19th August 2004.
Rwanda creates unique tourism

By Emmanuel N. Mugarura

One thing on which many visitors to the continent agree is that the physical beauty of Rwanda is the best in Africa. Spectacular volcanoes and dense tropical forests dominate the north of the country, while gentle hills and valleys, calm lakes and turbulent rivers in both savannah and dense tropical vegetation dominate the rest of the country.

Ms Chantal Rosette Rugamba, the director of Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN), says the country has set clear goals and targets to turn Rwanda into a major tourist destination in the Great Lakes Region.

“We have natural endowment which has not been exploited in the past. We now have the chance to show the world what we have so that we can earn from it,” Rugamba said in an interview.

President Paul Kagame tours the newly refurbished Kivu Sun Hotel after opening it. Immediately behind him on the left is Ms Chantal Rosette Rugamba, the director of Rwanda’s tourism agency.

Rwanda has rich wildlife. The Parc National des Volcans in northern Rwanda is home to the world’s largest number of endangered mountain gorillas. The gorillas live in a protected area, free from poachers. Visitors can view the gorillas in their natural mountain habitats at very close range.

Rwanda has one of Africa’s richest bird species. Some 670 different bird species have been identified. In terms of flora, the gorgeous wildflowers of the forests and mountains capped with more than 100 orchid species in Nyungwe alone are any botanist’s paradise.

The Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda is teeming with wildlife both large and small. They range from lions, giraffes, elephants and hippopotamus to hyena, impala and the gazelle. There is a rich variety of bird life at Akagera as well.

“The government of Rwanda has made tourism a priority and we have clear strategies on how we can benefit from the potential that we have,” Rugamba said of the ambitious tourism targets the country has set for 2010. The government has a larger vision for the rest of the economy, up to 2020, but the tourism industry has more immediate targets to achieve.

“We set the targets at 2010. We wanted to achieve a sustainable tourism policy, a clear and known way of handling the industry. But as we talk now, we already have some tangible benefits from our effort,” Rugamba said.

The tangible benefits include some US $100 million that tourism brought to Rwanda last year. Rwanda’s strategy was, first, to understand the type of clients the country wanted and then offer what those tourists desired. Then the country would look for means to bring them to Rwanda.

Rugamba said that apart from nature, Rwanda has tourism potential in the history, the people and the culture that foreigners would be interested in knowing.

“We knew we were a small country, geographically, so our target was to make sure we attract as many people as possible and be able to keep them in the country for longer periods,” a confident Rugamba said.

“We want to change Rwanda from a gorilla-mono-tourism [focus] and diversify what someone can come and see in the country,” she said.

Fears of insecurity following the 1994 genocide and its aftermath are now all in the past. “We are now very secure and people have started coming in with confidence. The animals too have come back. So we are doing well,” Rugamba said.

For now, Rwanda aims to attract at least 70,000 visitors a year who can spend about 1,400 dollars a week. “This is modest expenditure, but once you start with this and make sure [you have many things for tourists to visit and enjoy], you are increasing the period a visitor will stay in the country,” Rugamba said.

In particular, Rwanda is trying to attract eco-tourists in an attempt to diversify attractions. “We knew what an eco-tourist wants to see. They are interested in nature,” Rugamba said.

Rwanda is marketing the golden monkeys as a new product in the Virunga forests. The government habituated the monkeys in order to give tourists more opportunities and variety.

A tourist visiting the Virunga ranges does not only see the monkeys but also has a choice of mountain climbing, and other things. This is in addition to the rich flora and nature walks around the mountains.

“The intention was to end the monopoly of gorilla tourism, so that the tourists can spend time visiting other things,” Rugamba said.

“We call this the ‘Primates Trip’. This allows you to stretch your holiday from the Virungas to Yungwe which [offers] 13 types of primates,” Rugamba said.

Yungwe forest has at least 17 types of birds, and is very rich in some of those rare tropical plants. “It is actually the source of the River Nile that Speke forgot to ‘discover’. It is virgin forest that anyone would love,” the Rwanda tourism boss said.

The extended visit to the Virungas and Yungwe now stretches to 15 days; compared to just two days before Rwanda introduced the present tourism philosophy.

Rwanda also has a new cultural package for tourists. This includes visiting the Nyanza Palace, the burial ground for Rwanda’s ancient kings. The trip takes you through the Butare University to Nyanza, in southern Rwanda.

“We don’t forget the genocide sites which dot the whole route. We allow the people to see our past, which we cannot ignore. But we also show the people that we are willing to change the past,” Rugamba said.

Visiting Rwanda is more than the standard tourism experience. “It’s not just a holiday. It is meant to teach you as you also relax.”

For example, the trips include special lessons on conservation. Interaction with local people helps the visitor to appreciate what the country went through, particularly during the 1994 genocide.

Rwandans are such a good people that anybody who meets them wonders how terrible things such as genocide could have happened.

“You can’t understand how this could happen with such an angelic country, such a great people… That makes the people very exceptional,” Rugamba said.

Only ten years after the genocide, it is amazing how Rwandan people have managed to set goals and achieve them in such a short time.

Where does Rwanda position herself in the region as far as tourism is concerned? Rugamba has the answer on her fingertips.

“Rwanda is a compliment destination. When we go to Kenya, we ask them to add Rwanda as part of them because we have something different to offer. They have the big animals, we have the culture and the Virungas that they don’t have,” she said.

In Uganda, Rwandan tourism promoters tell the tourists of the differences between the two countries. For example, visiting the mountain gorillas on the Ugandan side is not the same as seeing them on the Rwandan side. Ugandan culture is also different from that of Rwanda.

Rwanda looks at regional neighbours not as competitors for tourists, but as a learning experience that will help the industry in Rwanda to grow.

With regional integration and greater economic harmony, Kigali tourism officials are creating a package where the mountain climbing package in Rwanda includes the Uganda ranges as well.
“We have a clear vision of what we want. We are saying come, not everybody, but those who prepared to pay a little bit more,” Rugamba said.

Rwanda seems to be succeeding in developing a niche market because there are tourists willing to spend some money on some other things.

“We shall make sure that we package our Primate Trips to be equivalent to none in the region. We are committed to making maximum use of the Virungas because they are unique,” Rugamba said.

Rwanda, a country of just 26,340 square kilometres, benefits from its size as tourists can visit all destinations within very short periods.

The longest journey, which takes a tourist to the Virungas, is just 300kms or three hours drive from the city centre.

Rwanda’s other advantage is that the country is bi-lingual (French and English). It thus easily attracts visitors from both the French-speaking and English-speaking world.

Rwanda has also benefited from the experiences of other countries in the region that ventured into tourism before it aggressively started to market itself.

“Having started our tourism late, we are able to learn from the mistakes of other countries,” Rugamba said.

The benefits are already flowing in; the country has already started getting direct foreign investment. This is in part because Rwanda has identified what it wants and the kind of visitors and investors it wants to help transform the country.
In 2003, Rwanda received 25,000 visitors spending an average of seven days in the country, 10,000 more visitors than anticipated.

In the first six months of 2004, Rwanda received more than 17,000 visitors to the national parks compared to 16,000 visitors to the parks in the whole of last year. Rwandan President Paul Kagame is taking a leading role to market the country to foreign tourists.

“President Kagame has been at the forefront. He has been our ambassador and we are grateful for that,” Rugamba said.