Rwanda’s beauty boosting tourism

Sitting on the beautiful rocks of Ruhengeri’s Gorilla Nest Hotel, watching one of those brief and spectacular equatorial sunsets dip seductively over Nyungwe National Park Forest, it’s easy to forget that you’re in what was, until 1994, one of Africa’s most beautiful scenery yet it was all uselessly misused.

Sitting on the beautiful rocks of Ruhengeri’s Gorilla Nest Hotel, watching one of those brief and spectacular equatorial sunsets dip seductively over Nyungwe National Park Forest, it’s easy to forget that you’re in what was, until 1994, one of Africa’s most beautiful scenery yet it was all uselessly misused.

Small, short housing settlements bob gently on the shimmering equatorial forests. Half naked children splash around excitably on the road sides, while - silhouetted against the green horizon - women with bunches of bananas balanced on their heads stroll barefoot across a perfect meandering footpaths across the forest. Camera-toting tourists are as common here as the typical Rwandan smile.

From the tropical jungles of Nyungwe to the sun-bleached beaches of Gisenyi, the vistas are jaw-dropping. Imagine miles of picture-postcard beaches, the stark wilderness of up to a couple rarely visited wildlife parks, half a millennium of African art and architecture and the oft-forgotten sight of Africa’s biggest natural tropical forest, the Nyungwe Forest National Park.

Rwanda has three national parks and a lush landscape of rolling hills, mountains and grassy lowlands. It’s called “the land of a thousand hills.” Compared to other developing countries, it’s very advanced. Though power and water can be hit-or-miss, Rwanda has paved roads, is safe, clean and tourist-friendly.

Since Nyungwe forest was turned into a national park, gorilla tourism has bounced back and is now tied with tea at number two, bringing in $36 million in 2007.

Rosette Chantal Rugamba, director general of National Office  tourism (ORTPN), explains that tourism is a government initiative that is both a poverty reduction strategy and an image builder.

The mountain gorillas specifically have attracted interest and support, helping them fights extinction due to habitat loss, poaching, and disease.

The crusade to save the mountain gorillas is to a small extent the reason ORTPN has been successful in attracting tourists.

According to figures released recently by the Rwanda Tourism office, Rwanda received 25,000 tourists in 2006. This figure was expected to rise to 42,000 by the end of 2007.

Rugamba confirms that the gorillas are “the flagship,” but adds, “We’re working hard to bring out the other beauty in the country.”

Tourism is the third leading foreign exchange earner for Rwanda, behind tea and coffee, according to Rosette Rugambwa, the director of ORTPN. Revenue from tourism is expected to rise to $42m by end of 2007, up from $36m of 2006.

“It’s portraying everything that is good about Rwanda when you’re talking about tourism,” she says. It offers employment and foreign exchange. “The money trickles down very fast to the local community.”

In 2006, ORTPN spent Frw160m supporting community projects near all the country’s main tourism attractions— an important achievement in Rwanda’s efforts to reduce poverty in the country.

These projects include nine water tanks, two primary schools, three health centres, rural community cooperatives and honey processing.

In their impressive profile, ORTPN has participated and won several tourism exhibitions, coming on top of all African countries in the highly prestigious Berlin Tourism Festival 2007.

They also managed to get Rwanda approved by China as one of the countries on level of ‘destinations status’.

This is a very significant move as Rwanda’s tourism industry will start earning from the booming Chinese economy as middle class tourists  trek to Rwanda.

The government has put tourism as an essential sector to the development of Rwanda. As a result, it has invested heavily in the infrastructural sector: hotels, restaurants.

Road transport and communication have been greatly improved also, making Rwanda a preferred destination for many tourists looking for entertainment.

The government has also approved the tourism policy document which hopes to improve community-based tourism in Rwanda, as more locals will be encouraged to tour many of the picturesque sceneries in the country, and contribute to earnings from the industry.

ORTPN’s profile has been boosted by the number of high profile guests in Rwanda. Among the international VIPs to be hosted in Rwanda is Bill and Melinda Gates, Ambassador Andrew Young, renowned international conservationist Jack Hanna, and Hollywood A-list actress Natalie Portman, and most recently Hollywood heartthrob Ewan McGregor, who was in country in July 2007.

Today, Rwanda is a mix of the surreal and the sublime. While sometimes the infrastructure might be archaic, and the bureaucracies tediously slow, the rewards of testing one’s mettle in one of Africa’s last wilderness regions (especially the Nyungwe forest) are difficult to resist.

Besides, it’s unlikely that you’ll be the only explorer wrestling with the red tape. Safely cocooned inside sturdy dark green 4x4s, car-loads of curious travellers are now spilling across the border with Uganda, or sometimes heading northwest to the picturesque resort town of Gisenyi..

Though Gisenyi was seriously affected by the fighting that was in Rwanda during, before and after 1994, Gisenyi is Rwanda without the war-wounds.

It is a bustling and vibrant peaceful settlement embellished by attractive beaches and islands and dominated by a dazzling white horizon of Lake Kivu.

The town and boulevards are reminiscent of the pastel-cream colonial buildings with well paved streets.

On almost every turn of the town new buildings with exotic designs are springing up, seen from a hilltop Gisenyi tells a full story of Rwanda’s past present and future.

The old city market is a hub activity, on the tranquil boulevards from Bralirwa’s plant to Serene Hotel and the town centre camera lagging tourists are luxuriously walking and loud music is playing from cassette shops across the streets.

Among the most high profile tourists to come to Rwanda include US formwer president Bill Clinton, who has since established a hospital in Rwinkwavu neary Akagaera National Park that is funded by the Clinton Global Foundation.

Martina Navratilova the greatest women Tennis player. Hollywood superstars have also made the trip to Rwanda, they include; Darryl Hannah, Owen Mcgregor, Natalie Portman, and Quincy Jones-who has since bought an island on L Muhazi on which he plans to invest in hotel and ICT firms in Rwanda.

The world’s richest man Bill Gates has also been drawn to Rwanda’s unique beauty and commitment to develop from poverty.

After visiting several attractions and projects in Rwanda, Bill Gates announced that he would spend $900,000 to build a medical centre where doctors and technicians from across the region will be trained in treating infectious diseases.