Rwanda: The Upcoming EAC Cultural Destination

A Gorilla is both a blessing and a handicap. It is a blessing because Rwanda has been able to create a dynamic tourism industry around these primates. 

A Gorilla is both a blessing and a handicap. It is a blessing because Rwanda has been able to create a dynamic tourism industry around these primates. 

Not only has it been responsible for generating around 90 percent of the US $ 175 million in 2009 annual tourism revenues, but it has done so in a sustainable way with Rwanda being known for its world class conservation efforts with regards to the 380 mountain gorillas in the Virunga volcano range.

Developing a vibrant tourism activity around gorillas has been a brilliant strategy and none can question its positive impact. However, it is a handicap, as Rwanda tourism industry is perhaps over-reliant on gorillas and re-examining this dependence on a single attraction is vital.

For Rwanda to overcome the single attraction challenge and to sustain its tourism growth momentum, more efforts are required to diversify product offerings.  This is crucial in order to leverage other avenues where the country is well positioned to compete and to significantly augment its tourism receipts. One of these avenues is cultural tourism.

Cultural tourism is a critical component to Rwanda’s tourism product diversification agenda, and has projected annual revenues of $31M by 2015 (source: OTF Group, 2008). 

The foundations to support cultural tourism are being developed.  Rwanda has a rich cultural heritage and investments are being made to ensure the necessary infrastructure and the development of clusters, especially in strengthening the creative industries which include handicrafts, dance and music.

Mayor Winifrida Mpembyemungu of Musanze district, one of the most dynamic areas in terms of tourism development, declared “The number of hotels increased from six in 2005 to 15 in 2009, and we have eight registered cooperatives with over 400 members involved in making arts and crafts.” This illustrates the successful development of a cultural tourism foundation.

Rwanda understands the potential of cultural tourism and it is the rationale behind organizing a biennial event, launched in 1998, dubbed the “Pan African Dance Festival (FESPAD).” It was mandated by the 67th Council of ministers of the former Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU).

Under the auspice of the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), the seventh edition of FESPAD welcomed participants from ten countries in Africa, Europe and Asia. During the seven-day festival, there was a wide range of activities including art exhibitions, concerts, dance workshops, conferences and a national dance competition.

The newly introduced dance competition was inspired by Rwanda’s rich cultural heritage.

More than ninety dancers from nineteen districts registered and proudly represented their hills and demonstrated their skills, passion and enthusiasm to an entertained public.  Dancers performed both traditional and contemporary dances.  The traditional dance forms included Igishakamba, Ikinimba, Gusama, Umushagiriro, Imishayayo, Ikinyemera, Urusengo, Icumu, Intwatwa, and other dances that testify that traditions are still very much a part of today’s Rwandan culture.

The very talented young Rwandans surprised many with hip hop, free style and ndombolo, demonstrating that Rwanda has traditions but is also part of global movements.

I was reminded of Milton Berle’s quote:”If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”  Each dance competitor built an eye-catching and solid door which I hope will soon be noticed and knocked on by the right visitors.  Dance is a perfect means for Rwanda to showcase her culture and can be packaged as a product of cultural tourism as through its different forms, we see the Rwanda of yesterday, the continuation of tradition and how Rwanda has integrated its unique character in order to function in the global village. 

The dance competition helped visiting participants discover the rich Rwandan culture, through several experiences that were offered by means of a single one-stop shop.  The shop was a tent that was transformed into a cultural village, with a view to demonstrating the abundant opportunities that arise when public and private sector partnerships (PPP) are deployed to their full capacity.

Lao-tzu once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  Rwanda fully understands this, as it is developing PPP (Private Public Partnership) mechanisms and has commenced its journey by taking strides in nurturing meaningful partnerships between the public and private sector. 

This is demonstrated with the recent dance competition and gives hope that such partnerships will increase in new avenues.  Each group helped to build the foundation for this event; the RDB organized the venue while the private sector organized concessions.

This partnership provided a full cultural experience to visitors. They were invited to a fully furnished traditional house, with a professional guide from the Rwanda tour and travel association (RTTA).  This was free of charge, but supported the purchase of Rwandan handicrafts from more than 35 local handicraft associations. This platform also enabled the handicraft association and tour operators to showcase and sell their products and services, while the enchanting dancers performed on stage.

In the long run, the impact would be twofold. First, there could be an increase in the number of private sector entrepreneurs that would earn a living from leveraging Rwandan culture. The second is that there would be an increase in the number of tourists attracted by dance, but also drawn by the marketing initiatives of cultural tourism entrepreneurs, and by a curiosity to experience Rwanda’s unique history and culture. 

FESPAD is the ideal teaser to remind all tourism stakeholders about our cultural heritage and its hidden potential, which can boost Rwanda’s hopes of becoming the East African Cultural destination.

It is, therefore, not surprising that after three nights and four days in Rwanda during FESPAD, Lauryn Hill, the first woman or hip-hop artist to win five Grammy Awards declared to the press, “The culture is rich, the people are beautiful and I would like to come back.” 

The author is a senior research analyst with the On The Frontier (OTF)

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