Rwanda’s emergence onto the world stage is evident from the growing success in the tourism sector. Recently, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) reported that the country received $200 million in tourism revenue and brought in a total of 666,000 tourists in 2010 alone.. This is indeed a promising sign for the small, landlocked country that regards its tourism industry as one of its most important economic assets. The opportunity to trek the iconic mountain gorillas, located in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda’s Northern Province, has undoubtedly been the major catalyst in the country’s dramatic increase in tourism revenue since the park reopened in 1999 (with only 417 visitors that year). The international attention surrounding the gorillas, coupled with rising awareness of Rwanda’s inspirational post-genocide development, has given the country a reputation as an alluring tourist destination. Furthermore, in a study conducted by The Africa Group [TAG] and Africa investor [Ai], it was concluded that Africa, as a whole, is missing out on approximately $200 billion a year in tourism revenue ($254 Bn as opposed to the actual $54 Bn earned in 2010). The key for Rwanda going forward, it seems, is to figure out how to best position itself to gain a substantial slice of a potential 254 billion dollar pie.
The question is: How big is Rwanda’s sweet tooth?
Tourism in Rwanda, like many other African countries, is not without its challenges. In Rwanda, human resource development and skills training are not proportionate to the relatively high price for accommodations, dining and park permits. This has created a value-for-money discrepancy that hinders the quality of hospitality that the private sector is currently able to offer. Business owners suffer from a lack of qualified applicants and rely heavily on training employees in-house or on bringing in staff from neighboring countries. A more critical issue might be found in the country’s greatest tourism asset: the mountain gorillas. There are a total of fifty-six permits available each day to visit the gorillas, representing 20,440 permits a year; conservation concerns and environmental restrictions keep the number of daily permits from increasing significantly. In 2008, there were almost 20,000 visitors to Volcanoes National Park, gorilla trekkers accounting for roughly 85% of those (17,000). As the allure of the mountain gorillas continues to swell, the demand for permits will eventually exceed the supply available, which is now the case during peak trekking seasons. Increasing the already high price for a permit ($500 per person) is an option but will only be advantageous to a certain point, after which clients will simply choose to trek elsewhere—trekking is also available in the Ugandan and the DRC sections of the park. Revenue from gorillas will reach a point of saturation, where the exponential rise in profit, which has marked the last decade, will ultimately mature.
Still another issue of concern is the ‘cherry-picking’ of Rwanda’s mountain gorilla asset by neighboring countries. Tour operators from these countries, whose tourism markets are well-established and bring in millions of visitors every year, take clients into Rwanda for the shortest amount of time as is necessary to trek the gorillas and return to their country’s ‘safari’ experience. This trend points to a crucial problem in Rwandan tourism, namely, the lack of complimentary experiences available to entice tourists to prolong their visits. The average length of stay for high-end visitors in Rwanda is just over three nights with an average spending rate of $500 a day. This statistic is especially astounding considering the heavy amount of travel time necessary to get to Rwanda in the first place—which is a problem in itself. Simply increasing the average length of stay for high-end visitors from three to, say, six nights, would make an immediate and decisive impact on Rwanda’s tourism industry.
The key is creating experiences worth staying for…
Rwanda’s over-reliance on the gorilla market is not without genuine reason. The country’s other tourist attractions, including two other national parks, twenty-three lakes, and a number of cultural and community-based initiatives, have largely remained underdeveloped and underutilized. However, this trend is set to change in the near future as the Government has recently recognized six high-potential tourism locations, dubbed Destination Management Areas [DMAs], that are to be sustainably developed, maintained and marketed by both public and private entities. The potential of these DMAs, as attractive and profitable tour destinations, is far greater than their current earnings might suggest. Let’s take a look at the country’s two other national parks, Akagera and Nyungwe—destinations offering two very unique and authentic Rwandan experiences.
One of the oldest national parks in Africa, Akagera was gazetted in 1934. Rwanda’s only true savannah terrain, Akagera was well known for its rich wildlife, unique vegetation, and massive wetland systems. The permanent water supply from the wetlands allowed animals to stay near the park year round instead of making long, annual migrations in search of fresh water and grass. This attribute made Akagera an ideal park for viewing (and hunting) big game. In the 1970’s and 80’s Akagera dominated Rwanda’s tourism market, accounting for an average of over seventy-three percent of total park visits between 1974 and 1989. Conversely, the years leading up to and following the genocide of 1994 saw the near destruction of the park due to high instability, encroachment and poaching. The park’s original size of 2500 sq. km was reduced almost two-thirds to roughly 1000 sq. km, and much of the rich wildlife that made Akagera such a popular destination was lost.Recently, however, the RDB signed a renewable, twenty-year joint partnership with African Parks Network, an accomplished South African based non-profit managing nearly 2,500,000 sq. km of protected area in five different African countries. The public-private partnership created Akagera Management Board, a body mandated to manage, oversee, and facilitate the restoration of the park to its former glory. Initial strategies include: improving law enforcement, constructing a state-of-the-art electrical fence, reintroducing key wildlife (making Akagera once again a Big Five reserve), educating and empowering local community members, and building a luxury game lodge or tented camps within the park.
Nyungwe Forest became a national park in 2005 (although it became a forest reserve in 1933) and is one of Rwanda’s most exceptional destinations. The park is located along the Albertine Rift, a series of mountain ranges regarded as one of Africa’s most important conservation hotspots due to its plethora of biodiversity and endemic species. Nyungwe covers almost 1000 sq. km and reaches elevations of up to 3000 meters. This mountainous, high-altitude rainforest is extremely rich in biodiversity, claiming over 280 avian, eighty-six mammal, and thirteen primate species. Nyungwe Forest is also said to be the location of the ‘truest’ and most remote source of the Nile River. Recent development of the park has led to a network of hiking trails, guided chimpanzee and colobus monkey treks, and a brand new canopy walk that stretches ninety meters long and as high as fifty meters above the ground. In addition, a new five-star lodge is now operating just outside the park, which is swiftly becoming the staple of Rwandan luxury and hospitality.
The ‘gorilla-only’ knock on Rwanda as a destination doesn’t feel so ominous after looking at these two diamonds in the rough. Are we beginning to salivate?
The key to gaining a profitable and sustainable competitive advantage is in the successful positioning of Rwanda as a distinctively unique package, an amalgamation of three (and potentially more) of the most diverse and extraordinary experiences available anywhere in Africa. Adhering to Aristotle’s famous saying, the whole, in this case, is truly more than the sum of its parts. Thus, the true value of the iconic mountain gorillas lay not in its potential to bring in exponential returns, but in its goodwill—that is, in its intangible worth as Rwanda’s key, and most recognizable, attraction. The future success of Rwandan tourism is contingent upon both the public and the private sectors’ ability to bring the country’s most promising tourism assets to an elite and competitive level, while effectively branding them as such. If accomplished, East African competitors will no longer be able to ‘poach’ on the gorillas, because visitors will know Rwanda as a destination in and of itself— a clean, safe and stable country worthy of a full-length adventure.
Ultimately, potential must yield to product, talk must yield to action, and dreams must become reality. Rwanda’s hunger will then be satisfied—with a fat piece of pie.
Griffin Richards is the new Hospitality Coordinator at Bridge2Rwanda. He spent the last year running Discover Rwanda, a tour company based in the Northern Province.
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