Friday 15 December 2017

How Rwanda Became the Unlikeliest Tourism Destination in Africa

How Rwanda Became the Unlikeliest Tourism Destination in Africa
(Bloomberg 09/28/17)
How Rwanda Became the Unlikeliest Tourism Destination in Africa

The country is suddenly brimming with high-end options.

From the balcony of my villa at daybreak, I can see the nearby village creaking to life. Children are walking to school in their blue uniforms, and a farmer slings a hoe into the ground. The Africa of travelers’ imaginations is defined by vast open spaces—the treeless plains, the lonely desert—but Rwanda is the most densely populated country on the continent, and a trip here comes with an awareness that you’re sharing this space.

I sip my coffee in the morning breeze, and my eyes wander out to the mountain dominating the landscape. Mount Bisoke is one of several volcanoes in the Virunga chain, and every room at Bisate Lodge offers a front-row seat to its majesty. Although the peak spends much of the day hiding behind clouds, at this early hour, sunbeams shoot out from behind the crown like a kind of holy light, and I can understand why people from another era might have believed it was magical.

The Virungas are home to more than half the area’s 880 endangered mountain gorillas, the same primates Dian Fossey studied in the 1970s and ’80s. The chance to visit them in their natural rainforest habitat is a bucket-list item that draws visitors from across the globe to these peaks, which straddle the border with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gorilla treks can originate in each country, but Rwanda has emerged as the high-end experience. Wilderness Safaris, one of the top ecotourism companies in Africa, opened Bisate Lodge near Volcanoes National Park in June. Faith in the area is so strong that two more premium names, Singita and One & Only Resorts, are opening properties near the park in 2018 and 2019, making Rwanda a new seat of luxury tourism.

Luxury? Rwanda? The 1994 genocide here was one of the most bone-chilling tragedies in modern memory, leaving a million dead and an entire country shaken to its core. In the almost quarter-century since, however, something remarkable has happened. Rwanda has flourished. No more talk of Hutus and Tutsis, the tribal divisions exacerbated by Belgian colonialists, but a newfound unity. There’s mandatory education and universal health care. The country even legislated gender equality and claims more women in Parliament than any government in the world. Much of this change can be attributed to Paul Kagame, the president who steered Rwanda through a long period of reconciliation to emerge as one of the safest places in Africa.

And so tourism is booming. Up 30 percent in the last two years alone and grossing $400 million in 2016, the industry has pushed past coffee to become the country’s top foreign exchange earner. In the capital of Kigali, a futuristic new convention center is part of the government’s plan to frame the centrally located city as a major business hub. Marriott International Inc. and Radisson Blu have opened 200-plus-room hotels to accommodate the influx. Once dismissed by guidebooks as “nothing much to see here,” Kigali has the vibrancy of a bustling 21st century Africa, where women in colorful kitenge dresses carry jugs on their head alongside zooming moto taxis and young people texting. With multiple carriers flying into Kigali International Airport and an easy $30 visa paid upon arrival (a $100 three-pack includes Uganda and Kenya), travel to and around this tiny landlocked country has become easier than ever. The hope is that tourists who come for the gorillas will stay and discover the rest. Read more at:https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-09-28/how-rwanda-became-the...

By Sarah Hepola

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