Prioritising tourism: High-end versus mass tourism

Reports indicate that Rwanda generated about $80 million (about Frw44 billion) from tourism alone last financial year, making the sector the top contributor to the national economy. This is not by coincidence though; Rwanda has prioritised tourism.
Rwanda tourism industry booming.
Rwanda tourism industry booming.

Reports indicate that Rwanda generated about $80 million (about Frw44 billion) from tourism alone last financial year, making the sector the top contributor to the national economy. This is not by coincidence though; Rwanda has prioritised tourism.

A country without many natural resources, this is certainly a brilliant move.

Today, people are visiting Rwanda for various reasons, including, among others, learning about this small African country that was reduced to ruins during the 1994 Genocide but has managed to transform its economy and society within just a decade and a half.

Rwanda is also now exemplary to many countries in the world on: good governance, unity and reconciliation, zero tolerance to corruption, cleanliness, and rule of law.

So, looking at the different types of visitors, a significant number visit to learn about the country.

Others visit to explore the country’s natural beauty; the fauna, flora and the quite unique topography - the rolling hills.

Cultural tourism is also picking up—the Rwandan cultural dances, Intore and Amaraba are of late moving the world.

Of recent, Rwanda has been hosting big events like the East Africa Investment Conference, COMESA, East Africa Legislative Assembly to mention but a few.

This is another category of visitors that do not miss visiting the gorillas in Nyungwe, Genocide memorial sites and national parks. 

As a result, the Rwanda Office of Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN) now reports about 40, 000 average number of tourists per year.

Rwanda prioritising tourism means ORTPN has to double her efforts; ensure that both the numbers and revenues increase significantly.

Forty thousand tourists visiting today is quite commendable, but the challenge is sustaining the number and increasing it at the same time.

Early this year, when I was traveling from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg, South Africa, a Nigerian friend called Tina Igibuwe told me she has been to South Africa more than ten times but has never stopped loving visiting again.

What she particularly loves about the country is its varied well developed tourist attractions spread across the different parts of the country.

I asked her how long she had been in South Africa, and she said three weeks; sleeping in hotels, spending days visiting parks, dancing in nightclubs and taking beers.

ORTPN reports that the average number days tourists that stay in Rwanda is four, and is targeting at least a week by 2010.

By the by, it is probable that most of them visit once and never or take so long to visit again. 

Tourists stay for lesser days here because after seeing the gorillas in Nyungwe and visiting a few memorial sites in and around Kigali, they’re done with Rwanda.

“Theorists”, or call them “consultants”, have rightly advised to diversify the sector such that tourists enjoy a lot other things about Rwanda other than just the gorillas, national parks and the hills.

However, the contentious issue is how to effectively diversify the sector. It is imperative that whichever strategy or policy crafted to boost the private sector plays a lead role.

It is fine to vest more efforts in attracting foreign investors to invest in tourism sector because they bring in more dollars.

But to enhance a holistic sector (tourism) development, local investors must also be taken seriously.

A recent business operators’ census conducted by Private Sector Federation (PSF)-Rwanda indicates that over 85% of the businesses in Rwanda are Small, Micro and Medium Enterprises (SMMEs).

The fear is that if more emphasis is put on the few large investors, and less on the larger (number) of SMMEs, there’s likely to be an imbalance in the sector development which may worsen the income disparity in Rwanda.

For instance, looking critically at the list of investment incentives in the tourism sector, do they satisfactorily promote development of SMMEs engaged in the tourism sector?

ORTPN is looking at promoting high-end tourist destination and not so much on mass tourism; meaning tourists visiting Rwanda will pay more dollars to enjoy the Rwandan attractions than elsewhere in the region.

On The Frontier (OTF), consultancy firm is reportedly working on the “tourism strategy” to see this work out. The strategy would see the number of tourists increase to 70, 000 in the next couple of years, but only high-end tourists, not backpackers.

Ok, this is a nice idea, but wouldn’t this have come at a later stage? There’re a number of considerations to take into account here: Rwanda is now part of EAC and should be playing the same ball game like her counterparts in the bloc.

Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are in for mass tourism; same like Burundi. Kenya recorded about 1.8 million tourists in 2007, Uganda 642,000 and Tanzania 719,030, according to reports by the respective national tourism boards.

The EA Business Council, to which Rwanda subscribes aims at harmonising trade policies and strategies; meaning Rwanda will also have to adopt mass tourism.

Just imagine a point when Rwanda charges twice the price in other EAC member states for her tourist attractions.

Would it be able to tap the hundreds of thousands already visiting Tanzania and Kenya? Besides, the move even contradicts initiatives like recent MOUs that were signed between Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo to charge the same gorilla tracking fees.

I think Rwanda should go mass tourism first, then high-end in future when a lot of people have learnt about the country. And also when the right infrastructure and facilities are in place to match the price.

If Rwanda has chosen to prioritise tourism, it is imperative that the sector is taken more seriously.

Being the number one contributor to the national economy, moreover with lots of potential untapped, is justification enough that the sector can perform much better.

At times strategists go wrong. For instance, an impeccable source said when OTF was crafting the “ORTPN” tourism strategy, organs of the private sector were never consulted.

This is very unfortunate because it will be difficult for private investors to implement a strategy they do not own.

Time has come for the private investors, through their chamber of tourism and member associations, to take charge of most aspects that concern their sector.

And, considering the importance of the sector, Rwanda would perhaps consider creating a distinct ministry of tourism for better focus, planning and follow up on issues.

The writer is the communications specialist at PSF-Rwanda


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