Nicaraguan singer Hernaldo Zuniga brought his entire family to trek through the lush forests and mist-shrouded volcanoes of northwestern Rwanda in search of mountain gorillas.
He described their encounter with the critically endangered primates as “an almost spiritual” experience, and said it was the only reason they made Rwanda a stop on a trip taking in a safari in Kenya, and a tour of South Africa.
But Rwanda is no longer content with being a whirlwind stop on a tourist’s itinerary, and is working hard to broaden its appeal beyond its world-famous mountain gorillas while narrowing its niche market to the wealthiest of visitors.
Zuniga counts himself lucky that his family of five scored their permits to see the gorillas before Rwanda’s eyebrow-raising move to double the cost to $1,500 (1,300 euros) per person in May.
“I think that is going to be a drawback for many people. It is just going to be an elite group of people who can pay that,” said Zuniga, a well-known star in Latin America.
For Rwanda however, the price hike is part of a careful strategy to boost conservation efforts while positioning itself as a luxury tourist destination.
“The idea behind (the increase) is that it is an exclusive experience which also needs to be limited in numbers. Our tourism is very much based on natural resources and we are very serious about conservation,” said Clare Akamanzi, the chief executive of the Rwanda Development Board.
It is a high-value, low-impact strategy that has worked well for countries such as Botswana and Bhutan.
– Safe and clean –
The remote, mountainous border area straddling Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda is the only place in the world where one can see the gorillas, whose numbers have slowly increased to nearly 900 due to conservation efforts.
Permits in the DRC ($400) and Uganda ($600) are far cheaper, but Rwandan officials are not concerned that they will lose tourists to their neighbours, arguing the country offers an experience that is rare in the region.
Ever since the devastating 1994 genocide in which 800,000 mainly Tutsis were killed, the country has been praised for a swift economic turnaround.
“When you come to Rwanda it is a clean, organised, safe country with zero tolerance for corruption. We have concentrated on creating a good experience,” said Akamanzi, also highlighting a quick visa process.
The challenge is getting tourists to make Rwanda their main destination, and spend more than the usual four days it takes to visit the gorillas and maybe the genocide museum before heading elsewhere.
“We want to keep it high-end as an anchor for tourism but provide other offerings,” said Akamanzi. She said tourism is already the country’s top foreign exchange earner, but believes they “have only scratched the surface”.
So the country, known as the Land of a Thousand Hills is looking into sports tourism such as cycling, cultural tourism and becoming a Big Five safari destination in its own right.
In the past two years Rwanda has re-introduced both lions and rhino to its Akagera National Park — which had gone extinct due to poor conservation — and visitor numbers to the reserve have doubled, said Akamanzi.
– ‘There will be an impact’ –
However gorillas remain the main lure, and industry players are concerned about the impact the price increase could have on the whole tourism chain.
“We risk losing substantial revenue for the industry and government as a whole. Currently a number of gorilla permits are already not sold in the low season,” the Rwanda Tours and Travel Association (RTTA) said in a statement after the decision was announced.
Mid-range hotels around the Volcanoes National Park say it is too soon to tell what the fallout will be, but several managers expressed concerns they would lose their main clientele.
“Either way there will be an impact,” said Fulgence Nkwenprana, who runs the La Palme hotel.
Aloys Kamanzi, a guide with Individual Tours, acknowledged there has been an initial slowdown in reservations, but is convinced people will keep coming, adding his clients are mostly “retired tourists who have saved their whole lives”, some of whom come three or four times.
The singer Zuniga said coming to Rwanda was a hard decision, as he had not heard much about what the country was like today from Mexico, where he lives with his family.
“Rwanda has a lot of sensitive echoes in my generation, the genocide … we had to cross over all these personal obstacles to make the decision to come here,” he said.
“They have to do better in promoting their tourism. Once you are here it is amazing, the people are unique, the country is beautiful. I would like to stay longer.”