An expatriate couple took a weekend off their duty station, filled their RAV 4 vehicle tank and drove South East of Kigali to Nyungwe Forest National Park and came back on Sunday evening after spending another night on the Kivu lake shore at Kibuye’s Brittania hotel, to tell an engaging story of the beauty of the park.
From them I leant that Nyungwe covers over 1000 square kilometers and home to over 290 bird species. From a brochure they obtained from a tour office in Kigali I read that Nyungwe “is the largest Afro-montane forest in East and Central Africa and one of the most ancient dating back to before the ice age”, rich in biodiversity with “over 250 different types of trees and shrubs” in addition to rare primates like the chimpanzee, Angola Colubus, and the Blue monkey.
The literature about Nyungwe was so fascinating I started wondering why I have never considered visiting the park, despite the numerous uneventful weekends I spent in Butare town (not far off) when I taught at National University of Rwanda.
The reason most of us don’t spend our disposable incomes on visiting local tourist attractions and sites is purely ignorance. We just don’t know what is on offer yet the Rwanda Tourist Agency has not done as much in promotions aimed at local tourist as it has for the ‘high end ‘ tourists from abroad who can afford to pay 200 -300 UD at the various hotels and lodges.
Domestic tourism is important for the industry. In some countries like Kenya it cushions off the industry during periods of low international arrivals. During that period hotel and tour rates are reduced to attract local tourism, thus groups and families plan to visit places like Mombasa coast and spend weekends at five star hotels for as little as 1500 Kenya shillings, about 1125Rfw.
This way, the staff of the hotel industry are not laid off, the industry remains operational and Kenya residents enjoy local tourism.
It has been reported that last year during the economic downturn, South Africa which boasts of some of the largest tourist destinations in Africa, tourism remained buoyant due to domestic tourism.
The two cases attest to the benefits of a well conceived and developed domestic tourism. In the case of Rwanda, I would recommend that as we plan to promote domestic tourism, we focus on the youth and encourage tourism operators to construct student centres in national parks and other tourist destinations.
At Queen Elizabeth Nation Park in western Uganda, you often find bus loads of school and college students on tour. They don’t stay in Mweya Lodge with other tourists but in hostels with double decker beds nearby, at a low cost.
I saw similar facilities in Tsavo National Park in Kenya and in London city, I found students centres where the beds were triple dickers.
This is one way of making tourism affordable to locals. What the operator loses in cost per unit, she/he gains in numbers and at the same time promotes the industry as the students are future customers of the industry.
It should be noted that these centres can be used by other groups who may wish to spend less on accommodation and food. Another notable feature of domestic tourism is camp site facilities where groups can pitch a tent and cook for themselves at a reasonable cost but enjoy the full benefits of their tour.
The Communications Officer for Rwanda Development Board/Tourism and Conservation, Ms Annette T. Mbabazi, agrees with me that her agency in collaboration with all tourism stakeholders need to aggressively promote the domestic tourism sector.
The stakeholders should participate towards its growth by organizing forums to educate the population about the benefits of tourism and eradicate the misconception that it is the preserve of foreign tourists.
The Tourism Agency has `set the agenda in relation to preferential treatment of locals through park entry fees. For example Park Entry Fees for Akagera National Park for nationals is 1000 Rwanda francs, 5 USD for foreign residents and 10 USD for foreign visitors. The operators should likewise work out a method of encouraging locals to benefit from the industry.
Public education in respect to domestic tourism has been scanty and far between. For sustainable growth the industry would do well to invest in public education, and to improve road infrastructure so that even non-four -wheel drive cars can access all corners of the parks.
In Kenya tourism stakeholders maintain ‘in and outflow of information pertaining to domestic tourism’, produce tourism media (both print and electronic), organize tour exhibitions, educate people on products and tourist attractions and often negotiate subsidized rates, to promote the sector. We can do the same.