Rubavu: Rwanda's resort town with the key to unlocking domestic tourism

A couple of years back Kigali was not such a busy town and it was not rare to hear visitors from neighbouring countries wondering why life was so slow in Rwanda using Kigali as their benchmark. In those days shops would close for long lunch breaks and it was nearly miraculous to walk to the central business district and find a shop open on a Sunday.
A spectacular view of the lake an island and a resort hotel. (Allan Brian Ssenyonga)
A spectacular view of the lake an island and a resort hotel. (Allan Brian Ssenyonga)

A couple of years back Kigali was not such a busy town and it was not rare to hear visitors from neighbouring countries wondering why life was so slow in Rwanda using Kigali as their benchmark. In those days shops would close for long lunch breaks and it was nearly miraculous to walk to the central business district and find a shop open on a Sunday.

Things like traffic jams were simply stories told by foreigners about the traffic situation where they came from.

The weekends were also not so elaborate besides a few wedding parties with pictures taken at that famous round about in Kimihurura. A few made it to the then famous Club Cadillac to shake their bones while others just made their way to their favourite drinking hole closer to home.  

Fast forward to 2016 and so much has changed including the pace of life. New buildings can be seen poking the sky like never before and businesses are opening up everywhere you turn. Traffic jams are no longer a myth and even the pedestrians can be seen walking with a little more urgency than before. The slow life of the past has gradually given way to a faster more competitive and in some cases stressful capitalist lifestyle in the city of Kigali.  

It is now ok to say you are tired and stressed after work and to look for a getaway outside the city to shake off all the stress that may have accumulated in your system. Domestic tourism may not yet be such a big thing but when it is the topic, Rubavu District had better be part of the discussion. It is the place that naturally comes to mind when one thinks of escaping the fast paced city life of Kigali.  

How to get there

I recently got up close and personal with Rubavu and I can safely say this is the right place to lead the unlocking of Rwanda’s potential for domestic tourism. I was part of a group of journalists that took part in a familiarisation trip to the lake side resort district of Rubavu (Gisenyi is the capital of Rubavu). This area that’s blessed with several tourism attractions is easy to access by road using either public transport or private means.

A spectacular view of the lake, an island and a resort hotel. (Allan Brian Ssenyonga)

Alternatively one can even choose to fly and land at the Gisenyi airstrip or anywhere a helicopter can land assuming you opt for the choppers from Akagera Aviation. If you are somewhere on Lake Kivu then a boat ride from Rusizi, Kibuye or even Goma, to Gisenyi could do. I won’t be surprised if in some years to come, rail transport becomes an extra option.  

If you intend to stay for a little longer then accommodation will be your next concern but not a very big one considering that this place has different options depending on your budget, from high end hotels with exquisite experiences to budget hotels where you get the basics. Most of these hotels can be booked instantly on arrival but it is always wiser to sort this out before you arrive to avoid any inconveniences. Impressively most of the hotels now accept cashless payments too. 

Congo Nile Trail

While there the first thing we did was to embark on the Congo Nile Trail. I will be honest with you, the first time I heard about the Congo Nile trial I thought it was a road that started somewhere in Nyungwe Forest and ended up somewhere in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yes I can be naïve sometimes. Now I know that it is a trail along Lake Kivu that separates the Congo basin from the Nile basin positioned in the Western Rift Valley mountain range. The trail extends from Rubavu through Rutsiro via Karongi and Nyamasheke districts ending up in Rusizi district.

We did not do the whole of it but the section that we travelled offers scenic views of the lake as well as rolling hills. Make it a point to carry a good camera. If adventure is your middle name then you have to add this trail on your bucket list. It can be done by trekking on foot, riding mountain bikes or the more comfortable option of a four wheel drive vehicle. I insist that it should be a four wheel drive vehicle with a patient and good driver.

Along the trail are several attractions like the Pfunda Tea Estate. You will see highland tea and lowland tea as well as some coffee plantations. We got a chance to witness the whole process that coffee goes through from the nursery bed all the way to the cup somewhere in place called Cyimbiri.  

Miss Rwanda 2016, Jolly Mutesi, gets basic tea picking lessons at Pfunda Tea Estate. (Allan Brian Ssenyonga)

Apart from the tea and coffee plantations we stopped to see Rwanda’s latest national park, Gishwati-Mukura National Park. Trails are yet to be made for visitors to fully experience the park but the air around it is so fresh you wouldn’t want to leave. This park is also great for bird watching and there are plans to introduce some primates in the near future.

Kayaking on Lake Kivu

When we left the rough roads and got back into the main town we briefly climbed Mt Rubavu, a new attraction for those who love hiking. It has paved paths and is great if you want to break some sweat without being stuck on the treadmill in a gym. At the top you get a panoramic view of Gisenyi and if you are not short sighted, you can also see Goma town in DRC.

Rubavu is not just the home of Bralirwa, it now offers visitors a chance to try out the latest water sport of kayaking. Since Lake Kivu has no hippos or crocodiles, kayaking is a very safe and exciting attraction. The folks offering this (Kingfisher Journeys) service have all the necessary equipment to ensure a safe ride complete with memorable pictures for you to post on instagram and brag. Why wouldn’t you?

If the water is not your good friend then you can just stay on the beach and enjoy a game of beach volley ball or a stroll in the sand and if you are tired you can just sit by the lake and wait for the beauty of the sun setting. Remember there is also a public beach where you can swim, play or just chill at no cost.

Lively town

Unlike other lake side towns like Karongi or Rusizi, Rubavu is livelier. On weekends you can be sure to find several bars open till very late in the night and some nightclubs with the music to keep you on your feet. Beach parties are common too, often giving the area a faux carnival feel. I spoke to a hotel manager who assured me that weekends are always very busy since many party lovers flock his hotel to escape their Kigali life. Others come to attend weddings at the hotel’s beach and stay for a night of partying before heading back the next day.

These tenants of Lake Kivu (isambaza) proved to be quite tasty. (Allan Brian Ssenyonga)

Another thing that makes Rubavu very lively is the fact that it is so close to the Congolese town of Goma. You will find several Congolese crossing the border to have fun in Gisenyi. This gives the town a cosmopolitan feel as you are almost certain of bumping into Congolese, Kenyans, Ugandans, Rwandans or Europeans on the Rubavu party trail.

Domestic tourism is the way to go

Rubavu has great potential for domestic tourism if only the tourism operators can create attractive packages for locals and market them well. Many hotels there do not even bother to advertise and yet domestic tourists are the most reliable given that you can count on them any time of the year.

It only makes sense that if we are to effectively market Rwanda to the outside world, we the inhabitants have to first visit it and appreciate it better. The fact that Rwanda is part of the East African Community means that we can even tap into the potential of regional population of about 150m people. In other words we should not just look at tourists from America and Europe but also those from here and from within the region.  

It is commendable that Rwanda Development Board (Tourism and Conservation) appreciates the potential of domestic and regional tourism is boosting revenue for the sector and has shown willingness to support major players.

The East African Tourism Platform has also chipped in to bring the private sector together and help them appreciate the potential for domestic tourism. In general, the government of Rwanda has done its best and put up the necessary infrastructure and what remains is for you and me to step out and see the beauty of this country.

What is your excuse?

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