas, will be eligible for a 15% discount.

As part of the drive to move away from leisure tourists who come for short visits taking in only the mountain gorillas and the genocide memorials, other big game animals have been recently re-introduced into other national parks. Rwanda now has the big five game animals after the introduction of lions last year and rhinos in May 2017. Eighteen Eastern Black rhinos were successfully translocated from South Africa to Rwanda by African Parks, a non-profit conservation organisation that manages national parks and protected areas on behalf of governments across the continent, in collaboration with the RDB. This summer, Akagera National Park officials confirmed the birth of a rhino calf, the first to be born in Rwanda over a decade.

In a tourism industry which looks to have a bright future, the main uncertainty must be the potential impact of the doubling of the gorilla fee, with Uganda having kept the cost of gorilla tracking down at $600. Unconfirmed reports when I was in Rwanda last week suggested that there had been a steep decline in new permit sales. There was also a suggestion that even if gorilla tourist numbers fell by as much as 65%, the higher price combined with the lower costs (in trackers, guides etc) from lower visitor numbers would mean that revenue from gorilla tourism would still increase. But that doesn’t allow for the consequences of fewer visitors for the rest of the tourist industry around the Virunga Massif. Members of the party I was with went on other local activities run by young local guides, such as cultural village visits, and boat rides on the Crater Lakes. Fewer visitors would mean less business for local drivers, guides, porters and accommodation providers, and a decrease in benefits to local communities which could outweigh the increase in the proportion of the gorilla permits (from 5 to 10%) which is spent on supporting local communities and projects. If overland trips through Eastern Africa such as the one I was on become too expensive to attract customers after the permit price rise, this will again hit income of guides, drivers and locally-owned campsites used by such tours. Or to keep such tours affordable, itineraries may be altered to spend more time in Uganda and visit the gorillas there rather than in Rwanda.

Rwanda is deliberately aiming for high-cost, low-volume tourism, but there is a difficult balance to be made that should not make it more difficult for Rwandans to run their own tourism businesses. High-end tourists will want to stay in luxury hotels which are most often foreign-owned, and local organizations such as the Volcanoes Opportunities Association who I did a tour with the day before gorilla trekking, may find it harder to be incorporated in the tourism supply chains. Groups such as the VOA, which is owned by local guides and ensures that 60% of money paid by tourists goes directly to the local people, are the best means of keeping local support for tourism and conservation. Rwanda – currently one of the cleanest and safest countries to visit not just in Africa, but globally – must somehow keep tourism at a level which brings economic development with minimal negative environmental impact, while at the same time not excluding smaller local businesses from the tourism supply chain by keeping visitor numbers too low and targeting only the wealthiest tourists who may require a standard of facilities too expensive for local operators to provide.

Among tourism studies on Rwanda indexed on the Leisure Tourism database, Illius et al. (2014) examines the potential of community-based tourism to alleviate poverty among rural populations. Spencer et al. (2014) examine models of integrating local community inputs in the tourism value chain in Rwanda. Friedrich and Johnston (2013) report on how genocide memorials are becoming incorporated into the national tourism product, and how this may complicate the reconciliation process still taking place in the country. Revenue sharing models in which funds from gorilla tourism are channelled into conservation in Central Africa are discussed by Mukanjari et al. (2012).

Article details

  • Author(s)
  • David Simpson
  • Date
  • 03 October 2017
  • Subject(s)
  • Tourism