In today's tech-driven world, data has become the compass guiding industries toward innovation and growth. Rwanda's tourism sector stands poised for this transformation, and is harnessing data to unlock its fullest potential. In an exclusive interview, we sit down with Hennie Bester, Director of Cenfri, an organisation implementing Rwanda Economy Digitalisation Program, which aims to drive data-driven policy for digital transformation. Drawing from his vast experience, Bester navigates through the progress, lingering challenges, and data-driven insights that are shaping Rwanda's tourism landscape. Below are excerpts: Can you provide some current data analysis or insights on the tourism sector in Rwanda? How has the sector evolved over the past few years, and what trends do you observe? A key starting point is the Rwanda Economy Digitalization Program, backed by the MasterCard Foundation, and focusing on four core sectors, including tourism. A primary challenge for Rwanda's tourism, as with many industries, is the scarcity and fragmentation of data. While education data is consolidated, tourism data is dispersed across various sources, limiting analysis. Our focus is on administrative data, generated through processes rather than self-reporting, unlike conventional tourism satellite accounts. We've leveraged three primary datasets. First, immigration data from the Directorate of Immigration records arrivals digitally, offering credibility. Second, Rwanda Development Board registration data aids in understanding tourism businesses. Third, we scrape information from platforms like Airbnb, TripAdvisor, and Google Maps, revealing insights on facilities, locations, pricing, and user reviews. Our credible immigration data spans 2015 to 2022, highlighting the Covid-19 impact. Registration data stretches back to the 1950s, but its reliability is hampered by dormant firms. However, notable gaps remain, such as hotel occupancy rates – a crucial metric we lack. This includes insights into bed occupancy percentages, guest demographics (South Africans, Congolese, Americans, Europeans), expenditures, and durations of stay. Closing these gaps would immensely benefit Rwanda's tourism data landscape. Are stakeholders within the tourism sector actively engaged in collaboration? Do they recognise the significance of sharing data? Furthermore, what initiatives are you undertaking to enhance awareness regarding this matter? I think the answer is, “not yet fully”. People are still grasping the value of data. In our program, the key principle with data is to show, not just tell. Demonstrating the outcomes of effective data analysis is crucial. We have a partnership with the ICT Chamber, which has been beneficial. After completing initial analyses, we're presenting the findings to the government and the tourism sector. Meetings have taken place with tourism businesses in Kigali. I recently met the CEO of RDB, and our analyses are requested by the Prime Minister and the President's Office. A lot of communication is focused on showcasing our work. Additionally, two noteworthy meetings were organised by the ICT Chamber and Private Sector Federation in Musanze and Rubavu. The goal is to address the strong tourism sectors in Kigali and the Kivu Belt to Musanze. We're expanding our efforts, and there's a significant opportunity for the government to share analysis results with the private sector. Tourism primarily involves private companies, responsible for hotels, restaurants, tours, and bringing in tourists. Engaging the private sector is crucial for a successful strategy. Tourism revenues in Rwanda are consistently on the rise. Considering the potential for leveraging data within the sector, do you believe that a more extensive utilisation of data could lead to a substantial increase? Data is powerful as it reveals reality by presenting figures that can't be argued with. Data impacts tourism significantly, such as the post-covid increase in visitors, nearing 2018-2019 levels. In my previous role as Minister of Tourism in the Western Cape, centered around Cape Town, a major African tourism spot, the waterfront saw 25 million visitors in 2022. Tourism strategy involves three aspects: target market, product attraction, and logistics. Rwanda's potential for tourism revenue growth is substantial if they redefine their approach. Rwanda's current tourism strategy includes high-end offerings, gorilla attractions, conferences, and a bit of sport tourism. A different perspective emerges when analyzing the market. Arrivals data from August 2021 to August 2022 indicates 1.6 million visitors, including transit entries. Transit visitors from DRC, passing through Rwanda, exhibit spending potential in shopping tourism. Out of these arrivals, North America contributed 40,000 and Europe around 60, while 1.5 million came from Africa, primarily the DRC, constituting 70 per cent. Many visitors, often from the DRC, come here briefly for leisure, shopping, dining, and more. They spend money, even paying higher hotel prices than I do due to their shorter stays. We must recognise that it's not just about gorilla tourism; there are around 1.32 million potential visitors. To truly tap into tourism's potential, we need to address logistics and air travel. A 20-minute flight from Rubavu to Kigali would be more efficient and cost-effective, akin to shuttle services between major cities. Effective air connections would fill hotels over weekends, crucial given the perishable nature of hotel nights. Currently, many Kigali hotels remain 80-90 per cent vacant during weekends. The solution lies in connecting potential tourists on the Congo border to these underutilised facilities. If Rwanda can manage informal traders at border points, it can do the same for tourism. How do you communicate this kind of data to players in the tourism sector? We present the data analysis as shown here, discussing both its findings and implications for the tourism sector's development. For instance, when examining Google Maps data (which we've collected), we find 1,066 tourism establishments listed. However, only 31% of them possess websites. This suggests a lack of tech-savviness within Rwanda's tourism industry, hindering online bookings. By aiding local businesses in creating websites, the government could significantly enhance the sector's value. Furthermore, the data highlights a discrepancy: high-end establishments garner positive online reviews, whereas mid and low-tier ones receive negative feedback. This quality issue impacts those spending money but not satisfied. Leveraging the internet, the tourism association and others could address consistently poor reviews, ultimately elevating overall quality. Having served as the former Tourism Minister in the Western Cape, South Africa, what lessons did you learn from that experience? Do you believe they can be applicable to the context of Rwanda? Absolutely. The biggest lesson is that for any tourism product, two prerequisites are essential. Without meeting these, even the best attractions like gorillas won't draw visitors. The destination must be clean and safe. Meet these, and the world is yours. Rwanda, I must say, is a prime example. It's clean and safe, which leaves a lasting impression on visitors. It's a global lesson. The second lesson is about investing more in logistics. Efficiently moving people is crucial. Direct flights are a game changer. For instance, during my time as a minister, securing a direct Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Cape Town brought in 300 tourists per flight. Quick movement is vital due to Rwanda's hilly terrain and tourists' limited time. Air travel is key. RwandAir and the Qatar partnership are assets. The new airport is a step forward. Lastly, emphasise African arrivals. Rwanda can be a playground for Africa's wealthy. Many Africans with disposable income want serene escapes. Nigeria's rich, for example, fly to Cape Town for weekend getaways. Rwanda's beauty is closer. Develop facilities for Africa's high net worth individuals. Lake Kivu is unmatched. Don't overlook this potential. Remove the fixation on Europeans and Americans. They're seasonal. Africans will visit regularly if provided upscale experiences. At the end of Rwanda Economy Digitalization program, what do you want to achieve in terms of boosting the tourism sector? I think the first thing is that we're discussing an extension of the program because the current one will end in February 2024. The Mastercard Foundation has indicated that they want to extend it for another three years. And I believe that by the end of that period, we would like both government and private sector decision-makers in the tourism industry to consistently request data. We need to know the latest trends, the origins of the visitors, their expenditure levels, and this data should be readily available. When this data is accessible, it can significantly enhance decision-making processes. Thus, our goal is to cultivate a desire for data among individuals and to ensure that this data is accessible. There are still numerous data pipelines that need to be opened, such as hotel occupancy rates. While the hotels might currently be in competition, I am confident that once they recognise the benefits of collaboration, their perspective will change.