Virgin tourism potential hidden in Rwandan rich heritage

Although Rwanda is fast emerging as a major tourist destination, a lot of attention has been on developing few tourism products such as wild life tourism. The rich and diverse indigenous culture has hardly been seen as a potential tourism resource.
The king’s palace museum in Nyanza. (Courtesy)
The king’s palace museum in Nyanza. (Courtesy)

Although Rwanda is fast emerging as a major tourist destination, a lot of attention has been on developing few tourism products such as wild life tourism. The rich and diverse indigenous culture has hardly been seen as a potential tourism resource.

Rwanda has a rich cultural history that dates back in ancient times; visible in diversity of crafts, dance and strong traditions.

Archaeological excavations have revealed evidence to this from hunter gatherers in the late Stone Age with Iron Age settlers producing dimpled pottery and iron tools.

Cultural heritage sites throughout the country offer unique opportunities rich in traditional context. And this is categorically visible in various museums, memorial and historical sites across the country.

Culture is the main “pull factor” that influences visitors’ initial decision to travel to different parts of the world. The recognition of culture in creating and reinforcing people’s identity has, in recent years, played a significant role in the growing interest in diverse aspects of heritage tourism. The natural and cultural heritage, diversities and living cultures are major tourism attractions. 

The centrality of culture in a post-disaster tourism reconstruction is vital and a basic need for the psychological survival of people (visitors) in emergency situations.


Heritage is a broad concept that includes the natural as well as the cultural environment. It encompasses landscapes, historic places, sites and built environments; as well as biodiversity, collections, past and continuing cultural practices, knowledge and living experiences.

It records and expresses the long processes of historic development, forming the essence of diverse national, regional, indigenous and local identities and is an integral part of modern life. It is a dynamic reference point and positive instrument for growth and change. The particular heritage and collective memory of each locality or community is irreplaceable and an important foundation for development — both now and into the future.

Developing and marketing the past and heritage as an experience to be consumed has been at the forefront of economic trends in the tourism industry. The trend towards the culture of consumption is strongly related to many tourism and leisure activities.

Tourism itself has become an increasingly complex phenomenon, with political, economic, social, cultural, educational, bio-physical, ecological and aesthetic dimensions. 

Excessive or poorly-managed tourism and tourism related development can threaten their physical nature, integrity and significant characteristics. The ecological setting, culture and lifestyles of host communities may also be degraded, along with the visitor’s experience of the place.

The development of heritage tourism, for and by the local communities, has the potential to heighten the need for people to define sources of cultural identity that can be expressed through such tourism.

Why cultural heritage?

By definition, these refer to the historical memory of a community that links people to others and their environments throughout time. They constitute objects, resources and practices that locate a people in the universe, thus giving them a sense of identity. Cultural heritage sites become valuable references that help in restoring a sense of normality and helping people to move forward.

Cultural heritage can capture the economic characteristics of the heritage and harness these for conservation by generating funding, educating the community and influencing policy. It is an essential part of many national and regional economies and can be an important factor in development, when managed well.

Domestic and international cultural heritage tourism continues to be among the foremost vehicles for cultural exchange, providing a personal experience, not only of that which has survived from the past, but of contemporary life and society of others. It is increasingly appreciated as a positive force for natural and cultural conservation.

Cultural heritage is not only potential in developing sustainable tourism in Rwanda, but promotes unity in diversity by creating a common understanding among regions and people thus reducing on unnecessary conflicts.

Cultural heritage bring benefits to host communities and provide an important means and motivation for them to care for and maintain their heritage and cultural practices. The involvement and co-operation of local and/or indigenous community representatives, conservationists, tourism operators, property owners, policymakers, those preparing national development plans and site managers is necessary to achieve a sustainable tourism industry and enhance the protection of heritage resources for future generations.

Role of museums 

The Institute of National Museums of Rwanda (INMR) operates a country-wide network of over six museums and a number of historical, archaeological, and natural sites purposely to explore the national history by identifying existing impediments to development of culture-based tourism and suggest innovative and creative strategies towards its development.

The restoration of national historical sites makes history live for the public (national and international visitors) by engaging them in the discovery of historical, cultural, and social experiences of the past.

As part of national project that places regional museums in different provinces of Rwanda, INMR has taken a milestone in promoting cultural heritage and increasing regional tourism. They include the Ethnographic Museum (Huye), the Kings Palace and National Art Gallery Museums in Nyanza, the Natural History, the Presidential Palace and Campaign Against Genocide Museums in Kigali, the Environmental Museum in Karongi and the Liberation War Museum in Mulindi.

Historical sites classification for purposes of identification and direction are according to; name, topic, location, and region. This is in form of memorial parks, air and space historic sites, civil war historic sites, historic buildings, military historic sites, nature historic sites, presidents and politics, settlement and state hood and transportation sites all together.

Nkotsi na Bikara, Ku Rya Murari, Ngarama, Bumbogo in Gasabo, Kivu Belt in Western Province, Mimuri in Eastern Provence, Uratare rwa Kamegeri in western, Hotel Faucon in Huye and Kurucunshu in Musanze are symbolic and connect the past, present and the future.

Cultural heritage is important because without it we will lose our main source of self-expression and in the end self realisation. The cultural memories surrounding these historical sites are of paramount importance to Rwandans in restoring normality and progress.

Historical sites create and reproduce particular histories of a nation and mark occasions that constitute cultural heritage consciousness. Museums and heritage industry has expanded with an increase in public interest regarding the historic environment and the past being exploited for commercial profit. 

The examination of this trend questions the packaging of cultural heritage attractions that has resulted into distancing people from their own heritage.

Museums are stewards of natural and cultural heritage by preserving objects of importance to mankind. They communicate and contribute to knowledge, with a mission driven to serve the public with a non-legal status. With authority and keepers of culture, they have an equaled power and responsibility to establish and promote sustainable cultural heritage tourism in Rwanda.

A primary objective for managing heritage is to communicate its significance and need for its conservation to its host community and to visitors. Reasonable and well managed physical, intellectual and/or emotive access to heritage and cultural development is both a right and a privilege.

It brings with it a duty of respect for the heritage values, interests and equity of the present-day host community, indigenous custodians or owners of historic property and for the landscapes and cultures from which that heritage evolved. Without this, we shall be witnessing a real crisis that is not of scientific principle but of wrong choice.

Throughout the country, greater efforts are needed to acquire and interpret significant cultural heritage tourism. These efforts are critical in promoting a sustainable tourism that will help us understand Rwanda’s past, inventive and innovative nature in as far as this missing resource (cultural heritage tourism) is concerned.

At the heart of preservation plans is Rwanda’s cultural and natural heritage framework, an alternative to the chronological approach that is typically used to understand Rwanda’s past. 

David Nkusi is a cultural heritage analyst.

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