Tourism is Booming in Rwanda

Tourism is Booming in Rwanda

A landlocked country that is home to 11 million people and one of the world’s most infamous genocides may not be an obvious choice for your next dream vacation. But think again, because Rwanda’s tourism sector has seen incredible growth over the past few years and is now one of the hottest destinations in all of sub-Saharan Africa.

Rwanda’s tourism sector, like the country’s entire economy, had to be resurrected after the 1994 genocide. The genocide caused tourism numbers to plummet and was virtually nonexistent in Rwanda with only 61 visitors to national parks in 1994. Additionally, Volcanoes National Park, the main source of tourism revenue, was closed until 1999 due to an insurgency within the park. The perception of insecurity after the 1994 civil war and genocide was a strong deterrent for visitors for several years.

The statistics today are far more encouraging. According to the Tourism and Conversation Department of Rwanda’s investment promotion agency, tourism is the country’s largest foreign exchange earner, and the industry has grown consistently and impressively over recent years. From January to September 2012, tourism receipts totaled $210.5 million, compared to $184.4 million in receipts over the same period in 2011, a 14% increase. From 2011 to 2012, the total number of visitors increased 22% to 493,744 visitors, the number of leisure visitors increased by 16%, and the number of business visitors increased by eight percent.

In addition to recasting Rwanda as a haven of relative security in a historically turbulent region, tourism statistics have rebounded post 1994 due to the government’s strategic and deliberate market targeting. In 2001, the Government of Rwanda and the OTF Group, an international strategy and competiveness advisory firm, collaborated to develop a strategy for Rwanda’s tourism sector. Given the regional competition, specifically with Kenya, Rwanda decided to focus on attracting high value customers with innovative differentiated products by advancing their competitive, as opposed to regionally comparative, advantage.

Consequently, Rwanda is focused on ecotourism, cultural tourism, and business tourism. In addition to setting clear goals in terms of both visitation and receipt statistics, the government decided to deliberately target three main clientele for their high-end tourism products: eco-travelers, explorers, and individual business travelers. As a result of this strategy, nearly 50% of visitors to Rwanda have an annual income of over $85,000. This focus on high-end and innovative tourism products continues to shape Rwanda’s approach to the proliferation of the tourism sector, as evidenced by recent product developments, such as an exotic bird trek along the Congo-Nile Trail.

In addition to dramatically increasing visitation statistics and tourism receipts, Rwanda has also attracted several foreign investments. From January to June 2012, the tourism industry registered projects worth US$ 184.1m. These projects are expected to create 1,328 jobs. Rwanda has also managed to attract several big-name hotel brands. Marriott International invested $65 million to build a 254-room hotel in Kigali to open in October 2013. Raddison Hotels pledged to construct a 161-room hotel near the Kigali Airport to open in late 2014.

However, several factors threaten the remarkable growth of Rwanda’s tourism sector: the 50% price increase in gorilla-trekking permits for foreigners (now $750), regional instability, especially in the DRC bordering Virunga National Park, poor customer care, and a lack of qualified workers to fill managerial positions at tourism and hospitality establishments. That said, the innovative thinking and steadfast determination that has thus far guided the government’s tourism strategy will continue to make Rwanda an attractive destination for foreign travelers and investors in the coming years.

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