Airplane (Morgan, 2019)

It’s the end of 2020, and traveling has become a distant memory for many due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with numerous countries restricting flights and discouraging travel habits to contain the spread of the virus. If you were looking forward to the summer holiday this year only to be stuck quarantined at home, know that you are not alone. I, myself, spent the majority of the year typing away on my laptop, just as I am doing at the moment. Not exactly the type of holiday that I had envisioned myself spending. But fear not, for the situation seems to be clearing up.

As of date, 53% of destinations around the world have now started easing travel restrictions introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (World Tourism Organization, 2020). Countries are slowly opening up their doors again to the global public, and for your next destination, you should consider one that includes responsible tourism. What is responsible tourism, you may ask. You might be more familiar with sustainable, green, and ethical ecotourism. More and more destinations, hotels, restaurants, tour operators, and other tourism enterprises are branding themselves as eco friendly and sustainable. However, responsible tourism is starting to become popularized in many destinations. It is a type of tourism that tries to minimize and reverse the harmful effects of travel on the economy, society, or environment (Definitions | Sustainable Tourism, n.d.). So what does responsible tourism look like?

Everyone Is Responsible, Especially the Host

Traditional dancers and tourists (Nyungwe Forest National Park, 2019)

To get a visual representation of how responsible tourism looks like, I’d like to take you to a small, landlocked country in the East African region called Rwanda. Most commonly known as the land of a thousand hills, the country makes up for numerous valleys, creating a perfect setting for cycling activities such as the Tour du Rwanda’s annual cycling competition. Although small in size, the country has become a tourist hub, and as a result, its government has significantly invested in its tourism sector.

Tourism is the largest source of foreign exchange earnings in Rwanda, and it is projected to grow at a rate of 25% every year from 2013 to 2018 (RDB, 2017). Through tourism, Rwanda sees an opportunity to open the economy to the outside world and has made it its duty to improve visitors and local host communities’ travel experience. How so, you may ask?

The tourism industry, coinciding with conservation and preservation, is based primarily on its natural endowments, culture, and heritage. According to Joan Mazimhaka, Co-Founder and CEO of Illume Ltd, in the ‘Diversifying Rwanda ’ s tourism industry: a role for domestic tourism’ journal article, most of the tourist attractions available are concentrated on the country’s three national parks: the Akagera National Park, the Nyungwe Tropical Forest, and the Volcanoes National Park. These national parks are surrounded by communities that live in the areas with whom the Rwandan government has promoted a tourism-revenue sharing policy and greatly encouraged the participation of locals in the activities provided by the parks.

The locals benefit financially from the tourism industry through employment and wages from the park, accommodations, and restaurants in the areas that employ locally. Locals become tour guides, waiters, and waitresses in the park’s accommodations. Not only do these functions employ locally, but they also source food locally. So if you were to go to the  Akagera National park for a weekend getaway, your food would be cooked using fruits and vegetables that were locally grown. Visitors get the full experience and become apart of community activities as they get exposed to products made by the people of those communities, such as crafts and Kitenges (Clothes and items made from an East African fabric). The parks have found a way to create a fluid relationship between their commodities, the visitors, and the locals, pushing to make a social benefit from tourism. Their impacts have increased livelihood opportunities, income, and quality of life within the local communities, notably the poor (A.spenceley et al., 2015).

The industry also provides a way for travelers to fit in with the local people and participate in their livelihood activities. Around the Nyungwe Forest National Park, tourists are provided with tea plantation tours enabling them to discover how tea is harvested and processed, with the opportunity to taste the results (Visitrwanda.com, 2020). The activity promotes Rwandan tea but also encourages the workers from the plantations as they see their harvest being appreciated and enjoyed by foreigners. At the same time, the tourists get the opportunity to understand the product’s value to the community and the consumer. It seems like a win-win situation if you ask me.

The industry also has a non-financial impact on the communities and locals that surround them. An excellent example of such would be the Rwandan government allocations of about 5% of tourism revenue to community projects as an incentive for conservation (Mazimhaka, 2007). The project overlooked infrastructure amenities and such as the construction of water supplies. It also aided the establishment of small and medium-sized businesses to empower the community around the parks. The reach of the industry extends to making efficient use of environmental resources. It also preserves and respects host communities’ socio-cultural authenticity while promoting them by providing culture and heritage activities to tourists (Visitrwanda.com, 2020).

Rwanda’s Gorilla Naming Ceremony (Kwita Izina, n.d.)

There is no doubt that the focus on sustainable tourism through responsible and eco-friendly tourism inspires affection and pride among most Rwandans (RBD, 2017). Rwandans are incredibly proud of their conservation achievements, especially towards the  Kwita Izina ceremony, where special guests name new-born gorillas, creating a sense of ownership and responsibility among Rwandans to protect endangered species. Due to the naming ceremony, Rwandans from any background understand the value of gorillas, as well as their contribution to the country’s economic prosperity and, have become gorilla guardians (Kwita Izina, n.d.). Moreover, the naming of wildlife has become vital to Rwanda’s conservation success, aiding game rangers, and park management to monitor these species in their habitat and ensure their survival (Akamazi, 2017). It builds on local pride and confidence, making the country’s citizens more welcoming towards foreigners. What more to want than to feel at home and welcomed in a beautiful foreign land when traveling.

A Stance As a Visitor

You are probably wondering what you are required to do when traveling responsibly. It’s quite simple actually, anyone can do it, it does not matter whether it is your age, gender, or travel experience. It has to do with your behavior and the way you approach your trip. Remember that the central concept of responsible tourism is to be culturally sensitive, and this can be done through cultural activities such as visiting national museums and art galleries. Rwanda offers activities at its numerous museums and art galleries, such as the Kigali Genocide Memorial (Visitrwanda, 2020). Through such activities, visitors are able to understand the history of the people and learn what to say and what not to say when interacting with the locals. It creates a respectful atmosphere between tourists and hosts.

But why is it important? Traveling in a responsible way has a positive impact on the destination country and the communities, but it also enriches us with enjoyable experiences through more meaningful connections with local people and a greater understanding of local cultural, social, and environmental issues. Such experiences allow us to return back home and apply the practices that we learned. Thus, it contributes to the transmission of conservation and environmentally friendly practices. So for your next vacation, take your stance as a visitor and travel in a responsible way to experience memorable moments. And while we are at it, why not start in Rwanda!

References

Akamanzi, C. (2017, June 6). Placing conservation at the heart of sustainable tourism. International Trade Centre. https://www.intracen.org/news/Placing-conservation-at-the-heart-of-sustainable-tourism/

Clark, J. (2019, September 5). 5TF: Kwita Izina. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Funds International. https://gorillafund.org/kwita-izina/

Definitions | Sustainable Tourism. (n.d.). Sustaining Tourism. https://sustainabletourism.net/sustainable-tourism/definitions/

Kwita Izina. (n.d.). About Kwita Izina. Rdb Kwita Izina. https://www.rdb.rw/kwitizina/history/

Mazimhaka, J. (2007). Diversifying Rwanda’s tourism industry: a role for domestic tourism. Development Southern Africa, 24(3), 491–504. https://doi.org/10.1080/03768350701445590

Morgan, B. (2019, September 26). How Far Are We From Flying Zero-Emission Airplanes? Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/blakemorgan/2019/09/25/how-far-are-we-from-flying-zero-emission-airplanes/?sh=7b925cab43f6

Nyungwe Forest National Park. (2019). Community-Based Tourism. https://www.nyungweforestnationalpark.org/community-based-tourism/

Rwanda Development Board. (2020). Responsible Tourism – Visit Rwanda. Visit Rwanda. https://www.visitrwanda.com/tourism/interests/responsible-tourism/

Rwanda Development Board. (2007). Tourism Overview. RDB. https://rdb.rw/investment-opportunities/invest-in-tourism/

Spenceley, A., Habyalimana, S., Tusabe, R., & Mariza, D. (2010). Benefits to the poor from gorilla tourism in Rwanda. Development Southern Africa, 27(5), 647–662. https://doi.org/10.1080/0376835x.2010.522828

World Tourism Organization. (2020, October 10). More than 50% of global destinations are easing travel restrictions – but caution remains. Unwto. https://www.unwto.org/more-than-50-of-global-destinations-are-easing-travel-restrictions-but-caution-remains