Slowly But Surely: Tourism’s Renewal In Rwanda

Tourism is slowly reawakening in Rwanda, with a renewed focus on the local market.

It’s a quiet, warm afternoon in June at Rwanda’s iconic, otherwise busy Kigali Convention Center (KCC). The conference venue’s paved parking lot that’s normally teeming with cars, is grey and empty against the backdrop of the green hills. Inside the KCC’s domed facility are 18 venues that can host more than 5,000 delegates at any given time. All of them are painfully silent, just like the five-star Radisson Blu hotel next to it.

This is the first time it has been as quiet since its opening in 2016. The KCC resumed operations on July 1 after the easing of lockdown restrictions, but overall, the MICE (meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions) industry in Rwanda was to host close to 147 events this year targeting a revenue of $88 million. Most of these have been postponed or canceled. The highly-anticipated 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, for instance, originally scheduled for June 22-27 and that would have brought together more than a thousand business and government leaders from The Commonwealth to Kigali, has been postponed to June next year.   

Five kilometers from the KCC, commercial passenger services at the Kigali International Airport that had been suspended are now slowly resuming, with national airline RwandAir announcing flights to select African routes and Dubai from August 1.

Rwanda recorded its first case of Covid-19 in mid-March and was one of the first few African countries to impose a strict and complete lockdown. As everywhere else, this has spelt bad news for the country’s leisure and business tourism sectors. 

Take Ntende Hotel, a two-star facility owned by a 3,700-member cooperative of rice farmers called Coproriz. The cooperative’s members collected money to build the facility in Gatsibo district in the country’s Eastern Province in 2018. The hotel’s proximity to the Akagera National Park made it a big drawcard and all was well until Covid-19 changed everything. 

James Karangwa, the hotel’s Investment Department Manager, explains that the outbreak resulted in the hotel suspending operations but it continued paying contracted staff and other fixed expenses. An even heavier burden was the repayment of a bank loan. A disheartened Karangwa says: “Having to meet such obligations whilst inoperative has affected us a great deal.”

Karangwa explains that, thankfully, the negative impact on the hotel business was cushioned by the group’s agri-business which was relatively less affected in the pandemic.

“The consequences would have been disastrous if we had not diversified our portfolio by investing in the cultivation of rice, maize and soya.”

The tourism and hospitality operators had been enduring the pain of Covid-19 since January, when the news about the virus first broke globally.

“There were already fears over the virus in January and many travelers cancelled their bookings while those that were here rushed back home to avoid being stuck,” recalls Wilson Habimana, founder of Wilson Tours and Travel Agency Ltd in Kigali. Of the 16 people his company employed before the outbreak, only four remain now.

“We have had a lot of cancellations from clients while others want their money back, hence, we had to do refund both for tours and tickets, which hasn’t been easy, as this pandemic caught the world unawares and it’s like most of the clients have lost the hope of traveling because of fear,” says Buwule Anna Fridah, a tour consultant, to FORBES AFRICA.

“As workers in the tourism industry, we have been affected by this pandemic because the source of our income has been closed,” concurs Ismael Nsengiyumva, a driver-guide, adding that investing in sectors other than tourism is one of the lessons he has learned from the crisis.

The pandemic has especially been a burden for new facilities such as the Epic Hotel & Suites in Nyagatare district, in the Eastern Province of Rwanda. The four-star property opened in 2018; today, most of its workers have been sent home as the pandemic rendered them redundant.

“Since the lockdown, we certainly got affected; as most hotels, we had to lay off a large number of our workers. We came up with a policy to maintain the hotel in a semi-functional state because closing it would cost us a lot more [than] to restart,” says the chairman of its board, Alfred Ndabarasa. However, he expresses the hope of a recovery.

“The reopening of tourism and hospitality activities is helpful and we are gradually bringing our staff to work. Hopefully, by September, a big number would have returned to work if this problem does not persist.”

On June 16, a cabinet resolution that shone a glimmer of hope for the tourism and hospitality industry was released. “Domestic tourism and international tourism for visitors traveling [on] charter flights will resume,” read part of the statement. The government encouraged hotels to participate in domestic tourism promotion and offer conference services while adhering to strict health guidelines. 

Earlier in the month, the government had launched a two-year fund for businesses affected by Covid-19. Dubbed the Economic Recovery Fund (ERF), it is to mobilize $200 million and designed to support enterprises highly impacted by the crisis so they can survive, restart work and safeguard employment.

An initial $100 million was allocated to the hotels sector loan refinancing as the cancellations of events and bookings due to the global lockdown and travel restrictions brought the sector to its knees, leading to a loss of over 90% of revenue.

Nsengiyumva Barakabuye, Chairman of the Rwanda Hospitality Association, commends the collaboration between the association and the government in responding to the crisis.

“We joined hands with the government in combating the pandemic through raising awareness to our members about Covid-19 and the measures to prevent its propagation,” he says.

“We requested for a tax waiver and economic stimulus. So far, so good. Although not all we requested was granted, the PAYE (Pay as You Earn) was waived for four months and a post Covid-19 Recovery Fund was put in place by the government.”

While the slow reopening of the tourism and hospitality sector has brought relief, Barakabuye says it’s yet to pick up. “Tourism activities have just been reopened. Borders are still closed and we are yet to start as members are preparing for the domestic market.”

The Nyungwe Canopy Walkway in the evening

New opportunities in a crisis

Twentyfive-year-old Nostalgie Patrice studied software engineering in China and the United States. When he graduated in 2018, he wasn’t just nostalgic about his home country, he was also enthusiastic and prepared to use his newfound skills to seek opportunities in it. In March last year, he founded DTravela, a platform that aims to promote tourism and hospitality products digitally.

“I started DTravela after seeing how Rwanda was highly promoted as a tourism destination, and identified a business opportunity in unlocking its accessibility,” says Patrice.

But now, sales has suffered. “Covid-19 has strongly affected us because our clients are not operating. From March to June, we had almost zero sales,” he rues.

Going through this troublesome phase has been an uphill task. And like many others, he pivoted his business. 

He revisited his idea of offering virtual tours, which had been disregarded by the many he had originally pitched it to. “When I took the proposal to different stakeholders prior to the pandemic, they could not understand its significance,” he says.

This time around, it was welcomed and supported. He makes a strong case for virtual tourism, which he considers an unexplored route to attracting tourists.

“We do teasers and that helps raise awareness about a place or product. By showcasing products and profiling people, we are able to attract tourists because research has shown that 80% of them do online searches before visiting,” says Patrice.  

Last year, travel blog, Travel Lemming, voted Rwanda one of the top 30 emerging travel destinations worldwide for 2020 and the first in Africa. In addition to tourism partnerships with European topflight football clubs, 2020 was expected to be a good year for Rwanda’s tourism sector. 

Furthermore, the Global Peace Index 2020 ranked ‘the land of a thousand hills’ as the second most peaceful country in the East African region after Tanzania and 14th in Africa, from 17th last year. It was all the more reason to believe 2020 would have been a landmark year for tourism in the country.

When Covid-19 was first identified in the country, the government suspended tourism and research activities in the three national parks namely Nyungwe, Gishwati-Mukura and the Volcanoes National Park, which are habitats of the renowned mountain gorillas and other primates.

Only Akagera National Park, home to ‘The Big Five’, remained temporarily open to visitors.

In the wake of the reopening of tourism, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) has embarked on a promotional campaign for both Rwandan citizens and foreign visitors into these national attractions.

As Belise Kariza, Chief Tourism Officer at RDB, explains: “We’re seeing good trends since tourism reopened.

“We have 69 bookings for Volcanoes National Park in a span of a week which is a very good indication. Out of them, 42 have confirmed bookings.

 “In terms of international tourists, they usually plan between one month-and-plus ahead of time but the good news is that we’ve got a lot of inquiries about the functionality of testing and more queries and hopefully we’re going to see international tourists arriving.”

She points out that the government’s strategy for tourism recovery will focus on domestic tourism while international tourism will be reopened in a phased manner.

Operators in the sector believe the pandemic should be an opportunity to strengthen indigenous tourism given the fact that international travel will take long to normalize. But Habimana of Wilson Tours and Travel Agency observes that traveling isn’t a passion for many Rwandese, especially now.

“Traveling isn’t a basic need and now people are stretched, some have lost their jobs, or had their salaries cut. It’s not easy to develop a package and convince them,” he says.

He believes offering promotional prices alone won’t be effective and recommends that the government also invests in behavior-change campaigns.

Rwanda’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been regarded by many as a success after the country made it to the list of 15 countries from where travelers are allowed into the European Union (EU) from July 1.

“Using regional marketing and promotion strategies, countries can co-create programs and opportunities to recover, develop joint messages of solidarity to draw interests from travelers with a diversified product, pricing and packaging offers.” – Toyin Abiodun

Besides Rwanda, only Morocco and Tunisia are included from the continent, as the EU member states consider these countries safe due to their epidemiological situation related to the coronavirus.

While most of the pandemic-induced hardships appear to be in the past, the tourism and hospitality sector is far from getting back on its feet.

In order for it to rebound, experts say that a number of steps must be followed to ensure a balance between reopening whilst ensuring people are safe from the virus.

Toyin Abiodun, the Strategic Advisor at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, tells FORBES AFRICA the steps include dialogues with industry players to draw out short-term tailored practical measures, ensure adequacy of a variety of infrastructure components for travel to and from tourist locations and continuously send out strong messages on the safety and security African destinations offer foreign travelers. He also believes regional coordination would significantly support the sector’s recovery. “Using regional marketing and promotion strategies, countries can co-create programs and opportunities to recover, develop joint messages of solidarity to draw interests from travelers with a diversified product, pricing and packaging offers.”

Toyin adds that this would help reduce the adjustment costs associated with setting up individual protocol systems and ensure integration that enhances cross-country intel-sharing to restore traveler confidence.

Tour consultant Fridah advises that tour companies shouldn’t lose hope but rather keep on promoting their packages and revise their prices so as to be afloat.

“In addition, in cases where a company feels over-staffed, they shouldn’t fire their workers but rather come to an agreement to either pay them commission or half-salary because firing them will not bring in business.”

She explains that social media has been one of the ways she now promotes her business.

“I have been engaging with our audience on our social media handles, posting pictures for them not to lose hope [about] traveling again.”

Surely, the operative word is hope, not just for tourism, but for every industry on the planet now fighting for survival.

Source: Forbes Africa