Rwanda’s tourism and conservation sector ran by the Rwanda Office of Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN) is emerging as one of the country’s fastest growing sectors. It has been ranked first foreign exchange earner for 2007 surpassing coffee and tea.
The sector has reported another year of success with 39,000 tourists welcomed in the country compared to 31,000 in 2006. These generated $42.3m (Frw22.4b) revenues compared to $35.9m (Frw19b) in 2006.
The National Parks alone registered a total of 38,000 visitors (Rwandans and non-Rwandans), which was 4,000 more than in 2006. These are said to have generated $7.7 (Frw4.1b), compared to $6.8m (Frw3.6b) in 2006.
Rosette Rugamba, the ORTPN director general, said that the success has come due to the introduction of new activities.
She said that Gorilla naming ceremony was re-branded and launched as ‘Kwita Izina’ (‘giving names’). This attracted 62 international guests, world leading conservationists and thousands from local communities.
“A total of 23 gorillas were given names and adopted by various personalities and companies,” Rugamba said.
The introduction of bird watching and cave visits around Lake Kivu has increased the number of tourism attractions. Introduced late last year, this is said to be showing progress although boats are not yet on the lake.
ORTPN is resolute that increased tourism will not affect conservation. The number of areas reserved for conservation activities has not been reduced.
Rugamba further said that a Memorandum of Understanding was reached with Great Apes of Iowa and Earth Park to establish Rwanda’s first National Conversation Park.
This is to promote reforestation, research and conservation for the home of the world’s few remaining great apes. The growth of the tourism revenues has also been attributed to the increase in local private investments in tourism.
In 2007 these investments are estimated to have reached $42m (Frw22.26), which is a 57 per cent increase from 2006.
The number of hotel rooms in registered hotels has increased from 1,860 to 2,391, while the number of registered restaurants has increased from 75 to 82 in 2007.
The World Bank is funding a project to improve on the data collection and management system in order to measure the impact of increased tourism. The project is expected to be complete in June this year.
There are also 22 research projects conducted by local and international researchers to update information about national parks.
Rwanda has featured extensively in international media, appearing on CNN, Aljazeera, Australian television, MTV Studio 53, and the Discovery Channel.
Celebrities have been attracted to the land of a thousand hills. The country was proud to welcome Hollywood stars Natalie Portman, best known for her role in Star Wars, and Ben Affleck, (Pearl Harbour), business tycoon Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem (chief executive of Dubai World), and some conservation personalities.
ORTPN has attended seven international trade fairs and three local ones to attract tourist. There was the introduction of credit cards services to ease the transactions of the western visitors. Visa and MasterCard are now accepted at the main tourism centres.
ORTPN allocated five per cent of the tourism revenues under the revenue sharing scheme to community development projects. A total of Frw211m was allocated to 19 projects.
Over 150 workers in the tourist industry were trained in collaborations with British embassy, Thousand Hills Expeditions, Rwanda Tourism Chamber, and ministry of commerce.
Despite these achievements there are challenges ahead. Human-wildlife conflicts, low standards in hotels and illegal activities in the parks, are some of the problems faced in 2007.
This said, tourism in Rwanda is on the up and every effort needs to made to meet these challenges in the country is to benefit fully from the opportunities tourism presents.