Rwanda is one of the countries that have aggressively fought the spread of Covid-19 in the world.
About nine million people (60%) have at least received their first shot of the vaccine and about two million have already gotten their booster jab.
President Paul Kagame has personally played a meaningful role in engaging global leaders to seek permanent solutions to the pandemic.
He was able to secure vaccines not only for Rwandans, but also been at the forefront in advocating for equatable access of vaccines to developing countries, especially in Africa.
In a more serious effort, in September 2021, Rwanda Development Board (RDB) on behalf of the goverment of Rwanda, signed a collaboration agreement with the International Finance Cooperation (IFC) that will see developments in the vaccine manufacturing capacity and contribute to expanding vaccine production in Africa.
Subsequently, Rwanda signed an agreement with German pharmaceutical firm, BioNTech SE, to begin manufacturing vaccines and other drugs in Rwanda.
More so, these measures against the spread of the pandemic, have yielded tangible results, but the pandemic did not fail to dismantle the economy, particularly the tourism and hospitality sector that succumbed to complete wreckages.
However, RDB has been trying to make adjustments to see how the sector comes back on its knees, a sector that earned the economy about US$500 million in 2019.
Notably, as the pandemic pounded the sector, it inadvertently triggered the appreciation and exploitation of domestic tourism that had traditionally been undermined. A lesson has been learnt that investments and promotion of domestic tourism makes substantial contribution to revenue generation to players in the tourism and hospitality sector.
Moving forward, as the world increases measures against the pandemic, ‘Covid-19 survivors’ are beginning to look around the world for safer and organized destinations to run to, two years after multiple lockdowns and travel restrictions.
In fact, data from the Centre of Reservations in Rwanda indicate that there is an anticipated boom coming soon. This phenomenon is also being experienced at a time when Rwanda is a complete package of a destination than being an extension for East Africa as previously considered by some tourists.
And, the recent announcement by the Commonwealth Secretary-General, the Rt.Hon. Patricia Scotland that member countries agreed to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali in June 2022, despite it having been postponed twice due to COVID-19 pandemic, is a vote of confidence that Rwanda is now a safe country.
Taarifa has spoken to players in the tourism and hospitality sector. They see the light at the end of the tunnel. According to Paul Muvunyi, the Chairman and Representative of Abarcombie and Kent (A&K) in Rwanda and owner of 3B Group of Hotels, following the government efforts to revive the sector, “establishments are recording high number of bookings more than even before the pandemic, in 2019.
“We appreciate RDB’s support and efforts to continue promoting the country as a high-end touristic destination,” Muvunyi said. “We also appreciate the government’s continued efforts to control the spread of COVID-19.”
Meanwhile, in February 2021, RDB produced a physical and ecotourism masterplan near Akagera National Park. From the conceptualization and structural plan perspectives that Taarifa has seen, coming to the use of land, general zoning was elaborated into two major zones, one being the both Eastern part potential for ecotourism facilities development, while the remaining one is zoned as a core conservation zone.
Almost two hundred hectares have been designated. The demarcation is detailed and forward thinking. Some animals such as Zebras, Impalas, Bushbucs, Warthogs, Waterbucs and Klipspringers will be spared space in the zone.
Facilities that are being set up, such as Akagera Safari Camp will soon be opening doors to the general public. This area has modern infrastructure like roads, water, electricity and fast speed internet.
According to Clare Akamanzi, the CEO of RDB, a lot of progress has been registered over the past decade as Rwanda truly emerged as a leading destination for Investment, Innovation and Tourism.
This, she says, “has been as a result of key initiatives the Government has pursued to which RDB has contributed, notably; Visit Rwanda, Meet in Rwanda, Start in Rwanda and Made in Rwanda.”
By end of 2019, Akagera National Park was receiving over 50,000 visitors annually, up from about 10,000 in 2010 when RDB handed over the park to a South African based conservation group, African Parks Network (APN).
In 2011, the park received 20,657 visitors, which was a substantial 35% increase in the parks visitor numbers from 2010. In 2012, the park received 23,048 visitors, an increase of 12% from 2011 and an overall 24% increase then.
APN formally took over the management of the park in January 2010 and promised to deliver on biodiversity conservation, and sustainable natural resource utilisation.
Had it not been for the pandemic, Akagera would be making a lot more. Visits dropped from about 50,000 which generated US$2.5 million to 15,844 in 2020, a 68% decrease compared to 2019.
Meanwhile, in other parks, Nyungwe park revenues reached over US$ 21.1 million (Rwf 19 billion) in 2018, while more than 5,000 tourists visited Virunga National Park in 2019, generating nearly US$7.5 million, just to mention a few.
Now, while these numbers paint a promising future as the pandemic slows its stance, there is a lot that has to be done.
Specifically, in the area of policy adjustments to facilitate recovery of the sector and to attract both local and international investments.
Consider this, Akagera National Park has a maximum of 123 rooms of accommodation inside and outside the park combined. The largest is the Game Lodge with 68 rooms. This is a fundamental gap and needs a quick intervention. Local investors have tried to play their role.
Akagera Transit Lodge has 13 rooms just at the entrance of the park. Akagera Rhino Lodge, a unique eco-tourism experience overlooking the park has just 7 rooms and Akagera Safari Camp, a mixture of safari and modern actecture also overlooking the park and a rare view of Ihema Lake, will be opening soon with 35 rooms. There is definately an acute shortage of rooms.
In the meantime, these facilities also claim that they would be making more revenues from park tourists if RDB made adjustments. “If a tourist spends a night at our lodge, and needs to take a rest before taking a park tour in the morning to watch carnivores or take a boat ride to watch birds, they are required to buy another permit for a night tour because the park closes at 6pm and a tourist who does not have a room inside the park lodges has to exit,” says Longi Mfizi Nkaka, the proprietor of Transit Game Lodge (Vegas).
Yet, there is a rationale that is prohibitive for tourists.
Akagera has a unique ecological setting. It is a home to all sorts of biodiversity. It is the only National Park in the region with the Big 5 and other animals.
“A tourist should be allowed multiple entry within 24 hours because these animals have a different lifestyle, a tourist needs to allocate park tours in different times of the day,” says Nkaka.
Another concern is that Akagera Park has only one entrance. For tourists staying at hotels in a geographically different location to the main entrance, are forced to travel dozens of kilometres to the existing single entry (main entrance).
Example, tourists staying at Epic Hotel in Nyagatare, have to drive all along to Rwinkwavu. There is thus, need for creation of other entrances.
“The adjustments will make us a distinct and unique destination, but also increase revenues for hotels around the park. It could be Nyungwe or Akagera,” Nkaka says.
Akamanzi told Taarifa that she will look into the matter and act accordingly. “I need to investigate further,” she said.
Nevertheless, Rwanda, sooner than later, will be one of the few countries that will emerge as a winer post Covid-19.
But that’s not enough, both government and players in the sector must improve the quality of services in the entire value chain to cement the ambition of becoming a high-end destination. At the same time, government must revise its policies to maximize the contribution of tourism in economic development.