There’s a lot of buzz about Rwanda. The country is starting to build a new international airport, RwandAir is applying to fly non-stop from Kigali to New York, a convention center opened in the capital city in 2016, and suddenly, a spate of international luxury hospitality operators are opening nature resorts in the countryside.
Moreover, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund has released statistics showing that the population of mountain gorillas living in the Virunga mountains (which span Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo) grew from 480 in 2010 to 604 in 2016.
That’s all good news for Rwanda’s tourism industry, which is taking a low-volume, high-yield approach, focusing on attracting high-end visitors and environmentally responsible tour operations.
James Currie, an expert in the fields of sustainable development and environmental management, works with Wilderness Safaris, one of the largest ecotourism companies in Africa. He calls Rwanda “the next new seat of luxury tourism” on the continent.
“Rwanda has taken careful note of the success that Botswana has had with its low-volume, high-cost tourism strategy,” Currie said.
Tourism grossed $400 million in 2016, for the first time overtaking coffee production as the country’s largest export. “The country’s tourism strategy is to double tourism revenues by 2024 to $800 million,” according to Paul Charles, the CEO of London-based travel marketing firm The PC Agency.
The growth of the tourism industry is rather astounding, considering that in the 1990s a civil war and genocide ravaged the country. But according to Currie, since coming out of that tragic period, the government has taken a progressive approach to development, with tourism strategy playing a key role in the comeback efforts.
In 2017, the government doubled the cost of a permit to visit the mountain gorillas, from $750 to $1500. According to Charles, even though permits are cheaper in neighboring Uganda and Congo, the demand in Rwanda is such that it warrants the increase.
“Those who go want to be tourist-philanthropists. They want to give back to local communities,” he said.
And they do so, because the government gives local communities 10 percent of revenues received from the permits (up from five percent when permits cost $750). Last year, according to Charles, communities around Rwanda’s national parks received tourism proceeds worth $1.28 million, helping build schools, clinics, and housing for vulnerable members of the community.
Of course, the gorillas aren’t the only game in town, and tour operators want to make sure visitors are aware of that. John Round-Turner, regional sales and marketing director for Abercrombie & Kent’s East and Southern Africa office, points out that “demand for other Rwanda experiences has been increasing over a number of years. It’s exploring other aspects like Lake Kivu, Nyungwe Forest and Akagera National Park.”
Black rhinos were recently re-introduced into Akagera, transforming the park into a home for Big Five safaris. In Nyungwe Forest/National Park, chimpanzees and monkeys roam a rainforest filled with waterfalls, birds and tropical plants. Kivu is one of Africa’s largest lakes.
High-end lodging is being built throughout the country to support the growing demand. It started with Virunga Lodge, owned by Volcanoes Safaris. The pioneering property which opened in 2004 in Volcanoes National Park (home of the gorillas). Wilderness Safaris opened Bisate, a six-room luxury lodge, near Volcanoes last year and is opening a camp situated on the savanna of northeastern Akagera at the end of the year. One & Only is set to open a lodge near Nyungwe later this year, Both One & Only and Singita will open lodges in Volcanoes in 2019.
Also newsworthy is the fact that the country has two new “brand ambassadors.” Their names are Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi. The couple recently announced they are funding a new gorilla conservation center, which will serve as the new home for Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund scientists and programs in Rwanda.
“The tremendously generous gesture will help reinforce all that is special and unique about Rwanda. Moreover, it will bring hope for the future around the conservation story and gorilla tourism,” Praveen Moman, founder of Volcanoes Safaris, said.