Will Burundi tourism ever take off?

By Gilbert Mwijuke

That’s the question we’re always asking ourselves. While the last decade has seen most countries in eastern Africa basking in a thriving tourism sector, Burundi’s tourism, on the other hand, has consistently failed to take off.

The contrast between Burundi and the rest of East Africa’s international tourist arrivals is stark. According to available records, other East African Community member states — Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania — all welcome more than one million international visitors per year.

Tourism has subsequently become a major foreign exchange earner for these countries — ranking in more than $400 million for Rwanda and over $1 billion each for Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania in average annual revenue. Conversely, Burundi conspicuously attracts less than 300,000 tourists annually and less than $20 million of their cash, a far-cry from its neighbours’ performance.

One of Burundi tourism’s best performance in the last decade was recorded in 2017 when the country registered 299,331 international visitors and $16 million in tourism revenue, according to statistics from Burundi National Tourism Office, the country’s tourism industry regulator.  

So, what can precisely explain Burundi’s consistent failure to attract a significant number of international visitors while its neighbours are effortlessly drawing in hordes of them?

Bad publicity

Between 2005 and 2014, Burundi’s inbound tourism was on an upward spiral, registering steady growth year after year, and it appeared as if the country was on track to catch up with its neighbours. But things fell apart when, in 2015, the country descended into a political unrest that ended up scaring visitors away.

It was not until 2017 when the sector began to rebound, attracting 299,331 visitors that year — up from 131,491 in 2015 — according to data from the Burundi National Tourism Office.

Still, as many regional and international publications continue to document Burundi’s past political instability, it’s easy to think that there is no tourism at all in this tiny East African country, also known as the Heart of Africa.

“Since the 2015 unrest, many travellers out there still think that the country is not safe, which is not true,” says Augustin Niyongoma, current president of the Burundi Chamber of Hospitality and Tourism and proprietor of Star Hotel, a 3-star property in the heart of Bujumbura.

According to Niyongoma, this is a nation that, despite its tumultuous past, is eager to welcome tourists from all corners of the world. While here, he says, visitors are bound to create lifelong memories as they discover the country’s gorgeous natural beauty, captivating culture and remarkable history in a less tourists’ haven.

What are Burundi’s top tourist attractions?

One of the factors hurting Burundi tourism is the perception that the country doesn’t have the kind of A-Class attractions that can be found in other countries in the region.

Rwanda and Uganda, for instance, are gifted with the world-famous mountain-dwelling gorillas while Kenya and Tanzania’s large populations of big game make them dream destinations for wildlife safari enthusiasts.

However, like its neighbours, Burundi is also unique and visit-worthy only that the country’s attractions don’t receive the kind of publicity they deserve.  
In fact, some of Burundi’s attractions are of uttermost magnificence, such as its lush Kibira Forest and the expansive shores of Lake Tanganyika, where one can revel in gentle waves and soft sand.

The expansive shores of Lake Tanganyika feature several quaint beaches for travellers interested in a laid-back vacation

“Take Lake Tanganyika, for example,” says Niyongoma. “This is the world’s second-deepest lake and on its shores we have several quaint beaches for travellers interested in a laid-back vacation.”

Niyongoma also cites Kerera Falls as another unique attraction that could draw more tourists if well packaged and promoted, in addition to Kibira National Park, the country’s most attractive reserve that is contiguous with Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park.

Chimpanzees feature prominently in Kibira Ntaional Park

Perched at an altitude of between 1,500 and 2,660 metres at the top of the Congo-Nile range, the primeval rainforest spreads over 40,000 hectares and is home to some 98 mammal species, 12 species of primates and over 200 bird species. A trek through the forest reveals most of these, including chimpanzees, human’s closest relatives, as well as baboons, red-tailed monkeys and black & white colobus monkeys.

Gishora Sacred Drum Site, Burundi’s star attraction

In an earlier interview with a local blog, Marie-Josee Ines Mpundu, ex-president of Burundi’s Chamber of Hospitality and Tourism, also countered Burundi tourism’s cynics with some persuasive arguments.

The country, she argued, boasts some of the region’s most hospitable people, freshly harvested food, and rich flora. Velvety green hills dominate much of the countryside, offering visitors some of the most scenic views in the region.

But the country’s tourism meat, she says, is its Gishora Sacred Drum Site, which features on the UNESCO World Heritage Site Tentative list and has been consecutively winning the Best Exhibitor Award at ITB Berlin since 2011. The site houses the traditional Burundian royal palace and sacred drum.

Perched atop a hill about seven kilometres from the capital Gitega and 118 kilometers from Bujumbura, the Gishora Sacred Drum Site was founded by King Mwezi Gisabo in the 19th Century.

Here you’ll get to see traditional Burundian dancers in action, listen to traditional rhythms blaring out of drums, munch of some traditional cuisine, and maybe even buy yourself a souvenir in the crafts shop.

Moving forward

While other countries in the region organise annual tourism events that attract hordes of tourists from all over the world — such as Rwanda’s Kwita Izina or Uganda’s Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo — Burundi has failed to tap into the potential of such events to boost its tourism.

Ms Mpundu opines that Burundi should also organise such events, on a regular basis, if the country is to claim its fair share of the region’s tourism pie, describing such events as “an open door to the beauty of Burundi.”

On its part, the Burundi Chamber of Hospitality and Tourism has recently partnered with TradeMark East Africa and the Burundi Business Incubator to organise regular training that aim to equip industry players with the skills they need to offer visitors the best services possible.

In addition, the Chamber of Hospitality and Tourism is also working out an advocacy plan with the government and other stakeholders to help in marketing the country’s tourism.

Also on the Chamber of Hospitality and Tourism’s list of things to do in the coming years is the redevelopment of 20 tourist sites and rehabilitation of roads across the country, which the organisation will do in collaboration with the government and the National Tourism Office.

On a last note, Ms Mpundu thinks that relaxing visa requirements, and maybe even adopting the East African Single Tourist Visa (currently available for tourists to Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya), coupled with the development of the country’s road network and the existing attractions, could lead to a boom in Burundi’s tourism industry as we dive deeper into the new decade.

That said, the Burundian government will also have to increase funding for the Burundi National Tourism Office for the agency to compete favourably with its well-funded counterparts in the region and subsequently achieve its marketing goals.