Home is where the Hut is: Domestic Tourism in Rwanda
The World Trade Organization (WTO) defines domestic tourism as ‘comprising of activities of residents of a given country traveling to and staying in places inside their residential country, but outside their usual environment for not more than 12 consecutive months for leisure, business or other purposes.’ In every corner of the world, countries consider tourism as one of the major contributors to the growth of their economies. Lonely Planet (2019), a global leading travel publication, describes Rwanda (also known as Le Pays des Mille Collines, French for ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ thanks to the endless hills and mountains) as a scenically stunning little country. Many others know Rwanda as the Heart of Africa, home to a third (33%) of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas, Lake Kivu concealing some of the best inland beaches on the continent, among other many attractions (African Wildlife Foundation, n.d.)
Rwanda, The Heart of Africa
A country’s greatest asset and source of national revenue is its citizens. However, when it comes to tourism, policymakers and the travel industry often bet on international tourists visiting a country as their primary source of revenue through the foreign exchange earnings. Going by the statistics, tourism is Rwanda’s biggest foreign exchange earner, ranking higher than coffee and tea exports, and representing 13% of the country’s GDP and 11% of its employment (The New Times Rwanda, 2008). Rwanda Development Board (RDB) stated that the country’s national goal was to double tourism receipts from $404million in 2018 to $800million by 2024 (Rwanda Development Board, 2018). Such ambitious goals are seeing the light of the day through initiatives like Visit Rwanda, which signed a 3-year deal with Arsenal Football Club estimated at $37 million (€34m, £30m) with the aim of attracting international tourists to the country (Visit Rwanda, 2018).
However, in her research report, ‘The Potential Impact of Domestic Tourism on Rwanda’s Tourism Economy,’ Joan Mazimhaka (2006) asserts that domestic tourism is overlooked by members of the tourism industry and the government as well. In addition, tourism as a whole is often considered a luxury by many in the local population. Few tourism policies include domestic tourism, neglecting its potential as a significant national revenue earner. This is evidently clear going by the most recent Tourism Masterplan released by the Department of Tourism and Conservation under RDB in 2016, where there is no focus on domestic tourism neither in the constraints nor in the potential solutions (Rwanda Development Board, 2016).
Long-standing evidence shows the significance of domestic tourism in a country. Gerosa (2003, p.40) states that domestic tourism is ignored or overlooked, despite case studies showing an impact on the informal sector greater than that from international tourism. “Domestic tourists are particularly important clients for self-employed sellers and owners of small establishments,” as they tend to buy from and spend more on local vendors than foreign tourists do (Ashley, Boyd and Goodwin, 2000, p.1). The importance of domestic tourism can be felt, particularly when a country is faced with a crisis that hinders the growth and development of its international tourism sector. Case in point in Kenya, international tourist arrivals to the country fell by 25 percent in the first five months of 2015 due to terrorism activities witnessed during that period (Morris, 2015). Similarly, the same happened in Sierra Leone when international tourist arrivals instantly went down by 50 percent from 2013 to 2014 due to the Ebola epidemic (WORLD TRAVEL & TOURISM COUNCIL, 2018). Domestic tourism can be leveraged to fill in the gap after the aftermath of such crises, hence maintaining the sustainability of the tourism industry.
The recent economic growth and the consequent expansion of the urban middle class observed in Rwanda has given rise to a segment of the population that is much more financially empowered and with more disposable income to spend. As Rwagatare (2019) notes, Rwandans are at their most patriotic ever. The citizens are more than ready and willing to be active and direct participants in the building of their fast-rising country’s economic sectors, tourism industry being one of them. Rwandans accounted for 3 percent of the total visits to Volcanoes National Park in 2016 (IGIHE, 2017). The government is beginning to taking note of that, as shown when RDB launched the Tembera U Rwanda campaign to encourage domestic tourism. The campaign involves trips to various attraction sites around the country like Volcanoes National Park for the Canopy walk, mountain gorillas trekking, Buhanga eco-park for a story about Rwandan culture and the country’s conservation journey, among others. As of the end of 2017, RDB had organized five Tembera U Rwanda campaigns.
Belise Kariza, the Chief Tourism Officer at RDB, pointed out that domestic tourism was on the rise for visits to national parks. She commented
In 2016 domestic tourists contributed 63% of the total visitors in Akagera National Park and 54% in Nyungwe National Park. In general, domestic tourism grew by 17% in 2016(IGIHE, 2017)
These positive developments notwithstanding, Geoffrey Manyara, a specialist on tourism at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), believes that “there is a lot” that can be done to promote domestic tourism in Rwanda (Karuhanga, 2019).
“Of importance, will be to demystify the notion that tourism is only for the rich,” Manyara says. He continues to mention that “If tour operators could come up with packages, encourage payment in installments, then domestic travel could become more accessible with benefits from group bookings…”(Karuhanga, 2019)
Nonetheless, he asserts that the current tourism products and services were originally developed with the Western markets in mind for most destinations in Africa. Asked for her recommendations on what could be done to make domestic tourism much more prevalent to the locals, Pamela Giramata Gasana, a licensed Rwandan tour guide, said that public and private employers and other organizations could plan tours for employees once in a while (Karuhanga, 2019).
Among other recommendations on ways to incentivize domestic tourism, putting in place policies that are friendly to the citizens is essential. Imposing a lower fee for national park entry for domestic tourists, charging less than the standard rate in off-season months, and cheaper accommodation options, both the authorities and the private sector will make tourism services more widely accessible to different social classes across the country (Karuhanga, 2019). Currently, the cost of mountain gorilla trekking at Volcanoes National Park is $1500 per person, whether a Rwandan or an international tourist. This is after doubling the permit fee from $750 per person to $1500 in 2017. This is out of reach for many who would rather do the gorilla trekking from Uganda at the cost of $600 and $400 from Congo per person for the permits. A significant percentage of abled Rwandans who can afford to travel within the country do not have the inclination to do so. They are not sensitized to the culture of traveling away from their homes in the spirit of holiday-making and taking long weekends exploring what their country has to offer. Maybe it could be they are not informed enough to understand which tourism activities they may enjoy (Kayihura, 2005). Mazimhaka (2006) asserts that until awareness is created and tourism culture is promoted, many Rwandans will still believe that tourism is for foreigners and expect prices or experiences to be out of reach.
Through the efforts, commitments, and the marketing of Rwanda to foreign international visitors, it has reaped huge gains in the number of arrivals and foreign exchange earned. Similar initiatives should be employed to advocate domestic tourism to local travelers as well. For the success of such initiatives, it is essential to educate the citizens on the importance of tourism on how it is a big contributing factor to the sustainability of the environment as well as social, cultural, and economic benefits. This will facilitate in creating a culture of local tourism among Rwandans and encouraging the normalization of consuming their own products and resources. As John Kayihura, a tour operator, says, “domestic tourism is necessary to encourage Rwandans to appreciate, enjoy and learn about their country” (Kayihura, 2005). In doing so, the government should also be involved besides supporting the diversification of local tourism products. This will give people a much-needed variety of places and activities to explore. While some Rwandans enjoy nature-based activities like the Congo-Nile Hiking Trail (The World Tourism Organization – UNWTO, 2011) and exploring Rwanda’s national parks, informal research has indicated that these are very few compared to the majority of the population that prefers cultural-based activities and relaxation (Birori, 2005; Rwigamba, 2005). It will also help in widening the tourism industry from the over-reliance of gorilla trekking, its main economic revenue earner in the sector (Ministry of Trade and Industry, 2009). However, in conclusion, Rwigamba (2005) argues that:
“there is so much that Rwandans have to discover about their own country”; the numerous sites, their own culture and a history that has so much to offer, and until Rwandans are willing to discover Rwanda, she cautions, “our tourism will always be somebody else’s tourism.”
So go on and pack a bag, see what Rwanda has to offer.
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