On the 16th of June , as FEST, we organize together with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Fair Trade Tourism (FTT), The Intasave-Caribsave Partnership, the Rwandan Embassy in Brussels, the Rwandan Development Board and Cardiff Metropolitan University the Lab Session “Managing Natural and Cultural Attractions with a Sustainable Agenda”, during the European Development Days (EDD16) in Brussels. On this occasion Susy Karammel interviewed Belise Kariza Chief Tourism Officer at the Rwandan Development Board. Enjoy the interview. If you want to join please register until the 4th of June under https://eudevdays.eu/register-anonymous.
- Tourism remains one of the largest and fastest growing sectors in the world economy and is often viewed as a major obstacle in terms of preserving and conserving nature and it’s beauty. How is Rwanda’s approach in terms of using tourism to finance nature conservation and creating circular economies?
In Rwanda, we look at Tourism as a solution and not a problem; Rwanda now has four national parks that serve important roles – both ecologically and economically. Conservation and sustainable development are inseparable and this is because our living natural resources are one of our greatest social and economic assets. We know that conservation is a prerequisite for economic development and are seeing the benefits of that approach with a tourism industry that has seen tourism revenues triple from US $187 million in 2010 to US$318 million in 2015. Biodiversity conservation is key. For example, we have seen the effects poaching can have on decreasing the populations or extinction of big game animals, like lions. A decade ago, Akagera National Park was a Big 5 Park; however local communities living around the park killed the lions because they believed the animals were destroying their own precious resources, like their grass-filled land, or preying on their livestock. We learned from that and we ensured that we address the issue head on by creating mechanisms to avoid this from ever happening again. We have created buffer zones, an electric fence and have created awareness in the communities indicating the benefits of conservation. Last year, 7 lions were re-introduced in the Akagera National Park and today, we have an additional 7 cubs which brings the total number lions to 14. It is a huge conservation milestone for us. Volcanoes National Park is home to more than 380 endangered mountain gorillas – some of only 800 left in the wild. By working with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, our trans-boundary conservation efforts have results in the mountain gorilla being the only great ape species to increase in number, anywhere in the world. In addition, we give 5% of all tourism revenue back to the communities surrounding our three main national parks. This money is used to fund local priority projects such as schools, health centres and business that promote sustainability. http://carpe.umd.edu/Documents/2005/Rwanda_Policy_tourism_revenue_sharing_2005.pdf
What tourism has done for Rwanda today, is reverse the view that wildlife is a threat and instead show that there is an economic value to conservation. We have also integrated climate change and the environment into our guiding Vision 2020 and national Economic Development and Poverty Reduction strategy. http://www.rdb.rw/uploads/tx_sbdownloader/EDPRS_2_FINAL1.pdf
The protection of plant, animal species within the protected areas and the environment continues to be high on the agenda for Rwanda.
- From your experience what are the key challenges for Rwanda in the light of diversifying it’s tourism product and safeguarding it’s character as an adventure destination known for it’s gorillas and volcanoes?
For a long time, there has been dependency on the gorilla product as a major source of tourism revenue, and a good percentage of the industry’s earnings are driven by gorilla tours. Rwanda has diversified the tourism industry to include a wide range of products such as Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) tourism, adventure, culture, religious, birding, adventure and agro-tourism
Our research and statistics indicate that international visitors mostly stay in Rwanda for four days. Rwanda is still seen as an add-on destination typically to an African safari tour, mainly to visit the gorillas yet there are several high quality alternatives that invite visitors to stay longer. We are constantly improving our products and ensuring that our marketing activities embrace this. We have therefore organised trade and media visits, availed information to tour operators on all our marketing platforms in order to promote Rwanda as an eco-tourism, high end destination.
The global economic crisis has obviously affected us such that the competition with all other tourist destinations has led to an almost static market increase from key source markets. The good news is that tourists are increasingly looking for natural and authentic experiences that our destination offers. In addition and most importantly in collaboration with the private sector, we are attracting international hotel brands and are constantly innovating to improve our tourist facilities, ensure visitor satisfaction and value for money especially to the up-market-traveller, who we are especially targeting.
Rwanda is a small country with limited natural resources. We therefore have focused on optimally using our resources while at the same time, protecting the environment. There is a lot of analysis that goes into ensuring that land set aside for product development positively impacts the economy, the community and the environment.
- Can you give us examples of partnership projects between the public and private sector in tourism, which contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (which one specifically)
As indicated in our Vision 2020, one of our objectives is to establish Rwanda as the leading wildlife and eco-tourism destination as well as a regional and global conference hub with a diversified offering that impacts on the socio- economic development of the country. True to this, we are using different strategies one of which is private-public partnerships. Specifically, at Akagera National Park, we work in a public-private partnership with African Parks because we recognised we needed their expertise to efficiently and effectively manage the park and now we can see the results.
- In Europe the European Commission identified skills gap in tourism as a major obstacle in regards to sustainable tourism development. How is the situation in Rwanda? Which areas need to be improved in order to increase revenues from tourism and sustainably develop tourism?
Currently the quality of hospitality professionals, including hotel employees, guides, waiters and other key personnel is inconsistent and not up to the standard we desire. And so, capacity building is a top priority for us to address the skills gap and so through tourism and vocational training schools, people are constantly being trained. Most importantly, by attracting international hotel brands, we benefit from the global expertise and there is an evident direct transfer of skills.
In addition, the Government of Rwanda is looking to partner with experienced training institutions as well as the local private sector to improve the quality of services.
- Do you have lessons learned that are useful for Europe in regards to capacity development and skills improvement?
We are conscious of the importance of capacity building in regards of tourism in our country. Our long term approach is to ensure that our training and educational systems will be relevant and flexible to the ever-changing needs of the tourism and hospitality industry. According to the Rwanda Tourism Masterplan, the training will broaden the options for those already in employment and school leavers. The training will further provide trainees with specialized skills and new opportunities in the tourism hospitality and service sectors.
Through Private Public Partnerships, there will be more investment in training facilities as well as encouraging the private sector to take on experienced operating teams for several services that currently have gaps.
Regional integration is a big plus considering that in Europe for example, one is able to visit more than 20 countries with just one visa. We have an almost similar arrangement under the Northern Corridor Initiative with Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda offering a single tourist visa that costs US$100, for a period of three months, at any point of entry within the three countries. With a national identification document, residents in either country are able to move freely from one country to another for work and leisure. Our offering as one destination makes us more attractive and diverse, as any single one of us could be and so we currently have joint tourism marketing initiatives to attract visitors to the region.
Through our Tourism Law, we have provided for registration and operational licenses, which outline a minimum standard for a tourist accommodation, guides, tour operators and agents. This ensures hiring the right people, having the correct infrastructure, which therefore leads to fair pricing for visitors and our offering is even more attractive.
- If you had a wish regarding the tourism industry and sustainability what would it be?
In line with the country’s goals, my wish is for Rwanda to be the preferred wildlife and eco-tourism destination as well as a regional and global conference hub. This will bring about, not only positive socio- economic benefits, but also sustainable environmental impact.