Avitourism industry: The poor in Rwanda to benefit

Rwanda’s move to position itself as a birdwatching travel destination could have a positive economic impact on the poorest regions of the country, says an economic development consultant.

Rwanda’s move to position itself as a birdwatching travel destination could have a positive economic impact on the poorest regions of the country, says an economic development consultant.

“You have areas in say, Bugesera, or in the north, that are not touched by tourism and this is a type of tourism that could attract people to these more remote areas and have an impact,” said Jeremy Kahn, an associate with American-based consulting firm OTF Group, currently working with the government to promote Rwanda’s avitourism industry.

Kahn explained that birding routes would generate local businesses and potentially create new businesses in the birding regions.

“So you have little lodges that are birder friendly, that understand the needs of birders so they will prepare a lunch for a birder who gets up at 4 in the morning to go birding.

You have shops that sell maps and checklists and you also have most importantly trained guides,” he said, noting that some guides in South Africa’s avitourism industry make between $100 and $150 a day.

“These are people who have gone from poverty level to quite a living. That’s just the few ways that these birding routes, that can be established anywhere, [can have an impact].

Surrounding that, you have activities and you have trained staff to support it and that’s all generating revenues for that particular region.”

Gregory Bakunzi, managing director of Amahoro Tours based in northern Rwanda, said of his 1,530 clients last year, approximately 15 per cent came to Rwanda to birdwatch.

While he said he could not comment specifically on the effects of birdwatching on local communities, he said he has noticed an increase in livelihoods in the rural areas he visits with tourists since he started his tour company in 2002.

“There was nothing going on in 2002,” Bakunzi told Business Times in a phone interview last week. “Now they are starting to make things happen. They’re initiating their own businesses, putting their thoughts and ideas out there, asking me ‘If we offer this to them [tourists], what do you think about it?' They contact me to know whether it will work. … A lot of people are starting to see the benefits.”

According to the International Ecotourism Society, 83 per cent of developing countries cite tourism as a principle “export,” or, foreign exchange earner.

In addition, the industry is growing at 9.5 per cent a year in developing countries, compared to 4.6 per cent worldwide.

“Tourism appears to be one of the few economic sectors able to guide a number of developing countries to higher levels of prosperity and for some to leave behind their least-developed country status,” the Ecotourism Society said in a “Global Ecotourism” factsheet on its website.

Bakunzi said most of his ecotourism clients come to see the mountain gorillas, or the national parks rather than birdwatching, something the Rwandan government wants to change.

Ninety per cent of tourism revenues are tied directly to the mountain gorillas, Kahn said, which is why the government needs to “diversify” its product portfolio.

“Gorillas are great, they should stay and they will continue, but in order for receipts to keep going up, product diversification needs to occur,” he told The New Times last week.

“Avitourism was identified as one of the best ways to diversify the product portfolio.”

The Rwanda Tourism Office (Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux) will have a booth at the British Birdwatching Fair, Aug. 15-17, in Rutland England.

Kahn said this is an important move in creating more awareness about Rwanda’s emerging avitourism industry.

There are more than 670 different types of birds in Rwanda, of which many are endemic to the country. This, in addition to the country’s small geographical area, give Rwanda a “huge advantage” over other birdwatching countries, Kahn said.

“You look at Uganda, and they have slightly more species but it’s in a very large area. Rwanda is much more concentrated, so it has 700 species in about 22,000 square kilometers which creates one of the highest concentration of different bird species in all of Africa,” he said.

“You can come to Rwanda, and you can see many different types of birds in a very short period of time, because you don’t have to take a flight from one end of Uganda to the other.”

Despite this, the avitourism industry in Rwanda is “very small,” Kahn said, noting that the industry is not documented well. “We have our guesses. There are people coming in, but again, the problem is people don’t know.

Even the top birders in the world have no idea that birding in Rwanda is good, that there are a lot birds available, they’re fairly easily accessible.”

Rwanda will be competing with countries such as South Africa and Uganda, which already have an established avitourism industry worth more than $80 million (Frw43 billion), to attract some of the seven million bird watchers who travel internationally annually.

Kahn estimates that Rwanda’s avitourism could reach $11 million (Frw5.9 billion) per year when it is fully up and running, based on how the average birder spends in one day. He said birders in general, stay in a vacation spot longer. For example, the average tourist in Rwanda stayed for four days, while birders stayed for 10.

“You look at a small county like Rwanda and in terms of tourism, it makes money in a very particular way. It can’t do the mass tourism, nor should it because it doesn’t have the space, so it needs to focus on high-end tourism, and needs to focus on customers who will stay longer and spend more.

That’s the yield equation, what does each individual tourist yield?” he said. “The difference between eco-tourism in general and something like gorillas and birding, you need to have the gorillas or birds already here.

If you have already have them there, and nobody else can do it, then you have the base to jump off of and you just need to build the industry and the sector around it. And it can be done.”

Bakunzi said that it’s “good” that the tourism office is targeting new types of tourism. “The tourism industry is moving at a high speed and growing fast,” he said. “Once it’s [avitourism] promoted, we’ll likely get more people.”