Tourism: does the 'local guy' matter to industry players?

Back in the late 1990’s, there was a song that was played right after the then Television Rwandaise opened each day at around 5pm.

Back in the late 1990’s, there was a song that was played right after the then Television Rwandaise opened each day at around 5pm.

It was a catchy music video that they played with the lyrics going something like…‘Genda Rwanda uri nziza…” (Rwanda you are beautiful).

Lovely images accompanied this music video, showing the scenic hills, lakes, flora and fauna in the country. Single-handedly, this video made me fall in love with my country, a love I have up to today.

Whenever I have a little extra cash in my pocket I jump on a bus and travel to my two favourite spots in the country, Huye and Rubavu.

With a few friends in tow, I drove to Rubavu this weekend and spent a night at a modest lakeside hotel. And when I say modest, I don’t mean that I paid around Rwf25,000 for a room, rather I mean that I paid a little less than Rwf 60,000.

And what did I get for that amount? A pretty mediocre room and an extremely blasé breakfast! However, on the bright side, I woke up to a wonderful view of a shimmering Lake Kivu. But that was it. I didn’t feel like I had got anything close to my money’s worth.

Looking around, I believe that I wasn’t the only one who felt that it was a rip off. I quickly realized that there were only two Rwandans in the entire place who didn’t actually work there, a friend and I.

The rest of the guests were foreigners. And that made me sad. Did locals not want to spend a night hearing the soothing sounds of the waves? Did they not want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city? Did they not appreciate the things their country had to offer?

Of course they did. So, where were they?

I believe that the vast majority of the local populace simply can’t afford to enjoy their own country. And mind you, when I’m talking about the ‘locals’, I don’t mean rural farmers, moto-taxi riders and small traders (although they too have every right to enjoy it).

I’m talking about low to middle level civil servants and other members of the formal sector i.e. the people who should be making up the Rwandan middle class. And how could they if a single, mediocre room cost over a fifth of a civil servant’s salary for a night?

To make me even feel more unwanted and uncared about as a local, when time for payment arrived, and we pulled out our VISA cards, we were informed that they would only accept debit and credit card payment in American dollars not Rwandan Francs!

While this was convenient for the foreigners, whose bank accounts are in dollars, what that meant for us locals, paying in Rwandan Francs, was that we’d actually have to pay MORE than was advertised because the hotel chose its own dollar-franc exchange rate. Luckily, we had cash. I’ve not always been that lucky.

Last year, I paid about an extra Rwf10,000 simply because I used a credit card at a hotel that only had a US dollar POS (Point of Sale) machine.

The worst part was, I didn’t even know that I would be charged so much for my credit card usage; I only found out I had been ‘robbed’ when I got my credit card bill a month later.

Mind you, I’m not saying that the hotels acted illegally, what I’m saying is that they acted like I, and the local Rwandan market, wasn’t that important to them. And truth be told, they are probably right. However, that doesn’t make it right.

Rwanda Development Board’s tourism department is breaking a sweat, trying to grow local tourism. National park permits for locals are a lot cheaper than those handed out to foreigners. That is a good step.

However, if something isn’t done about the lack of affordable accommodation, the push for local tourism will be DOA-Dead on Arrival.

So what is the way forward? The lake side towns of Cyangugu, Kibuye, Rubavu and the rest of the Lake Kivu shoreline has been mooted as tourism ‘central’. Well, I suggest that along with 5-Star accommodation, there must be a plan for affordable hotels as well. Let the Serena’s have the choice lakeside spots, but then make sure that there are affordable, family-friendly hotels and guesthouses as well.

And for the love of God, insist that POS machines take our legal tender.

The author is an editor at The New Times.