Some 25 years after the genocide that killed a million people, Sophie Ibbotson discovers an East African nation very much on the up.
What’s the first word which comes to mind when you hear “Rwanda”? No, you don’t need to say it; almost everyone thinks of the same thing. The Rwandan genocide is an inescapable bloodstain on modern history, countless individual tragedies rolled into one unfathomable horror. The names of those who died are written on the wall of the Kigali Genocide Memorial where a quarter of a million Rwandans are buried in its now peaceful grounds.
But 25 years on, Rwanda isn’t the same country it was in 1994. For one thing, over 60 per cent of the population has been born since the genocide; their only memories are of what has happened after it. And Rwanda’s most recent period has been a remarkable one. Nowhere else have justice and reconciliation programmes been undertaken on such a scale, and while it can never heal all wounds, Rwandans from every community have been working together to construct a new, more unified national identity.
And Rwanda’s visitors are returning. Nyungwe Forest is the largest mountain rainforest in Africa, a national park with a cool, moist climate and dense, lush plant life where fluttering butterflies fight for attention with delicate orchids, there are 275 species of birds, and an estimated 20 per cent of all the apes on the continent. Everywhere, something is moving.
It’s wild places such as this that have enabled Rwanda to make its mark on the tourism map. In 2018, the World Travel & Tourism Council reported that travel and tourism in Rwanda contributed a higher percentage to GDP than in any other country in East Africa. Visitor exports and investments are also both growing steadily each year.
But the country’s biggest attraction—and tourism cash cow—is its population of mountain gorillas. Rwanda is one of the last places in the world to track them in the wild, and it’s become one of the most exclusive experiences on the continent. Just 10 gorilla tracking permits per habituated group are issued each day, in groups of eight, and the permit will set you back $1,500 per person.
“The income from tourism has enabled an increase in the mountain gorilla population in the Virunga Mountains, along with the development of the Akagera National Park into a Big Five safari destination.”
Although that price makes many travelers think twice, there’s an argument for such high fees. Rwanda has taken the responsible approach of pursuing high-value, low-impact tourism, and already, the funds raised are paying dividends for both conservation and economic development.
Laura Burdett-Munns of Africa Exclusive explain the importance of receiving revenue from wildlife tourism. “It’s estimated that travel and tourism is responsible for generating around 350,000 jobs in Rwanda this year, 11 per cent of the country’s total employment.”
Tourist numbers are still relatively low (approximately 1.2 million in 2017), so that’s a lot of people to look after you. “The income from tourism has enabled an increase in the mountain gorilla population in the Virunga Mountains, along with the development of the Akagera National Park into a Big Five safari destination,” she adds. That latter point often catches some by surprise. While most visitors are well aware of the birds and the primates, most don’t associate Rwanda with lions or leopards. And Laura is right; there’s far more to Rwanda than just gorillas, remarkable as they are. In fact, the country often seems to be a dozen destinations in one.
In fact, NGO African Parks has taken on Akagera, Central Africa’s largest wetland, and is restoring its damaged ecosystem. Thanks to tourism, Akagera is already 75 per cent self-sustaining, which is particularly good news for the 18 black rhinos which African Parks reintroduced in 2017. The rhino have settled in well, and the first wild rhino born in Rwanda in more than a decade made its debut just a few months after his mother’s arrival.
Every Rwandan you meet will tell you proudly of their country’s bountiful natural wonders, and implore you to tell your friends about its treasures. Tourism creates jobs, and puts money directly into the local economy.
“The birth is a profound moment for Rwanda and its people,” explained Jes Gruner, park manager at Akagera. “The collaboration with the RDB [Rwanda Development Board] in the restoration of the park has made bringing back the Eastern black rhino, one the rarest sub-species on the planet, possible in Rwanda. Through our management and protection and collaboration with local communities, we’re working to safeguard the growth of an important population of rhinoceroses for the region”.
Elsewhere, such as up in the laidback tea plantations of Gisakura, you can hike and try your hand at picking tea on a working estate. At the tail end of 2018, the 22-room Nyungwe House opened; clearly, luxury hoteliers One&Only have spotted the potential for growth in tea estate tourism. The location, entirely surrounded by forest, is superb for hiking, mountain-biking, and yoga at sunrise.
While there’s no gorilla population here, there are chimpanzees and colobus and L’Hoest’s monkeys instead, at their most active in the early morning. Although a tracker and guide are still essential, it’s a much more affordable experience than gorilla tracking. The monkeys live among the bamboo, and though initially shy, some primates will come within a meter of you, posing like Instagram divas.
The recent influx of foreign investment in Rwanda’s tourism sector, especially at the luxury end of the market, demonstrates the industry’s confidence that this is a destination on the up. Wilderness Safari’s Bisate Lodge was shortlisted for the 2017 African Architecture Award; each of its six thatched suites resembles a mountain gorilla’s nest. Singita Kwitonda Lodge will open in Volcanoes National Park next August, and One&Only Gorilla’s Nest is expected to host its first guests by the end of 2019.
Rwanda is a country longing to be shared. Every Rwandan you meet will tell you proudly of their country’s bountiful natural wonders, and implore you to tell your friends about its treasures. Tourism creates jobs, and puts money directly into the local economy. It lifts people out of poverty and encourages them to work together. The profits, particularly from luxury properties and gorilla tracking permits, fund community development and conservation. Rwanda already has the natural and human resources; and with tourism Rwandans can build the country they want for tomorrow.
Sophie Ibbotson is an entrepreneur, writer, and lover of wild places. She specializes in economic and tourism development in emerging markets and post-conflict zones, wrote the first guidebook to newly independent South Sudan, and has led three expeditions to Afghanistan.