If you search on the internet for events hosted in Rwanda during the year 2009, your Google search is likely to give you a few and same events that still happen today.
These events are neither regional nor international.
The search engine results are likely to be Kwita Izina and Miss Rwanda, among others.
Kwita Izina has perhaps been transformed and given an international touch and has over the years attracted international celebrities and globally acclaimed conservationists.
On the contrary, Miss Rwanda has received its fair share of backlash even though organisers have tried to market it in a different way.
At a time, in 2009, few players who described themselves as value-driven firms specialising in production and management of events, had little to contribute to the industry.
This is the same year that Rwanda was admitted under the Edinburgh Criteria as the second member of the Commonwealth of Nations without any historical ties to the United Kingdom.
Ten years down the road, the landscape has completely changed.
The talk now is about “Rwanda to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2020”, just few years after being admitted to the club of nations, majority of which former British colonies.
This is just a tiny part of the bigger strategy adopted by the government to turn the country into a hub for meetings and conferences, what is popularly known as Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE).
This year has been spectacularly different from the past years for conference tourism.
Rwanda hosted some of the major events that attracted tens of thousands of participants and helped the country rake millions of dollars for the industry.
In May 2018, the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) named Rwanda the third most popular destination in Africa for accommodating international meetings and events.
According to Rwanda Convention Bureau (RCB), Rwanda hosted 201 events in 2018.
These include the Extraordinary African Union Summit and the Next Einstein Forum; Mo Ibrahim Good Governance Meeting; SWIFT African Regional Conference; Africa Green Revolution Forum and GSMA Mobile 360 Africa.
The country also hosted the annual YouthConnekt Africa Summit and the 5th International Conference on Family Planning that attracted the most international delegates as of today – over 3,800 international delegates.
Nelly Mukazayire, the Chief Executive Officer of RCB, told The New Times that these events attracted at least 35,000 international delegates although this is not the final consolidated number, according to her.
The events in 2018 also generated revenues estimated at $52 million (approximately Rwf45.5 billion).
Beyond the numbers, she said that they saw a lot of multiplier effects to other sectors in the economy.
“For example the involvement of RwandAir as many delegates used RwandAir to fly into the country, the professional conference organisers who benefit from the events and business to hotels and restaurants in the city,” she noted.
Nice Budandi, a Kigali-based event organiser echoes these remarks, highlighting how Rwanda’s conference tourism strategy has enabled other sectors to grow.
He particularly pointed to the entertainment industry, arguing that conferences and major meetings have made it possible for the country’s show business to thrive.
“Taking an example of the big summits that took place in the country like the Transform Africa Summit, YouthConnekt, and Family Planning summit, all ended with music concerts something that never used to happen,” he said.
The $52 million raked from conference tourism is an indicator that the government is on the right track to achieve the targeted revenue of $74 million before the financial year 2018/2019 ends, Mukazayire noted.
The government seeks to continue attracting major conferences and meetings and they believe the own way to achieve this is to work with the private sector.
The Chief Executive indicated that there was equally need to grow the hospitality sector “both in terms of Infrastructure (higher end hotels) and high-end service”.
Rwanda Convention Bureau plans to work with local institutions and organisations as well as embassies abroad to identify meetings, events, exhibitions to attract to the country.
As part of the strategy, Rwanda has capitalised on the meetings and conferences to provide offers to visiting delegates, access to participate in other tourism activities, including gorilla trekking and wildlife excursions in the National Parks.
These products are increasingly becoming of global importance and attract visitors from all over the world.
In a case of Akagera National Park, the largest protected wetland in Central Africa and the last remaining refuge for savannah-adapted species in Rwanda, the management says it has exceeded its targets already.
According to Sarah Hall, the park’s marketing manager, the pack received a total of 39,490 visitors of which 33,221 were paying visitors as of end November.
“We expect another, probably minimum, 3000 visitors in December, and this would make us achieve over 40,000 visitors at the end of this year. In terms of revenue, we anticipate $2 million for full year,” she said.
Last year, the park got a total of 37,284 visitors, 31,032 of them paying visitors and generated $1.6 million in net revenues.
While visitor numbers are continually going up, Sarah said the challenge ahead is to make visitors stay longer in the park as currently about 65 per cent of visitors just come for a day.
“Ideally we want them to stay longer than a day so that they can do more activities and they can spend money on accommodation. Obviously, Wilderness Safari is opening in Akagera and that will be something for the park,” she noted.
The park will also receive five black rhinos from European zoos next year, which believably, will attract more visitors.