The Rwanda Development Board’s Tourism and Conservation Division earlier in the week released their latest data on the trends the tourism industry has taken in 2011. It came as no surprise for informed observers that for instance TripAdvisor saw an increase of over 650 percent in visits to Rwandan hotel and lodge reviews compared to 2010, considering the growing popularity of Rwanda as an eco friendly tourism destination. As more visitors come to Rwanda, more and more of them write their reviews of the properties they stayed in on TripAdvisor -katona tours, as this correspondent by the way has done in the past under his screen name of ‘Safariafficionado’, and applaud the risen standards of hotels in Kigali, lodging facilities upcountry and the safari lodges and camps inside and outside the three national parks Volcanoes, Nyungwe Forest and Akagera. Meanwhile though, it is not just ‘virtual visitors’ coming increasingly to Rwanda but also ‘real’ visitors, the ones who actually travel the country and enjoy the attractions of ‘The Land of a Thousand Hills’ in person. Ms. Rica Rwigamba, head of tourism and conservation within the RDB set up, has earlier in the week told journalists that arrivals in 2011, compared with the same period in 2010, were up by an astounding 27 percent already, and that by the end of the year the country was expecting a new arrival and spending record. She attributed the trend to sustained marketing, the recognition around the world that Rwanda was not just paying lip service to conservation but actually working hard on re-forestation and maintaining biodiversity and the growing number of airlines and connections permitting visitors to fly to Rwanda from around the world with often only one stop.
Other sources in Rwanda also attributed the phenomenal growth of the country’s tourism sector to the support ‘from the top’ where in particular President Paul Kagame is keenly interested in the sector’s performance and has been using trips overseas to become a key promoter of visits to Rwanda, for tourism and investment purposes. RwandAir too has been singled out for their exemplary performance in linking Kigali with not only East Africa but more recently also to South Africa, West Africa – new destinations being Kinshasa, Brazzaville and Libreville – and to Dubai, from where growing interest in investments, but also for holidays has driving arrival numbers up.
Easy online Visa applications are another factor, and some nationalities – consult the Rwandan government’s immigration website for specifics – are in fact exempt from Visa, making entry into the country easy and uncomplicated even for those who have to go through the application process.
The ‘launch’ of the Nyungwe National Park’s canopy walkway last year, high above the tropical rainforest, and efforts to make Gishwati Forest another national park have also resulted in positive media exposure, raising added interest by adventure tourism magazines which in turn attract yet more visitors to the country.
It is little wonder therefore that Rwanda tops the interest scale of potential visitors to Eastern Africa and while behind Kenya and Tanzania in terms of ‘real numbers’, when seen in the context of the size of the country, the population number and considering that Rwanda had to rise from the ashes of the genocide in 1994, it is clear that ‘little Rwanda’ is giving their regional neighbours a run for their money.
Said one regular source from Kigali, when asked to compare the success of tourism in Rwanda vis a vis Uganda: ‘we have a big advantage in President Kagame being a committed environmentalist. He understands the value of keeping nature intact. All our laws and regulations are aimed at maintaining bio diversity. Our forest cover will grow until 2020 to 30 percent once again as we restore degraded areas and remove encroachers from forests. Kigali is a clean and safe city and we have a good rapport with the global media. Rwanda promotes discipline and when visitors come to Kigali they are amazed to see that traffic lights are respected, there is no criss crossing of lanes and the road network is superb. Our hotels have been catching up with standards of other East African countries. Serena has built a new wing to their hotel and Marriott is coming to open a new hotel next year. Dubai World has invested in two lodges in Uganda. Kingdom Hotels has expressed interest to build another hotel in Kigali. Our national road network is good and getting better and we are now ‘wired up’ for internet across the entire country with fibre optic cables. I do not think it is right for me to comment in regard of comparing Rwanda to Uganda, but considering our recent history in Rwanda we have made giant leaps forward and tourism is a number one industry now. We have learned from the mistakes of others, we have copied what was good and is working and added out own components of marketing our unique selling points.’ Valid sentiments adds this correspondent and surely worth absorbing a few lessons here.