Rwanda’s tourism sector has of late being in the news as it seeks to reposition its offerings owing to a number of outcomes.
In light of the current state of affairs within the sector, (The New Times’s Fred Oluoch-Ojiwah) spoke to Edwin Sabuhoro Head of Rwanda Tour Operators and Travel Agents (RTTA) regarding a host of issues private sector operators in tourism are facing. Below are exerpts.
TNT: The fires which razed down certain sections of the Volcanoes National Park was a wake up call to the stakeholders to come up with early warning and related mechanisms to secure what is clearly a prized asset. What is in the works and how can the private sector assist in this endeavor?
ES: There is a park management plan, which clearly puts in place contingency measures that can be followed just in case.
However the private sector in this case RTTA has a high stake in the park given the fact that gorilla tourism is the backbone of tourism in Rwanda and provides us with a competitive edge within the East African market.
Among the things set forth and that are done by some of our members is working directly with local people around the park to provide direct incentives for conservation.
A case in point being ‘Iby’iwacu’ Cultural Village a Rwanda Eco-Tours initiative.
Secondly we work hand in hand with RDB/Tourism and Conservation to identify what we can do as tourism operators to render a hand in conservation of our pristine tourism resources in Rwanda.
TNT: The dismal ratings on hotels locally puts the sector operators on the spotlight much as this is a cross cutting issue that Government should also address. Where does it leave sector operators especially your association members?
ES: I think this leaves sector operators in a crisis scenario, that actually not only downgrades the Rwandan marketing efforts but also puts our competitive niche market as a country on a weak link in regional tourism market.
We are promoting Rwanda as a high destination on one hand on the other declaring that we can’t actually accommodate high-end tourists in Rwanda.
I think we should have had reservations on this, and helped our hospitality industry on how to meet the criteria and defining a roadmap when these facilities will be where we want and must be, before telling the world that we don’t have standard accommodation facilities.
TNT: Rwanda’s tourism brand as a distinct entity in itself from a public sector perspective seems to have diminished if the recent times lack of presence by the Tourism and Conservation Directorate of RDB at the Expo is anything to go by. Brand presence is key for sustaining market dominance which the sector seeks locally, regionally and Internationally. What are the comments on that?
ES: It is not that the brand has diminished; the actual sense is that we don’t have it. Every tourist destination in the world has a ‘brand image’ developed carefully through a brand research for a brand strategy.
We haven’t identified our unique brand personality, positioned our unique selling products, and developed our theme products for destination management areas within Rwanda.
It is this brand that differentiates a destination from competing destinations, intra and cross border mostly to avoid confusion and inconsistent campaigns.
So I think the next steps RDB Tourism and Conservation is embarking on, as recommended by the Sustainable Tourism Master Plan for Rwanda is to work on a destination branding strategy.
TNT: The sector has not yet developed within the regional market levels a diverse menu of offerings other than Gorilla trekking in the fashion that other EAC countries have done. For instance we do not seem to have circuits which are marketed abroad as a package. Meanwhile the country moves into the path of EAC integration. Does it mean that the local sector operators will be left out in terms of regional competitiveness?
ES: Yes, I think we as tourism operators are lagging behind when it comes to exploring and tapping into the East African tourism products and potential.
This is due to different reasons, among them, lack of access to finance, knowledge on product and package development, market knowledge and innovation, skilled and qualified workforce all of which are ingredients for competitiveness.
We are however working on seminars, workshops and campaign programs to raise awareness among our members and the financial sector among others, so that we are able to tap into this lucrative tourism potential.
TNT: Part of the diversity in the offerings entailed concessioning of Akagera National Park to Dubai World. The media seems not to have been informed on the latest on this. What is happening?
ES: Am not well informed about this and would not want to speculate. But am sure RDB Tourism and Conservation would give a much detailed response on this.
TNT. RBD’s Tourism and Conservation Directorate seems to have started off on a bumpy ride in as far as merger issues of the 8 parastatals is concerned. The perception is that the former RIEPA now Business Operations Services (BOS) takes centre stage at the moment. These teething problems should be expected. What are the sector operator’s take on such developments?
ES: I think these are different directorates, with different mandates, taking care of different priorities and issues. At the moment to me it seems as if investment, ICT takes priority precedence than tourism.
On a tourism perspective, we care less on institutional perceptions but much on substance that tourism is developing and we are developing with it, and that as we join the East African Community, we are not digging a deeper hole for tourism operators but building a mountain of hope sustainably that even when they aren’t able, it remains our national corporate responsibility to find and address the causes.
TNT: In line with the hospitality ratings which are dismal, has the sector mapped out what needs to be done to take us to the Promised Land? What are the roles of both public and private sector operators in this redress exercise?
ES: Far from being distinctive, both sectors are working hand in hand to make sure things get better.
The tourism and hospitality associations have come up to make action plans that can raise their standpoint and be able to commit themselves to address their members and industry needs.
TNT: Let us link the hospitality ratings to the customer service levels nationally which have been pointed out as being in need of a redress of sorts. What is the way forward for the industry in this regard?
ES: This will take time but needs a ‘starting-to-address’ action strategy now. There has to be somehow, somewhere ownership of customer services.
There is need for quality and competent training institutions, there is need for heavy investment in training and capacity building for tourism agents by both the public and private sector.
However we need to map and monitor our step-by-step approach as we prepare for the future. Otherwise tourism is a people-to-people industry, and that’s why people are traveling all the way to Rwanda.
There is need therefore to understand the rationale behind customer service at all levels by all sectors to be able to change attitude and behavior that affect greatly customer services in Rwanda.
TNT: On investments, it seems that the sector needs massive inward FDIs for the purposes of shoring up offerings across board. Where is this going to come from? Any prospects, numbers, figures, projections? How will local operators who are constrained with lack of local exploitative capital going to be part of this transformation?
ES: There is no way absolutely. However the answer is not to sit down and cry foul, it is rather finding a way to engage financial community stakeholders to understand tourism business opportunities in tourism industry, engaging public sector to provide more incentives for local operators through already strengthened associations so that we can have a private sector led professional yet competitive industry with a diversified and innovative tourism products and quality led tourism services in Rwanda.
TNT: What is your parting shot on the way forward?
ES: We as Rwanda Tours and Travel Association have embarked on developing our action plans, which have identified for instance, a training campaign in tourism business management, English for tourism and customer care for our members among others.
We are hiring to this end a director with qualified knowledge on tourism and travel to manage our secretariat for thorough strategic planning and to counteract challenges and quicken our response therein.
At the same time, we are planning for linkages within the hotel and restaurant associations and other associations to come up with best practices on how to tap into the tourism business potential within our expanding economy and the greater East African Community.