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2016: A memorable year for Rwanda’s tourism!

As 2016 draws to a close, Gilbert Mwijuke reflects on a memorable year for Rwanda’s tourism sector
The importance of Rwanda’s tourism industry, especially its role in attracting foreign exchange, is undeniable. In 2015, Rwanda welcomed 1.3 million visitors – up from 1.2 million in 2014 and 1.1 million the previous year.

Since 2010, tourism has contributed more than $200 million to the country’s economy, surpassing coffee as the leading foreign exchange earner for Rwanda. Last year alone, tourism raked in $318 million and results for 2016 are expected to be robust since the year started on a strong note for Rwanda’s tourism.

Influx of foreign visitors has been spurred by various reasons, among them the “credibility that Remarkable Rwanda enjoys across the world” and the fact that “today everyone wants to be associated with the successes of Rwanda,” according to Faustin Karasira, outgoing head of tourism department at the Rwanda Development Board (RDB).

Conference tourism boom
This year has seen Rwanda welcoming thousands of international conference and event visitors. At the beginning of the year, the African Nations Championship (CHAN) attracted over 15,000 visitors while the World Economic Forum on Africa was attended by an estimated 2,500 high-profile delegates, according to RDB.

As the Kigali Convention Centre swung its doors open in May, the new conference facility hosted the African Union Heads of State Summit, which gathered African presidents and other high-profile individuals from across the continent under one roof.

In September, Rwanda played host to yet another big conference, the Global African Investment Summit, which was attended by no less than 1,000 delegates from across the globe. Later in October, the Africa Hotel Investment Forum welcomed at least 700 delegates from over 45 countries across the world.

Subsequently, the increase in the number of conference visitors has led to a dramatic increase in MICE revenues. In 2015, MICE tourism (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) earned Rwanda $37.7 million — up from $29 million the previous year — and RDB’s target this year was $55 million.

“The best practice of MICE is that 40 per cent of the delegates always come back for leisure tourism, and that is the trend all over the world,” Karasira told Travel News Rwanda in an earlier interview. “Hosting high-profile conferences means that it’s our efforts in different areas that are paying off. It’s also a vote of confidence in Rwanda by Africa and the world.”

And now following the opening up of the picturesque Kigali Convention Centre, which is now shining a spotlight on Rwanda’s greatest MICE assets and icons, conference tourism is anticipated to experience another good year ahead.

22 baby gorillas named
This year’s Kwita Izina, the annual baby gorilla naming ceremony, came off as one of the most successful in the event’s 12-year history. Aside from naming a total of 22 baby gorillas, the country also hosted the first ever Kwita Izina Fundraising Gala Dinner, which brought together an estimated 400 people, including government officials, diplomats and conservationists from across the world. The event raised Rwf25 million.

Also thrown into the mix was an exhibition that attracted exhibitors from 12 countries across Africa who gathered at the Kigali Exhibition and Convention Village (former Camp Kigali) and showcased their various tourism packages from their respective countries.

The Conversation on Conservation dialogue returned for its third edition before the ceremony came to a climax with the naming of baby gorillas in Kinigi, Musanze district.

Tembera U Rwanda
The same way foreign visitors bring money into the country, money is also taken out by Rwandans visiting other countries. So, in order to ensure tourism trade balance with the rest of the world, in October RDB launched the Tembera U Rwanda – Jump on the Bus domestic tourism campaign in a bid to encourage Rwandans to take more holidays at home.

Since the launch of the campaign on October 1, hundreds of Rwandans have toured some of the country’s best attractions, including the Heritage Corridor, Nyungwe National Park, and Rubavu district. 

And the move seems to have been successful if the current popularity of the country’s tourist attractions with Rwandan tourists is anything to go by.

“The fact that we have already closed registration for the next trip but more people are still showing interest in taking part means that the campaign is successful,” Umar Abineza, the domestic tourism marketing officer at RDB, told Travel News Rwanda prior to the Nyungwe National Park Tembera U Rwanda trip, which took place at the beginning of November.

Hopefully, Rwanda has earned more foreign exchange this year than what has been lost due to tourism.

Lions boost visitor numbers to Akagera Park
On a sad note, however, in November one of the seven lions that were in 2015 translocated to the Akagera National Park from South Africa was found dead. Six-year-old Garuka was thought to have died of injuries sustained while attempting a kill, park management said.

One of Akagera’s lions on the day they were released from the boma in July 2015. Photo: Gilbert Mwijuke

But it’s not all doom and gloom. On the heels of Garuka’s death, Akagera National Park reported a boost for the iconic cats as one of the lionesses gave birth to two cubs, bringing the total number of lions currently roaming the park to 15.

Following the reintroduction of lions about 18 months ago, Akagera National Park has been a success story, capturing the imagination of local and foreign tourists alike. Visitor numbers to the park rose from 25,663 at the end of 2015 to 29,974 by the end of October 2016, according to available statistics.

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