“By the way Allan, have you ever gone gorilla tracking?” That was a question from an American friend of mine once. It was one of those hard to recover from questions and not wanting to give myself away by hesitating, I simply replied with a no.
Later on, I felt it was an insufficient answer and decided to try and explain. So I went into my anthropological mode and argued that we (Africans) do not do those things. When we have money we go partying with other people not seeing animals. Yes I know it sounds like a stupid answer but to be honest it is a dominant narrative nonetheless.
Tourism as an issue has been in our face in the recent days. I have seen a prominent travel blogger writing about the rise of the sector in Burundi. This is a country blessed with a huge shoreline of the Lake Tanganyika and regionally little is said about the country in tourism terms. Uganda recently reduced the fees for gorilla tracking for locals all in a bid to boost local tourism.
Tanzania has for three years now been earning more from tourism than its northern neighbour, Kenya. This has not been helped by the security problem in Kenya that recently led to scores of tourists packing their bags and leaving.
For a country that earns so much from tourism and almost has the patent to the word safari, Kenya has now found itself on the back foot compelling President Kenyatta to take drastic actions to incentivise local tourism. By Friday the hash tag #TembeaKenya was trending in Nairobi with tour packages that locals can partake in.
On its part, Rwanda, aware of its resource shortages made efforts to boost tourism by getting almost everything right. Rwanda has marketed its mountain gorillas even more than Uganda and DRC and it has paid off. The annual gorilla naming ceremony has been such a big hit that every time I go for it I meet people who are certain they will actually get to see real gorillas there - for free!
But even for tourism, Rwanda is not as diversely endowed as its neighbours Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. To make up for that shortfall the tourism gurus in Kigali decided to cash in on something else – conference tourism.
By the time of writing this they must have been enjoying a drink and consuming goat ribs to celebrate the success of hosting the African Development Bank annual general meeting. Th e conference attracted over 3500 delegates including presidents and former presidents as well as AfDB officials led by son of the soil, Dr. Donald Kaberuka.
Although faced with a clear shortage of hotel rooms among other things, Kigali has made a huge effort to nail this new phenomenon called conference tourism. For starters more hotels are under constructions to address the shortage of rooms. But still Kigali has more to offer and thus attract conferences on a more regular basis.
The most important thing here is that security is almost guaranteed and not just for conferences. Kigali is arguably one of the safest places on this continent. So a conference is not a big disturbance to the lives of other city dwellers.
The fact that Kigali is one of those places that visitors will not have to worry about the twin annoyances of traffic jams and potholes makes it the place to be for delegates and those who lives revolve around conference rooms and staring at projectors. You wouldn’t want to miss your presentation because you got caught up in traffic.
Another big advantage Kigali offers is the language diversity. Formerly dependant on French, the switch to English has meant that Rwanda can comfortably host conferences that utilise either English or French without much of a bother. And even outside the conference room one can easily get around Kigali using either English or French.
By the way, I learnt that AfDB delegates were even given a document with basic Kinyarwanda phrases that included how to ask for a sandwich! Oh and they had 4G LTE wifi installed in their cars too.
Since these conferences mostly tackle development topics, Kigali has enough development credentials on its own to justify its host situation. The Pan African magazine African Business recently wrote that the business of organising conferences is one of the continent’s latest and most rapidly expanding industries. And it brings in the dollars too.