Unpacking Rwanda’s tourism potential

For a long time I saw tourism as a concept narrowly centred around major attractions such as beautiful beaches, amazing and unusual landscapes, activities such as theme parks, heritage sites and music festivals. None of these describe what Rwanda has to offer.

For a long time I saw tourism as a concept narrowly centred around major attractions such as beautiful beaches, amazing and unusual landscapes, activities such as theme parks, heritage sites and music festivals.

None of these describe what Rwanda has to offer.

The question often asked is, “After seeing the gorillas, Akagera National Park and the Genocide Memorials, what else does one do in the Land of a Thousand Hills?” This was my question and is the question that is asked privately among friends and acquaintances who are curious about the sustainability of Rwanda’s current path along the road of tourism.

Whenever the question arises there are usually responses which fall into two categories. The first speaks to the growth of Rwanda as a destination for Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE Tourism), the efforts made to increase the attractiveness of the Akagera National Park and the abundance of hotel rooms and the care taken with the road network across the country.

This first category of responses is usually given with a sense of hope, some excitement and an openness to success through not understanding the country’s tourism strategy. The second category is less hopeful and is normally highly critical of a strategy where hotel rooms are in excess in a country which does not seem to have the attractions to sustain a viable tourism industry.

Recently I was listening to a book by Dr Jonah Berger titled, Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Dr. Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who has spent over 15 years studying how social influence drives products and ideas to go viral.

His work is highly acclaimed and in 2014 the book was named Best Marketing Book for the year by the American Marketing Association. While listening to what Dr. Berger had to say about marketing going viral and being widely talked about, it dawned on me that what he had to say was revealing the “mystery” of Rwanda’s growing tourist arrivals.

In the book there are six principles which are discussed as having the power to make things go viral. While not all six of Berger’s branding principles relate to Rwanda’s tourism product, several do.

First is Social Capital: People look interesting and as though they know something of “utmost coolness” when they talk about visiting Rwanda. That place where they had a genocide two decades ago but which is now safe, clean, orderly and growing unlike many of its neighbours.

The second is Triggers: These relate least to Rwanda but in general speaks to a marketing strategy where people are reminded to talk about a particular product. Where products are designed to be remembered and spoken of by environmental triggers.

Emotion is the third principle: It speaks to ensuring that the product or idea is functional and serves a purpose but also that there is an emotional component. When people think of the product an emotion should be evoked. For Rwanda, there are many feelings which are often evoked when foreigners speak of the country.

There is admiration of what she has accomplished and what she seeks to do, there is wonderment that an African nation could rise from ground zero and not fall in the trap of some of the other nations on the continent.

Fourthly, there is the idea of making the public aware of the product or idea. Allison Chowdhury, writing on the name.com blog describes this principle in the following way: “The more visible your product is, the more likely that people will want to imitate it. This is a great approach to marketing a product, because if you’re constantly thinking about how to make your product as visible as possible in the public sphere, you’ll effectively create a product that markets itself.”

The Rwanda Development Board seems to have taken this concept seriously and the growing number of visitors through MICE tourism and otherwise is helping to make Rwanda one of the biggest growing destinations in the region.

Practical Value forms the base of the fifth principle. Tourism, like many other products in the marketplace does not easily relate to this principle.

The sixth and final of the principles is that of stories. How is Rwanda as a tourist destination packaged? One thing Berger’s research found is that human beings love to share stories and Rwanda is a story unto itself. Visiting Rwanda makes people feel like insiders with a story to share; a story they visited and saw for themselves.

While Rwanda does not yet have the attractions which normally defines successful tourism destinations, it does carry at least four of the six principles which studies have shown cause products and ideas to succeed at a high level.

To date, the Land of a Thousand Hills is on an upward trajectory for tourism growth and, based on Dr. Berger’s research, Rwanda, as a tourist destination, will grow even more over the next five years. Let us mark our calendars and revisit this topic in November 2022.


The writer is owner and operator of Forrest Jackson Properties, a real estate company based in Kigali, Rwanda.

The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.