‘Kwita Izina’ is back!

On 21st June 2008, Musanze, a tiny town placed at the foothills of the Virunga Mountain Range will be host to the fourth annual Gorilla Naming ritual.

Once wildlife conservationists, most notably Dian Fossey, predicted that the Mountain Gorillas were on the verge of extinction due to the onslaught of poachers and encroachment on their habitat by land hungry farmers.

This has since been reversed and the Gorillas are once again in ascendancy as the government has made the conservationists goals of preserving the species its own. Every birth and every ‘Kwita Izina’ is a celebration of successful conservation with a long term dream to take mankind’s closest relative off the endangered species list.

Commonly referred to as the CEO of Rwanda Inc., President Paul Kagame, is one of the architects of the conservation initiative. ‘We believe that protection of the environment is fundamental for sustainable prosperity,’ he commented at last year’s ‘Kwita Izina’ ceremony. ‘We live in an era when tourism and conservation have to be pursued with equal vigor,’ he adds.

Rwanda’s national tourism agency, ORTPN, under the leadership of Mrs. Rosette Rugamba, has won numerous accolades and worked hard to transform Rwanda’s reputation from ‘the tiny war torn central African nation’ to, ‘The New African Dawn’.

Today, Rwanda is increasingly becoming a preferred tourist destination with endorsements from Bill and Melinda Gates, Natalie Portman, Steve Irwin, Andrew Young, Marjorie Kaplan and Terry Lundgren, who have all visited Rwanda’s mountain gorillas. Renowned conservationist Jack Hanna has taken his love for the place to another level by building himself a home in Musanze.

‘Kwita Izina’, Kinyarwanda for ‘to give a name’ is a term that stems from an ancient Rwandan traditional ceremony where newly born babies were given names. The term was adapted by ORTPN in an effort to raise awareness and celebrate the birth of gorillas in their natural habitat.

Every year Rwanda’s head of state, government leaders, global celebrities, the diplomatic corps, business community, international media and tourists converge along the fringes of the Parc National des Volcans to celebrate the birth of new gorillas, an achievement in environmental conservation. Given that tourism raking in a whooping US$ 42.3 million in 2007, up from the previous year’s US $36 million, there’s reason to celebrate. The mountain gorillas have been central to the exponential growth of Rwanda’s tourism sector.

Rwanda’s burgeoning tourism sector rises from the ashes

Over the last ten years, Rwanda has worked hard to present an alternative image to the one left by the legacy of genocide, war and bad government. Although there appears to have been success in presenting Rwanda as tourist friendly destination this has been difficult.

Interestingly, Berlin, the site of the ITB fair was a divided city just under twenty years ago when the Berlin ‘Mauer’(Wall) came down shattering communism along with it and paving the way for German re-unification. Having been flattened at the close of the Second World War and divided for 45 years after that, Berlin is still a city in transformation just as Rwanda is re-inventing itself as a favored tourist destination in Africa.

Tourism is among Rwanda’s largest foreign currency earners after with US$ 42.3 million in revenues from 39,000 tourists as of 2007.

‘..And this is just the beginning,’ says Rosette Rugamba, the agency’s director, ‘we are targeting $68 million from 50,000 visitors this year’. Estimates from On the Frontier, an American consulting firm, suggest that Rwanda will generate $100million from 70,000 tourists in 2010. These estimates however were made long before Dubai World, one of the largest investment companies in the world, made a commitment to invest $230 million in the sector. According to the company’s website, it hopes to turn Rwanda into the Dubai of Africa. This could drastically improve Rwanda’s targeted wealth.

The rise of the sector can be attributed to ORTPN’s hard work and innovation. The agency is diversifying tourism activities by capitalizing on its mountain gorilla assets while offering alternate activities like Bird Watching, Mountain Climbing and hosting promotional events like the now famed, ‘Kwita Izina’ traditional gorilla naming ceremony. The agency has ignited the interest of many global personalities in Rwanda, among them Ben Affleck, Larry Page, Bill and Melinda Gates, Jack Hanna, Natalie Portman and many others. The celebrity confidence in Rwanda is an endorsement that increases positive press coverage and attracts new and repeat visitors. The victory in Berlin is but another feather in Rwanda’s cap.

Q & A with Vincent Karega

The minister of Commerce Tourism and Cooperatives, The Honorable Vincent Karega found a minute to share with Business Rwanda at the recently held Bird watching ceremony in Akagera to examine the upcoming opportunities in the tourism sector. 

What were your impressions on bird watching? 

It is very important.  It is a new product in the tourism family. Thinking outside of the box and diversification of our economy is key and critical for the things we want to achieve.  

You mentioned thinking outside of the box. Apart from innovations like bird watching by ORTPN, are you aware of any new packages? 

Thinking outside of the box is doing things differently.  It is searching around, finding ways and solutions to the problems that we have because we believe that nature and the culture have a lot of opportunities that we are not tapping into, and that also means that the way things have been done traditionally by our ancestors and colonials are changed to the current and dynamic way by embracing the global and local opportunities and linking them and turning into them economic realities. 

Do you have any new projects in the pipeline? 

We are thinking of revamping the cultural tourism as well as the hospitality capacity and much more. The Akagera Game Lodge is slated for renovation.  We’ve got interest from strong investors who are well known worldwide.  In this case, it’s Dubai World. Their technical team is currently in the country and their work is ongoing. This will not be privatization but a joint management venture between ORTPN and Dubai World. It means putting together a company that will plan and manage the park in a manner that attracts high end tourists. That means people with wealth who want a special place.  

Interview with Mrs. Rosette Rugamba

Business Rwanda spoke to Mrs. Rosette Rugamba Director General of ORTPN found a minute to share with Business Rwanda at the recently held Bird watching ceremony in Akagera to examine the upcoming opportunities in the tourism sector.

Why chosen Bird watching?

Rwanda is home to over six hundred-fifty types of birds in Nyungwe and five hundred twenty-five types in Akagera. Out of those, forty-four are endemic only to our country. In August we were in London to launch Rwanda as a birding destination, and realized that we have a huge potential and the capacity to compete with the rest of the world.

While some tourists will come to Rwanda specifically to watch birds, others will extend their stay in Rwanda by engaging in the same activity. Akagera and Nyungwe are now a single bird watching circuit as we had with the primates, and the lake circuit.

Why did you take too long to a launch this activity?

Launching Bird Watching required preparation such as staff training, purchasing equipment and raising awareness. However, it comes at a timely moment in line with our strategy. We targeted seventy thousand visitors and the generation of one hundred million dollars by 2010. The only way we are going to do this is through diversification. Of course we had to start with our main product which is the primate and then we had game drives in Akagera; and now Bird watching.

Aside from bird watching, what other ideas are you looking at to promote tourism?

Well, before the birding we had the golden monkey, which actually prolonged the tourist’s stay in Rwanda. We have introduced mountain climbing, which has created the same effect. Today it is bird watching, and soon we will invite the public for the launch of cave exploration. All these are specialty markets which we have ventured into because they have dedicated tourists and a very affluent clientele.

What else is special about the Akagera Game Park that the world does not know?

We are very privileged to have a park like this one. Even Masai Mara and the Kruger national parks don’t have a landscape like this. We have lakes and hills that they don’t. They are flat. All we are doing here is taking advantage of these unique selling points and positioning ourselves as a unique destination.

We understand that Akagera has been privatized. Tell us more about this.

We have entered a joint venture with a group of tourism investors, Dubai World, with support from the Rwanda Investment and Export Promotion Authority (RIEPA). Minister Karega and the investment group have signed a Memorandum of Understanding that will see a number of Rwandan attractions developed to the tune of two hundred thirty million dollars (230,000,000 USD). This would be the biggest investment in our tourism sector to date.

This opportunity couldn’t come at a better time because that was the gap! While we could boast about our wildlife, we still lacked infrastructure and that is what Dubai World is bringing on board. Among the properties being considered for development are the Akagera Game Lodge, Nyungwe Eco-lodge, Gorilla Nest and a 5-star hotel at the Kigali Golf course. We would like to bring the standards and labels of Singita and Kampinsky to Rwanda. These are the very best the world has to offer in terms of managing hotel property. All this was discussed with the investors.

Perching on the edge of fortune

BIRD WATCHING IN RWANDA

Hands up if any of you knew that 15% of the global bird species are found in East Africa.  This is certainly not a widely published fact and unless you are a bird researcher or bird-watching buff, most people in Rwanda would not have been aware of this. Bird-watching, like mountain gorilla trekking, is a specialty form of tourism attracting tourists willing to pay large amounts of money to enjoy the company of birds through the lens of binoculars or a camera.  

On October 19th, the Rwanda Tourism Office (ORTPN) launched bird-watching in Rwanda in a bid to diversify its attractions as a destination. The aim of introducing bird-watching is to extend the stay of visitors to the country. They can experience the bird varieties in Rwanda after they have gone gorilla trekking.  

Nyungwe Forest National Park is home to over 650 species of birds while Akagera National Park has some 525 different types of birds. Of these, 44 are endemic to Rwanda. “They probably speak Kinyarwanda”, quipped Minister of State for Commerce, Cooperatives, Investment and Export Promotion, Vincent Karega.  

The launch of bird-watching took place at Akagera national park. During the game drive alongside the archetypical gazelles common to the savannah, several different bird species were observed, including the fish eagle, the sun bird and the forktailed drongo. These were all observed without the help of binoculars by watchers who were by no means experts on birds. The real dyed in blue bird watchers are likely to see many more species.  

Bird-watchers are highly desirable as a class of tourists because they are willing to spend a lot of money for longer periods than your average tourist. In addition, as an elite class of tourist, they are few, compared to those who want to spot big game. Bird-watching as an activity is very specialized. Previously, bird-watching had barely been promoted as an activity for visitors who were heading to Nyungwe to view the 13 species of primates found in that forest. ORTPN has since recognized that there is a real opening for this form of tourism. 

The target is to attract 70,000 visitors to Rwanda each year by 2010.   It is hoped that this will generate 100 million US dollars.   Diversification of the country’s appeal is critical. The Tourism Office is diversifying to promote new attractions such as mountain climbing, cultural tourism, and soon, cave exploration. With the introduction of bird watching, Rwanda appears to have hopped its way to perch on a limb overlooking fortune.  

In the midst of the mist

MOUNTAIN CLIMBING IN RWANDA:  It’s hardcore. It will take nearly everything out of you. But here is this strange thing; you will love the experience that much more. In fact, you will want to do it all over again. I speak of mountain climbing. Business Rwanda’s Oscar Kabbatende and Emile Babu recently took on the challenge of climbing Mt. Bisoke (3711m) in the Volcanoes National Park and are glad to tell the story. 

At the time of departure, everyone thought we were crazy. How many Rwandan men do you know who leave their homes on the weekend to go mountain climbing? We attracted some laughs when we insisted on it, but nothing was going to stop us. Among the copious obstacles that lay ahead, a few laughs from friends were hardly daunting. 

It was difficult to get any accurate information on what to me seemed a very logical activity for a national park with 5 volcanic mountains. Fortunately, Mr. Edwin Sabuhoro of Ecotours managed to give useful advice and connect us with our host, Gorilla Nest Hotel. Even then, we had to have been the most unprepared mountaineers in all history.  

The following day we set out to the park, where we met Eugene, the park warden who was kind enough to provide us with gum boots and water-proof jackets that turned out to be veritable lifesavers as the upcoming events would show. We were introduced to our guide, fittingly named Everest, and the rest of the tour’s six tourists, who had set out to conquer Mount Bisoke. Among them was Natalie, a program manager with a UK based cell-phone company, Greg, a machine specialist and two other young couples, one of which served as volunteers with Save the Children Fund in Tanzania. In total, the team comprised a South African, a German, two Brits, two Americans and two Rwandans.  

After a short briefing from Everest, and receiving our hiking staffs, we quickly climbed over the buffer wall barrier that demarcates the park boundary landing. We noticed a steel corrugated hut in the distance and were told that it is where Dian Fossey used to park her battered Landrover. As we chattered at the footsteps of the mountain, little did we know that what lay ahead was far more adventurous than any of us had ever imagined. 

The ‘stinging nettles, along with the thick mud on the path, up made my first hour on the trek up Bisoke very trying, but all the more fun. We learned some hard lessons about mountain climbing, such as the fact that every extra kilogram on your person is one kilogram too heavy. My tiny rucksack was turning into a sack of lead. The only thing we appeared to have over-estimated was our own fitness. For all fitness aficionados, forget about the gym, climb a mountain every once in a while and no one will ever be able to compete. 

However, after the first hour it became a bit easier and we were able to enjoy the vista around us; the sweeping views of the landscapes, the thick jungle and exotic looking insects and, every once in a while when the thick rain forest didn’t cover the view, a peek at the peak. As the path got steeper, the breaks become more frequent and lasted longer.  

At about 3200 meters, things began to change. It was no longer thick jungle but more like brush land featuring lush bushes and scattered trees, but the nettles had not yet abated. Let’s just say when you are a few meters from the peak of a volcano, everything changes, the vegetation being no exception. Temperatures were down to 10 degrees Celsius and climbing speed had dropped from 2.1 to 1.8 kilometers per hour thanks to the increasing steepness. Greg kept us updated on all these little facts whenever he observed the handy Global Positioning System (GPS) he was carrying. 

In the last hundred meters, the vegetation and weather changed once again. If it had been cool before, now it became downright chilly, dropping to 5C°. The mist soon surrounded us, giving the whole area a transcending spectral aura. Add to the changing landscape, and the whole place looked and felt almost unearthly. Our determination to conquer the peak grew as we trudged on, despite the exhaustion. The excitement of the exploration was just about to reach its climax. 

Along the path small clear streams were flowing with water so cold, yet so clean you might not have paused before using it to wash your face. It was nearly anesthetic; my fingers went numb for a while after touching it. 

Finally, after 6 hours of pushing ourselves up a mountain that was clearly trying to make things as difficult as possible, we crested the summit just as a cold drizzle began to fall.

The joy and excitement was evident from the smiles and hugs while cameras clicked away. We stood by the rim of the mountain and we could just catch glimpses of the Crater Lake whenever the mist parted a little. 

The notice advising visitors not to swim in the Crater Lake seemed almost redundant.  No sane person was going to undress to enter water that looked ice cold. Well, perhaps it pays to post the notice anyway, just in case some one gets that particular bee in his bonnet. 

In the midst of the mist it did not seem to matter that we could barely see more that 3 meters in any direction. The much vaunted view was denied to us by the capricious gods that determine weather on a mountain.  

Reaching the peak of a mountain is by any standards a feat not your average guy can pull off. As I write this piece I feel that I have understated the experience. Neither the pictures nor the article can tell the whole story. It is an inspirational experience that tested my physical abilities and mental endurance. There are few moments as precious as the one you get from conquering a mountain. At that moment all the hard work seemed worth it. This is the part where I advise others to try mountain climbing because one can only understand if one has experienced it. You have to think of the mountain as a worthy challenge. 

In this case it wasn’t just any mountain, but the Bisoke; one of the toughest climbs. ‘I have been to the Swiss Alps but this mountain has surely been one of my greatest challenges,’ Greg lamented. Natalie on the other hand, had trekked Mount Sinai of the Ten Commandments fame, ‘It is a piece of cake compared to Bisoke,’ she added. 

Once you have climbed a volcano and reached the peak, you are man enough to take on any challenge, and certainly one among many. Most interesting, you have a great story to tell and an experience that will never leave your memory. 

The experience is fairly priced at 4000frw for Rwandans and 50$ for foreigners. Remember to carry gloves, waterproof boots and a rain jacket, at least 1.5 liters of water and energy snacks like biscuits or chocolate bars. For those with cameras, carry something that can protect it from water.  

Living History at Hotel Des Mille Collines

For those who watched the horror from millions of miles away on Television screens, undoubtedly the most vivid memory would be the images of the floodlit tennis courts and swimming pool of the Hotel Mille Collines, made famous as the place where over a thousand innocent beings took safe shelter from the senseless killings taking place all around them. The story of the hotel and its manager at the time, Paul RUSESABAGINA, was portrayed in the award winning film, Hotel Rwanda.  

Today however, the hotel is flourishing under much more peaceful circumstances; having being purchased in 2005 by MIK-COR Hotel Holdings. The Hotel has bettered its services and upheld its proud reputation of personalized services in a beautiful, exotic setting.  

Boasting a four-star status, the Hôtel des Milles Collines, has 112 exclusive rooms and executive suites with balconies, all of which include modern amenities such as satellite television and internet access. The hotel also caters to the business aspect of its clientele, with a conference and seminar area that can seat up to 250 people.  

It’s not all work and no play however.  A renovation last year saw the remodeling of rooms and a new lobby jazz bar for relaxing evenings. The hotel also features a state-of-the-art fitness center, tennis courts and the world-famous swimming pool for recreational purposes.     

Modern luxuries and an ideal locale have taken the Hôtel des Milles Collines, with its noble, storied history, into the new century of first-class hotel business.