Between May 26 and June 2, 2013, the country hosted a unique group of tourists: tour and travel service providers from the East African Community member states.
Most of them, by virtue of their work, had for years been selling Rwanda as a tourist destination to clients; although they had never set foot in the country themselves.
It was this scenario that prompted the birth of the idea of a familiarization tour to even things out.
Jean Marie Mfizi, a local tour operator and CEO of Eagle Ride Safaris started it all, in 2010. He says: “The idea for a familiarization tour occurred to me, but I didn’t pull it off because I was all alone.”
The following year, another tour company, New Dawn Associates, proposed a Miss Tourism Rwanda pageant, but this too came to naught, for similar reasons.
The lesson learnt for the two was simple: you just can’t go it alone on some things.
True to the adage of “strength in numbers”, the duo met and brainstormed about a possible collaborative effort. The result: The two companies, Eagle Ride, and Victoria International teamed up with another tour operator, Anny Batamuriza of New Dawn Associates to create Ereka Group, a company through which they intended to organize regular tourism events like the recent Fam Trip.
In all, 47 Tour and Travel operators from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda took part in the trip, aimed primarily at acquainting them with Rwanda’s tourism landscape.
But it was hard work getting to the intended beneficiaries, seeing as most had never been to Rwanda. What Ereka Group did was contact their respective parent organizations, that is, the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO), the Kenya Tour Operators’ Association (KTOA), and the Tanzania Tour Operators’ Association (TTOA).
Says Mfizi: “We sent out invites by email, and they started to respond.” Each of the participants had to part with $200 as commitment fee. Which was a very reasonable figure, considering the host of amenities it entitled them to. The money covered everything from air tickets to permits into the national parks to meals and accommodation for the one week they spent in the country.
On arrival at the airport, the guests were briefed, before being shuttled to Bourbon Coffee in Nyarutarama for lunch. From lunch, 13 of them took a chartered flight from Kigali to Kamembe, where they spent the night en route to Nyungwe National Park. The other group that arrived the next morning found them here.
From Nyungwe, there was a canopy walk, before the group headed to Karongi. In Karongi they spent the night and took the following day off to relax, before heading to Gisenyi for a night on the lake.
On the third day, they were off to Musanze to visit its famed ancient caves, while day 4 went to gorilla tracking. The National Museum in Butare was the last stop before the group hit the road for Kigali.
It was clear from their comments that most of these tour operators had grossly underestimated the size of the country, having been misled by its negligible size on most of the maps they came equipped with. There was, of course, the usual flattering talk about cleanliness and how organized public life in Rwanda is.
But they could also not stop talking about the “keep left” rule on Rwandan roads, which many were experiencing for the first time.
On a lighter note, after rapports and friendships had been forged, many were further heard confessing that they were seeing gorillas for the first time in their lives. Ironically, it is the same creatures to which they recommended most of their past clients visiting Rwanda.
One Tanzanian tour operator confessed his undying love for the canopy walk, which he said was not part of the itinerary for tourists back at home, while Kiganda Sonko from Uganda wondered if petty crimes like hotel thefts are ever registered in Rwanda.
“This has been my dream since 2010. When I saw them at the airport, I knew that it was done. I knew that the next time they are selling Rwanda, they’ll be selling what they know.” Says Mfizi.
But the trip would not have been possible without help from the Rwanda Development Board, which provided free passes for the participants to all tourist destinations. Meanwhile, RwandAir flew them in and out free of charge, while a host of hotels provided complimentary accommodation and meals.