Opinion: Responsible tourism is transforming perceptions of Rwanda

Opinion: Responsible tourism is transforming perceptions of Rwanda

Following Visit Rwanda’s partnership announcement with Arsenal football club, Praveen Moman, the owner of premium eco-lodges Volcanoes Safaris, says he hopes it will change perceptions about this stunning country in the heart of Africa.

The hills were alive with the sound of bazookas in the late 1990s. Now visitors to Rwanda get off the plane and think they’ve arrived in the Switzerland of Africa.

In 2001, seven years after the tragic events of 1994, Volcanoes Safaris began bringing the first international clients to track gorillas in Rwanda and started working with the authorities to relaunch tourism in the Volcanoes National Park.

In a moment of madness I had perhaps the crazy idea of building the first international lodge in Rwanda. In 2004 the first phase of the lodge opened.

It’s called Virunga Lodge and it sits on a hill high above the magnificent Volcanoes National Park and Lakes Bulera and Ruhondo. It’s often said to be the most beautiful location in Africa.

Rwanda of course is known as the land of a thousand hills for good reason – its incredible scenery is what draws so many visitors here.

In those days Rwanda was a different country – it was emerging from the upheaval following the genocide. The country was just beginning to settle down after the turmoil in the Great Lakes Region.

Having been born in the region I hoped it would be the start of a new era. It has been heartening to witness a remarkable transformation.

Indeed, the change has been quite dramatic and if I had been asked 10 years ago whether the country could achieve this change I would not have thought it was possible.

Rwanda is a country which is trying to be innovative and self-reliant, building up the economy in key areas like tourism. Visitors have a chance to see for themselves this beautiful, green, clean, warm, and friendly country.

More global exposure equals more visitors to Rwanda, which can only help create economic development. This is crucial for the people, many of whom are on modest incomes.

There are an increasing number of leisure as well as business travellers, who will find a country going through incredible change.

Main roads are among the best in Africa, 4G telecoms and superfast wifi work across Rwanda and new experiences such as kayaking and mountain biking are drawing tourists.

The gorilla-trekking that Rwanda is known for remains the most unique experience the country has to offer.

In 2017, there was a 21% increase in UK visitor numbers to Rwanda compared with the year before. New RwandAir flights from Gatwick to Kigali have made access to Rwanda much easier.

There is also a shift in perceptions about what Rwanda can offer high end guests. At Virunga Lodge, we’re constantly investing to improve the services, food and experience we offer our guests.

Most of all we provide guests’ opportunities to share community experiences with our neighbours, for example donating sheep or a water tank.

With new premium lodges opening across Rwanda there is now a unique circuit travellers can experience, from east to west, from giraffe to gorilla, enabling seven to ten day vacations with ease.

The challenge of course is to make sure that higher tourism numbers bring revenues that filter quickly back into our local communities.

They are a critical part of the Rwanda eco-system. A percentage of the gorilla trekking permit cost (there are just 86 such permits a day available) are being funnelled back into villages around Volcanoes, Nyungwe and Akagera National Parks so that schools, hospitals and other facilities are improved – Rwanda’s strategy means that tourists are helping to improve livelihoods.

The good news is that this mix of protecting and preserving wildlife, while growing tourism, appears to be working.

The census of mountain gorilla numbers released last week show that numbers have increased sharply with over 600 gorillas now in Volcanoes National Park compared with 480 in 2010.

Conservation measures including diverting more money into local communities, to provide revenues in place of poaching, are bearing fruit.

Nearly 25 years after a tragic moment in African history, I am hopeful that responsible tourism will make Rwanda self-reliant, on the global stage, with its own revenue streams and a transformed economy.

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