Rwanda is setting itself up as Africa’s new big luxury tourism destination. And while mountain gorillas are the country’s main attraction, new luxury lodges will help open up other regions of this small, yet highly diverse country.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.
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.